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Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary

From: Forum Modernes Theater
Volume 25, Number 2, 2010
pp. 91-97 | 10.1353/fmt.2010.0018

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Shakespeare Our Contemporary: a catchy title. The first time I heard it was in an undergraduate Shakespeare class at the University of Massachusetts, taught by the distinguished scholar of nineteenth century British theatre, Joseph W. Donohue, Jr. It was the era of “relevance” in US higher education, and though for me Shakespeare at the RSC was no more familiar, or accessible, than melodrama at the Adelphi, the sense in which literature spoke to the issues of the present was nonetheless a persistent theme in many of my classes, though not, interestingly enough, in this one. That wasn’t to last, and rightly so. And yet the belief that Shakespeare directly addresses the contemporary world, either through the timeless purchase of the thematics of the plays or through the plays’ participation in an essentialized dynamics of performance continues to mark a faultline between academic and popular Shakespeare, a fissure that perhaps defines Shakespeare Our Contemporary as well.

Kott, too, speaks of the universal claims of Shakespeare’s drama on our attention, and both Shakespeare Our Contemporary and its now-familiar impact on British stage Shakespeare in the 1960 s – Peter Brook’s King Lear, Peter Hall’s work at the RSC–have come in for sharp critique. For Alan Sinfield, Kott’s location of Shakespeare in history, while “skeptical and pessimistic” in fact merely flips a “conservative coin” shared with E. M. W. Tillyard: whether conceiving Shakespeare as part of the Grand Mechanism of power politics or an anodyne World Picture, both Kott and Tillyard predicate their Shakespeares “on the ideas of an essential human nature and the desirability of ‘order’“ and both imagine the plays as “hostile to positive political action.” Despite Kott’s tactical location of Shakespeare as an instrument of anti-Stalinist engagement in Poland, the invocation of Kott in the theatre in works like The Wars of the Roses was politically “doubtful,” “siphoning any residual idealism into deference towards the magnates who perpetrate oppression and reverence for the social system which sustains them.” In this sense, however it betrayed Kott, the “radical impetus” of the RSC can also “be attributed to Kott, whose criticism was certainly more political than the main western academic tradition (though not in the Lear-Beckett chapter); to the intermittent invocation and influence of Brecht; and above all to the confused political awareness of the time.” As Sinfield’s exception of the “Lear-Beckett chapter” implies, some of these tensions are reflected in Kott’s work, too: Kott made Shakespeare our contemporary by claiming that the plays’ (in Poland, resistant) use in history arises from their transcendent perspective on history. As Leanore Leiblein argues, Kott’s repositioning of Shakespeare in the cultural field, which removed “the exclusive power to interpret Shakespeare from the institutions that had claimed him – the universities and their scholar critics – and returned him to readers and spectators, whoever they might happen to be,” was offset in Kott’s critical practice by a kind of “private hermeneutics in which interpretation fulfills expectation.” Tracking the convergence between Kott and Brook, Leiblein also notes the tension between an instrumental and essential account of Shakespearean meanings running through Kott’s writing: “a Shakespeare that can be made to speak (albeit differently) in many times transcends all time.”

Still, Kott’s provocation remains provocative. The burgeoning of editions of Shakespeare’s plays; the explosion of Shakespeare festivals in the theatre; the ongoing filming of Shakespeare plays and their many knock-offs; the appearance of books by Stephen Greenblatt, Marjorie Garber, James Shapiro and others on the trade lists of major publishers; the (sigh) apparently increasing media enthusiasm for the authorship “controversy”: Shakespeare remains our contemporary in extraordinarily vivid ways. Kott’s approach to Shakespeare is – and this is where he’s least sympathetic to contemporary historicism – motivated by his overt belief in the identity of the plays, an identity that can be seized, however, only in contemporary (“presentist” would perhaps be our word for it now) terms: “Shakespeare is like the world, or life itself. Every historical period finds in him what it is looking for and what it wants to see. A reader or spectator in the mid-twentieth century interprets Richard III...

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