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Shakespeare’s Distributed Personality

Shakespeare’s Distributed Personality April 12, 2016

Stephen Greenblatt uses the anthropological theory of Alfred Gell to explain Shakespeare’s universal appeal, particularly Gell’s notion of the “distributed personality”: This refers to “the ability of an artist to fashion something – Gell called it an ‘index’ – that carries agency, his own and that of others, into the world where it can act and be acted upon in turn. A part of the personhood of the creator is detached from his body and survives after he or she has ceased physically to exist. Transformed often out of recognition, feared or attacked or reverenced, these redistributed parts live on, generating new experiences, triggering inferences, harming or rewarding those they encounter, arousing love.”

Though “we speak of Shakespeare’s works as if they were stable reflections of his original intentions,” the reality is that they are universal because they are “so amenable to metamorphosis. They have left his world, passed into ours, and become part of us.”

Shakespeare not only enters into us, but enters into all of us: “Shakespeare is the embodiment worldwide of a creative achievement that does not remain within narrow boundaries of the nation-state or lend itself to the secure possession of a particular faction or speak only for this or that chosen group. He is the antithesis of intolerant provinciality and fanaticism. He could make with effortless grace the leap from Stratford to Kabul, from English to Dari.”

Subversive in Shakespeare’s own time – appealing to the groundlings as well as to the aristocrats – the plays have not ceased to be subversive, or perceived to be so. Greenblatt tells of an Afghan production of Love’s Labours Lost that ran afoul of the Taliban: “What had seemed like a vigorous cultural renaissance in Afghanistan quickly faded and died. In the wake of the resurgence of the Taliban, Qais Akbar Omar and all the others who had had the temerity to mount Shakespeare’s delicious comedy of love were in terrible trouble. They are now, every one of them, in exile in different parts of the world.”

Purists may protest, but the adaptability of Shakespeare’s plays has been exploited for a very long time. Richard III can be set, without distortion, in Fascist Everyland; Coriolanus is a story of modern as well as Roman war, politics, betrayal, and sacrifice; the comedic romances delight and move people across the globe. Adaptation was inherent in the original performances, as Shakespeare wrote plays about ancient Athens that looked like plays about Englishmen, plays about Rome that resonated with English political and religious struggles, plays about fantasy worlds populated by English types.


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