To Be Or Not to Be Western Civilization

Shakespeare and the Idea of Western Civilization

by R. V. Young

The Catholic University of America Press 

280 pp., $34.95

Few, if any, poets, dramatists, or other authors, of any era, offer as much wisdom and understanding of humanity as Shakespeare, “the principal poet of Western civilization.” His works are a vade mecum for life, second only to the Bible. Germans traditionally consider him the second greatest Germanic author, just below Goethe. Shakespeare was not a major cultural innovator, breaking with tradition; instead, he was its consummate expression. His vision based order on divine decree. Writing at a historical turning point—the Reformation, the discovery of the New World, and the scientific and commercial revolutions—he reaffirmed the principles upon which his civilization was founded, bearing witness to its flexibility while retaining its integrity.

As postmodernists have assaulted and dismantled much of the Occidental tradition, dismissing the very idea of “civilization,” Shakespeare has not been spared. Professor Young’s book, scholarly but suitable for general readers, is an invaluable response; it can serve as a manual on postmodernist errors. His purpose is twofold: “To demonstrate both the aesthetic and moral validity of Shakespearean drama as well as its general validation of the principles of Western civilization.” The work is polemical literary criticism of a high order, perfect for Chronicles readers and conservative high school and college students.

Young is professor emeritus of Renaissance Literature and Literary Criticism at North Carolina State University and editor emeritus of Modern Age. His publications include At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education (1999)and books and articles on Renaissance poets, including Donne. An experienced Latinist, he taught Shakespeare to undergraduates at NC State, concentrating on the texts, whereas today’s standard practice is to focus on postmodernist critical essays—deconstructive, postcolonialist, Marxist, New Historicist, critical racist, feminist, queer. The ascendancy of “theory,” the archenemy of good reading and common sense, has reduced the great dramatist’s standing, challenging the notions of masterpiece and canon. A course in Shakespeare at NC State is no longer required for the major; he has been disinvited.

Young resurrects close reading, a routine approach in classrooms decades ago. He rightly insists that “meaning” is not something the dramatist adds to his plot; as in a poem, it is generated by the work, just as the strength and beauty of a building are aspects of its structure. By examining selected poetry and major plays, he works back from today’s critical spectrum to show fallacies revealing the “postmodern Shakespeare” as absurd. “The heart of Shakespearean theatre,” Young writes, “escapes the singleminded preoccupations of every variety of postmodernism that dominates academic literary study nowadays.”

Who are these postmodern antagonists? Many began as graduate students in 1960s departments dominated by big-name Europeans and their criticism, where emphasis changed from textual and historical reading to contrarian cultural and political interpretations. Some have become the new big names, such as Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard, editor of The Norton Shakespeare series, and Gary Taylor at Florida State, joint editor of the controversial Oxford Shakespeare. Taylor attacks Shakespeare’s “family values,” including the nuclear family, as “a form of heterosexist oppression … the location … of domestic violence and child abuse.” He pronounces Shakespeare’s plays as too wholesome, even mushy, presenting daydreams fit only for children and adolescents, rather than real life, which is hard, rough, and materialist.

Young’s broad and detailed knowledge covers Elizabethan and Jacobean language, politics, religious and philosophical quarrels, and literary and historical sources.  Lest one be discouraged by his erudition, it must be stressed that this study is marvelously appealing: witty, lucid, and friendly to those who have forgotten Shakespearean characters or plots. Many quoted lines and speeches refresh the memory and lead readers through the arguments. 

Following the introductory chapter arguing that the great playwright “embodies the distinctive principles of the Christian civilization of the Western world,” subsequent chapters focus on selected poetry and major tragedies, comedies, histories, and romances. Everything is read in connection with concerns of the past and present alike. Young acknowledges the tension in Occidental civilization and its institutions between established uses and the critical spirit that questions assumptions. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays illustrate the usefulness of such spirit, which is not to be banished.

The chapter “Shakespeare on Love (and Marriage)” demonstrates how Much Ado About Nothing and other plays dramatize the tensions involved in sexual matters. On both the social and personal planes, uncontrolled lust leads to disorder, eroding the individual personality and community as a whole. Today’s postmodernist scholars, taking their cues, it seems, from the hook-up culture of cheap sex, treat Shakespearean morality, with its condemnation of promiscuity and infidelity and idealized view of marriage, as outdated, naive, silly. Such hostility is “an expression of discomfort with the poet’s luminous presentation of the sane and balanced moral vision of traditional Western civilization.”

The chapter “The Racial ‘Other’ in The Merchant of Venice and Othello” confronts critics who read the plays as racist and colonialist. Greenblatt calls Othello “a virtual allegory of the European conquest of the New World.” He considers Iago, the most wicked of Shakespeare’s villains, the embodiment of Western civilization “in its aggressive essence.” But Young argues that Othello, whom Iago slanders, is its true embodiment, calling the essence of Western civilization “a matter of the mind and the heart, not outward appearance or blood inheritance.” Iago is the real threat to civilization, its antithesis. Moreover, Greenblatt’s tortured reading patronizes the Moor, suggesting that he is a sexual cripple while making him a “noble savage.”

Shakespeare’s English history plays are read through the lens of Catholic humanism, set forth in two key works for the Tudor world, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and The Education of a Christian Prince by Erasmus (both published in 1516), with its program of humanistic reform. As with love, Shakespeare’s concern in the histories is with order. Ruthless ambition, leading to murder of kin, civil war, and wanton destruction of property and lives, upsets order and must be curbed.

The following two chapters examine freedom and tyranny in Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth, all concerned with political institutions and the corruption of moral character and pure intention. Young argues against the branch of postmodern criticism called New Historicism, a materialist perversion reducing individual human identity and agency, thereby trivializing religion and literature. Dealing with Macbeth, Young shows how postmodernists read the play, not without superficial plausibility, as an exercise in power politics. They err because “they share the moral and political views of his villains” and disregard or dismantle the distinctions among Shakespeare’s characters that are the source of what Young calls his “vibrant moral realism.” Postmodern critics are not really interested in character and do not believe in moral character, only tropistic, self-interested responses to stimuli. As for the modern nihilism (“signifying nothing”) that critics may see in the play, it is mistaken. “Macbeth is a tragic figure … because he is in conflict with an order that transcends his own devices and desires.”

The final two chapters, “Hope and Despair in King Lear,” subtitled “The Gospel and the Crisis of Natural Law,” and “The Tempest in the Academic Teapot” are powerful. Young reads King Lear in connection with the understanding of natural law. Cordelia’s death, long viewed as morally and aesthetically difficult and seeming un-Christian, was later removed from the play by Nahum Tate in 1681, who rewrote it so that Cordelia survived and married Edgar. (Today’s anti-Christian commentators take, ironically, similar viewpoints.) Young argues, however, that the original play offers a “profoundly Christian vision of human reality.” As for The Tempest, “there is no rational basis for identifying Prospero, either literally or figuratively, with colonialism.”

Why should one care about tempests in academic teapots? They institutionalize the deep perversions in American thought and society, threatening the moral imagination and its products, denying goodness, truth, and beauty. As Young writes, “Virtually all of the rhetorical devices and intellectual schemes of contemporary theory are polemical tactics in a long-term project to discredit altogether the culture of that civilization—artistic, moral, political, philosophical, and religious.” Such reductionism is extreme. As the institution of literature ceases to exist, any metaphysical (or other) meaning dissolves.

That is a problem because literature provides not only meaning but heightened meaning. “The point of poetry,” observed poet Richard Eberhart, “is to make meanings for your life, to discover durable truth of yourself within the flux of life and time … Poetry defends the inner capacities of man.” We can scarcely live without it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.