Mighty Mutability

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What is the definition of any word, if it is not based upon our understanding of other ideas and concepts?  And are not these ideas and concepts created by what we consider important enough to name and “define”?  The word “literature” is no different from any of these other words which can only be described by other words which have their limits.  Language in general can only describe and mimic so much.  The problem of defining the word “literature” in many ways echoes the very idea which Keats stresses in the first stanza of his poem—the constraints inherent in all language.  But while our inability to exactly define and categorize something may seem like a weakness, is it not also a strength?  As Eagleton explains (and later concludes himself), “For the Formalists, in other words, ‘literariness’ was a function of the differential relations between one sort of discourse and another; it was not an eternally given property” (5).  In other words, what is considered literature is constantly being reassessed and redefined as language use (which reflects to some degree our values) changes.

 I consider this mutability to be part of what makes language and literature so powerful.  I don’t reread a book because I want to get the exact same experience from reading it as I did the first time; I reread it to discover what new intimacy with the work I can gain.  As Eagleton observes, “All literary works, in other words, are ‘rewritten’, if only unconsciously, by the societies which read them; indeed there is no reading of a work which is not also a ‘re-writing’” (11).  Therefore, I find it hard to imagine a time when Shakespeare would no longer be relevant to his readers, since one can find innumerable relatable aspects in his works.  However, I have to agree with Eagleton that if one day his works are no longer compatible with our values, he should be removed from the “literary.”  I think it is the inability to set a clear definition to literature and the lack of a solid cannon that causes us to be so fascinated by reading.  Our cannon and our literature is mutable, much as we humans are constantly changing ourselves.  We are never the same person as we are now and when we reread something we perceive it differently, so why should the “literary” be chained to a fixed existence?  If it were, it would eventually cease to captivate us.   

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5 Comments

This is a very insightful entry. I could never imagine Shakespeare not being read in school. He is just such an important part of our history, but I don't think that this could occur during our lifetimes. Literature can be whatever it wants to be, what we need it to be (just like Batman in The Dark Knight). When we no longer need it to be Shakespeare, literature will take a turn and become something else, something applicable.

Rereading a text does open new doors. The more one is exposed to a subject, the more that person sees. Like watching movies over several times, you see new things in the form of symbols, themes, and meanings that you didn't see before.

This was an excellent insight into the changability of the human race. We are constantly molding and remolding who we are. Likes and dislikes change at a rapid rate. Though I can hardly percieve a world where Shakespeare will no longer be read or studied, there is always that possibility.

I loved your description of reading and rereading. I completely agree. When I reread a text I find myself looking deeper into it and I almost always discover something new and exciting, which is for me the whole adventure of reading.

Harry said:

Hi Angela,

You are very correct when you refer to the Shakespearean classics in a way that denotes todays' brainless ease of just watching a film such as The Dark Night. As we re-read over and over again a Shakesperean work we will always find it new again; not so for the Dark Night.
P.S.: Shakespeare was definitely anti-Womens Liberation as he said, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" or "Get thee to a nunnery"

H.

Is Shakespeare a misogynist? Or is he writing lines for a deeply troubled (and, possibly, insane) character?

Shakespeare also gave us Portia from The Merchant of Venice, Juliet (who at age 14 is a remarkable young woman, and her faults are the same faults as those of her male counterpart -- the traditional faults of youth, rather than femininity). Rosalind and Viola also come to mind. As a young man I was infatuated with Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, and again her flaws are no worse than those of her male counterpart Benedict.

Greta Carroll said:

I agree with Dr. Jerz, I hardly see Shakespeare as anything but one who is far ahead of the times as far as women’s rights goes. Almost all of his female characters are full of intelligence who in many cases manipulate the men around them.

As for watching movies, I do not believe it has to be a “brainless” experience. If one is an active watcher, one can constantly be drawing comparisons to other things, picking up on symbols, etc. as Angela pointed out. Sure, watching a movie may not be as challenging as reading Shakespeare, but they both have their merits and can both be re-experienced and reinterpreted in new ways depending on where we are in life and what we wish/need them to be.

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Dennis G. Jerz on Mighty Mutability : Is Shakespeare a misogynist? O
Harry on Mighty Mutability : Hi Angela, You are very corre
Mara Barreiro on Mighty Mutability : This was an excellent insight
Angela Palumbo on Mighty Mutability : This is a very insightful entr