William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka
Many years ago at a dinner party I proposed that Shakespeare got too much attention, that commentary on this Elizabethan writer was just so much bardolatry, that Shakespeare's contemporaries and other writers deserved generous critical attention. The honored guest at dinner happened to be a famous, very erudite Marxist. He fixed his bright dark eyes on me, saying "Young man, Shakespeare has been read and misread, but he can never be read too much nor sufficiently." The instructive arrow, shot by C. L. R. James, is still lodged in my memory. Bold superficiality is one of the banes of youth.
For James, as Aldon L. Nielsen intimates in C. L. R. James: An Introduction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), reading Shakespeare included making challenging theses and discovering how form in great English language texts is not a mirror "but a metamorphosing lens revealing that which is invisible to the naked eye, and that which is yet to come "(39). Perhaps James chided my young Self for its want of transformative attention, and now my old Self profits from his spoken words and from his published criticism, especially of Herman Melville, just as it has gained much from Sterling Stuckey's enlightening commentaries on Melville. From both James and Stuckey, those remarkable historians, literary criticism ought to learn lessons about its own peculiar, dynamic functions. The seminal texts are Stuckey's African Culture and Melville's Art: The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and James's Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and The World We Live In (London: Allison & Busby, 1985).
The idea of a metamorphosing lens is nicely illuminated by Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare's Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), both in terms of how Greenblatt chooses to write about Shakespeare and what his motives might be in doing so. It is easy to describe Greenblatt's argument but risky and polemical to address his motives.
Greenblatt's meditation on absolute limits, the idea of beauty, the limits of hatred, the ethics of authority, and autonomy in the works of Shakespeare constitutes one model of how a similar exploration of Amiri Baraka's works might proceed. Admitting that as a human being Shakespeare, "notwithstanding his aura of divinity," was subject to limits, Greenblatt argues that "these limits are not constraints on Shakespeare's imagination or literary genius....No, the limits that he embodied are ones he himself disclosed and explored throughout his career, whenever he directed his formidable intelligence to absolutes of any kind. These limits served as the enabling condition of his particular freedom" (1). Were one to substitute Baraka for Shakespeare in Greenblatt's wording, the explosive political subtext of his meditation floats to the surface. I am provoked to ask how Greenblatt participates in the project of cultural and intellectual hegemony adumbrated by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993 ). It would not be exactly prudent for me to answer my ambivalent question, because I need to conserve limited energy for multicultural battles of a different order. Thus, I confine my interest in Greenblatt and Said to the level of structure and leave the matter of anatomizing their speech acts to others.
Juxtaposing William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka is a challenging exercise that might be of some good for those of us who are committed to serious inquiry about aspects of literary history and our own historicity as readers in particular cultures. Rereading all of Shakespeare and Baraka as well as weighing biographical and autobiographical evidence about their temporally remote lives would be an arduous project, one best suited for independent scholars who have the luxury of not begging for support from American institutions . Those institutions would probably fund the most specialized and exotic research on Shakespeare, his status within American cultural literacy being enormously secure. Baraka is not so "blessed." His position within our cultural literacy is still evolving, and widespread, diverse resentments about his achievements are quite operative in the United States. The noteworthy scholarship of Theodore Hudson, William J. Harris, Werner Sollors, Henry Lacey, and others who have studied LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka has little impact on resentment that flows like the Mississippi River, that hides as many secrets as the River.
Even after his death, his integrity and autonomy are consistently misread as unmitigated anger when they should be properly read as spiritual disdain for America's long history of human wretchedness sponsored by our experiments with democracy. Why this should be the case is exposed in William J. Maxwell's F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), but full disclosure has to be obtained from scrutiny of the deadly macro- and micro-aggressions rampant in the Age of Obama. In 2015, the United States seems to rival the duplicity of Elizabethan England. It can be argued, for example, that our nation has an ideal climate for transforming vulgar abstractions into dubious policy and obscene practices. For this reason, I believe my Chinese, African and European colleagues might read Baraka under the influence of ethical forms of criticism which it is difficult for most of my American colleagues to manifest or profess. Juxtaposition is not comparison, and it ought to be more than a simple comparing of Baraka's plays with those of Shakespeare. Juxtaposition involves the whole range of genres, and Baraka produced remarkable works in far more genres than did Shakespeare. The results are beyond prediction or certitude. Nevertheless, the gesture of scholarly meditation might give a bit of substance to what the naked mind has yet to conceive.
The problematic status of abstractions ---autonomy, criteria for beauty or the beautiful, authority as the subject matter for dialogic imagination and dialectics, the impossibility of absolutely locating freedom and justice, the psychological impact of narrations we call history, the elusiveness of hatreds and limits----gives deep meaning to the works of Baraka and Shakespeare, although the ultimate significance of those works may be ideologically opposed, logically incompatible. Certainly, the two remarkably gifted men produced art under vastly different circumstances, but they are compatible in their search for Zeitgeist forms as dreams and nightmares, forms we use for speaking what we feel. Exploring them in tandem is not a whim. It is a method for enlarging the arsenal we cultural critics need to defend ourselves and our Selves.
William Shakespeare and Amiri Baraka have been read and criticized, demonized and misread, but they have neither been read too much nor sufficiently.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 23, 2015