Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orwell and Shakespeare. Hamlet and 1984.

This is of necessity a draft. I want to talk about the artistic process and the way we misinterpret the art of past ages by imposing on the work of former eras the values and standards of our times. I haven't yet figured out all I want to say on the matter, so I will revisit this theme at some future time.
In his Ab Urbe condita (Literally “From the founding of the city”, but usually rendered as Early History of Rome) Titus Livius had historical or semi mythical people from the early days of Rome speaking and acting like Romans of the late republic, his era.

Most English speaking people today, and for at least the last century, regard William Shakespeare as a genius in writing plays. To the modern ear his language has dated and his political world view and concerned are that of a bygone age. If you ask a modern person what was so great about Shakespeare they will usually say that it is the originality of his plots.

In this they couldn't be more wrong. Shakespeare's plays usually retold well known stories and the Elizabethan audience expected to be presented with familiar plots and scenes. Romeo and Juliet was from earlier Italian tales ultimately named Giulietta e Romeo and presenting much the same plot, according to the Wikipedia article on Romeo and Juliet “The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Romeo and Juliet are all from Italian novelle.” Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is based on earlier stories, including the Roman legend of Brutus, Scandinavian legends and an earlier “Ur-Hamlet” possibly by Thomas Kyd (See Sources of Hamlet on Wikipedia ) . To the Elizabethan mind, Shakespeare's greatness wasn't the originality of his tales, but how well he told them; by the standards of the day he was a great playwright. Normally we never get to hear this, today we demand novelty, especially originality in plots, and Shakespeare was great, so we must think of him as conforming to today's standards of greatness which requires original plots so Shakespeare must have had original plots. so the antecedents of Shakespeare's plays are conveniently forgotten.

A similar thing has happened with George Orwell, one of my favourite authors. Today Orwell is primarily remembered for his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four and occasionally for Animal Farm, his Satire of the Russian revolution and the early USSR, most of the rest of his writings are conveniently forgotten.