Language Incorporated

Language Incorporated: Culture Markets, Actors’ Bodies, and Shakespeare’s World of Words
Langage incorporé : Marchés de la culture, corps des comédiens, et le monde des mots de Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s multivocality, commercialism, and theatricality have been key interests in the published work of a number of Shakespeare and Performance Research Team members, especially Bristol, Folkerth, Lieblein, Salter, and Yachnin. The central hypotheses of the Language Incorporated project (hereafter the “LINC project”), which are formulated substantially on the strength of that work, are

  1. that Shakespeare developed his art from a wide range of social and literary languages (“speech genres” is Bakhtin’s useful term),
  2. that he was inclined to draw so widely because the competitiveness of the early modern culture market set a premium on innovation, and
  3. that he created his new language in dialogue with the physical and vocal practices of the players.

Shakespeare’s language is incorporated in at least three different senses–a plethora of languages is incorporated into a new dramatic language; the new language bears the marks of the “corporate” environment in which it was created (“corporate” with respect both to the marketplace ethos of the commercial theatre and to the artisanal ethos of the company of players); and the new language is embodied in the sense that it carries within it the physical and vocal skills of the players in Shakespeare’s company. To these three senses of incorporation, a fourth can be added. By dint of both the presentation practices of book publication and the interpretive practices of readers, Shakespeare’s language has become a coherent body of interlinked meanings–a “world of words”–rather than something scattered among a number of scripts for performance. By focusing on the socio-political, theatrical, material, and artistic dimensions of Shakespeare’s language in his own time and over the long term, the LINC project will be able to provide an innovative, interdisciplinary understanding of both Shakespeare’s artistic accomplishment and his social prominence and power. It is important to note also that the focus on language will allow us to consider the social dimensions of Shakespeare at the same time that we develop a detailed, historical understanding of him as a poet and an artist for the theatre. After approximately twenty-five years of heady and valuable work on Shakespeare and culture inspired mostly by neo-marxist theory, the fields of Shakespeare studies and literary studies in general are ready for a return to a critical approach more friendly toward and better equipped to deal with the artistic dimension of literary and theatrical works. The LINC project will create a methodology that advances socio-political criticism while helping to restore criticism’s ability to take full account of the formal distinctiveness of artistic writing as well as the local, material conditions of the creation of that writing.

To understand the four-fold incorporation of Shakespeare’s language is to begin to be able to answer a number of important and timely questions in Shakespeare studies:

  • What was the political dimension of Shakespeare in his own time? Political criticism has tended either to ignore the artistic purposes of linguistic incorporation in Shakespeare and/or to focus on a single social language (say, the language of government, gender difference, or economics) as central in any given play. The LINC Project will produce a better account of the politics of Shakespeare’s drama in its own time by studying the multiplicity of speech genres in their orchestrated interrelationships within particular plays.
  • Is Shakespeare primarily a literary artist or a writer for the stage? This question has occupied the attention of leading scholars (Berger, Dawson, Erne, Styan, Worthen) for well over a generation, it goes back at least to the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare, and it bears on the teaching and interpreting of the plays in fundamental ways. The choice between theatricality and literariness is, we believe, a false dichotomy. We think that Shakespeare is literary as well as theatrical through and through and that what are often praised as particularly literary features of the plays (their intellectual complexity, their engaging characters, and their ability to galvanize powerful responses) are bound up with the fact that Shakespeare wrote with the actors in mind.
  • How do we explain the durability and adaptability of Shakespeare over the long term? The best recent answer to this question is team member Michael Bristol’s book, Big Time Shakespeare, which analyzes the poet’s canonization within a burgeoning culture market and which provides a Bakhtinian model of literary longevity; the LINC Project will extend these lines of inquiry and will develop new answers in terms of Shakespeare’s rich and useable orchestration of speech genres and his performance-based ability to evoke elemental, transhistorical human emotions.
  • What is the nature of the social power of Shakespeare’s language over the long-term? We should note that we share little with the idea of power prominent in North American versions of Foucault; for us power can operate at local and global social levels, can be discerned and used by individual and collective social actors, and can work indirectly through cultural activities like play production. However, we do agree with Foucault that power operates through systems of signification, especially language, and so we propose to study how Shakespearean incorporation can serve to critique the social power of languages such as those of government and theology and also to what degree the incorporation of Shakespeare’s language as a unified world of words has transformed him into a figure of consequence in the longue durée of Western culture and has thus empowered those who read, perform, and remake his works.

 The LINC project’s four-year research plan sees a foundation-building first year where the talents and expertise of all team members will be put to use in a tightly focused interdisciplinary experiment designed to test the two principal methodological innovations and to establish a critical mass of interpretive work on literature, theatre, and language. The work in year one will focus on The Merchant of Venice, and that play will remain a touchstone text in subsequent years, even as the work broadens out to consider a number of Shakespeare’s other plays. The case-study and workshops of year one will be followed, in year two, by a focus on Shakespeare’s language in relation to theatrical conditions and practices and in relation to actors’ bodies, mostly but not exclusively in early modern England. Year three will see the team turn its sights from theatre to literature, manuscript and especially print culture, in order to detail Shakespeare’s language’s relationship to written work across a range of fields and also in order to develop a new account of the kinship between theatre and Shakespeare’s literary accomplishments. Year four will pull the first three years of work together in relation to the question of the social power of Shakespeare’s language in his own time and over the long term.

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