Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign

Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign

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In Shakespeare, Brecht, and the Intercultural Sign renowned Brecht scholar Antony Tatlow uses drama to investigate cultural crossings and to show how intercultural readings or performances question the settled assumptions we bring to interpretations of familiar texts. Through a “textual anthropology” Tatlow examines the interplay between interpretations of Shakespeare and readings of Brecht, whose work he rereads in the light of theories of the social subject from Nietzsche to Derrida and in relation to East Asian culture, as well as practices within Chinese and Japanese theater that shape their versions of Shakespearean drama.
Reflecting on how, why, and to what effect knowledges and styles of performance pollinate across cultures, Tatlow demonstrates that the employment of one culture’s material in the context of another defamiliarizes the conventions of representation in an act that facilitates access to what previously had been culturally repressed. By reading the intercultural, Tatlow shows, we are able not only to historicize the effects of those repressions that create a social unconscious but also gain access to what might otherwise have remained invisible.
This remarkable study will interest students of cultural interaction and aesthetics, as well as readers interested in theater, Shakespeare, Brecht, China, and Japan.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822380894
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/24/2001
Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 308
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Antony Tatlow was Professor and Head of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong for many years before assuming his current position as Professor of Comparative Literature and Coordinator of the Graduate Centre for Arts Research at the University of Dublin. His previous books include The Mask of Evil: Brecht’s Response to the Poetry, Theatre, and Thought of China and Japan.

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By Antony Tatlow

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2763-9

Chapter One



Cultures of Reading


Every engagement with a Shakespearean text is necessarily intercultural. The past really is another culture, its remoteness disguised by language that can occasionally appear as familiar as we seem to ourselves, whom we understand so imperfectly. In considering Brecht's intercultural practices, whose innovations are not fully appreciated, I focus less on what happens to "Shakespeare," than on how such intercultural reading reshapes the conventions of performance and interpretation.

The distinction between inter- and intracultural is itself questionable, implying borders that restrain dissemination, or barriers through which certain kinds of material and mental traffic can usefully pass. Modern Japan, and even China, is in some ways more like contemporary England or the United States than any of them are to their own sixteenth-century selves. To recognize this requires an engagement with linguistic, cultural, historical, and geographical difference. Such a demand is often hard to satisfy. Yet half thebattle lies in appreciating its existence, since we so easily fail to recognize how productively it challenges our settled expectations.

A Chinese or Japanese Shakespeare, mediated through Brecht, extends or even contradicts expectations of how a Shakespearean text can be seen through a Brechtian lens. But first we need to know what Brecht learned from East Asian performance. Could such transactions then conceivably impinge on our image of "Shakespeare"? Or just widen our understanding of the signifier "Brecht"? Might they change our expectations of intercultural theater? Or even alter our own sense of self?

At the very least, representation and interpretation are defamiliarized. Then we confront the ideologies governing cultural conventions, the natural ways of thinking or feeling that constitute our cultural identity. Particular social cultures of reading predispose us to certain forms of interpretation whose perspective on the text rereads it to the satisfaction of their own presuppositions.

Knowledges and styles of performance now interpenetrate across cultures, and we need to ask why. No matter how well intentioned, hypersensitivity to cultural difference, what has been termed "intercultural angst" in respect of orientalizing, can sometimes constitute the most refined form of condescension, if it assumes a "weaker" Eastern cannot easily withstand the invasions or appropriations by a "stronger" Western culture and should therefore be protected against it.

Intercultural readings question whatever representational paradigm has been conventionalized. Yet we can no longer neatly separate the anthropological sense of culture-geographically distinct, linguistically separate, relatively homogeneous "worldviews"-from culture in the intellectual or disciplinary sense of a preferred, rather than inherited, interpretive perspective. Perhaps this is more apparent to those who have lived within cultures that differ greatly from that of their own origin or who consciously explore the opportunities that increasingly multicultural societies offer. Social, economic, and other pressures now inhibit compartmentalizing cultures in ways that once seemed natural and justified.

For some, this change characterizes the postmodern. It tempts us to an "anything goes," commercially driven, globalized aesthetics that flattens everything into an easy, value-freed version of the culinary impulse Brecht detested-unlike the popular culture he incorporated-but that proliferates because it generates megamoney. Theater is socially marginal, compared with the prime-time culture industry, but there is a danger of simplifying its intercultural practices if alternative aetiologies are forgotten and if the practices are submerged in postmodern eclecticism, perhaps because they seem to coincide with it.

Yet there must be a basis for intercultural performance in the older anthropological sense of employing, in whatever way, material from one culture within the context of another. Defamiliarizing the conventions of representation, the intercultural sign facilitates access to what has, on various levels, been culturally repressed. It speaks through the silence of an episteme. The more this disconcerts, alarms, is dismissed or denounced, indicates how a potentially successful, if sometimes temporary, derepression takes place.

Hence another purpose here is to investigate and historicize the effects of those repressions that create a social unconscious as the repository of the hopes and desires whose frustration it locates and conceptualizes. In the longing for liberation from conventionalized representational constraints, we can also observe the expression of an energizing "aesthetic" unconscious when we are released from them. Obviously such processes take different forms in various cultures, depending on the nature of those constraints. I address these phenomena in the context of particular discussions that always involve, from varying perspectives, rereadings of a Shakespearean text.

A consequence of reading texts in terms of how they enable us to historicize the social unconscious, of how they both represent and elide repression, is an interest in the politics of the sign and hence in the effects, within Western cultures, of a predominant mimesis that entails a belief in the efficacy of representation. The attempt by characters within the play to control the discourse, and interpretation's acceptance of the necessity of mimetic presuppositions, may conceal from the proponents of such views the extent of their own investment in the interpretive advantages that accrue from them. These presuppositions are challenged by intercultural performance, by the aesthetically critical politics of the intercultural sign that defamiliarizes and so inevitably questions the often unconscious equation of representation with the structure of reality.

We can speak of a politics of the sign where it also contains an invisible agenda, embodying more than it appears to tell. The texts themselves often show how the unconscious of text and character is concealed and revealed. East Asian dramatic representations are amenable, but not often subjected, to such readings that uncover contradictory impulses. The conventions inculcate Confucian concepts of order and, especially when accepting Buddhist transience, as in the Noh theater, the discipline of the social mask, yet the philosophical culture is uniquely deconstructive. In the West something like the reverse pertained: the absolutes are metaphysical-Platonic ideas and revealed religion-the socialities more relative, perhaps because those absolute ideas implied absolute moral demands that have always been betrayed.

The poststructuralist assumption that the "essentialized" subject, or dramatic character, is a theophilosophical or metaphysical social construct clearly relates to East Asian thought since, deep down, East Asian culture never assumed it was anything else. Brecht's work plays across these separations. We might ask in what sense analogies operate through the contradictions of Renaissance ideology that harbored the sceptical and tolerant humanism of a Montaigne within a theophanic Neoplatonism.

The problem of the politics of meaning inheres within language itself as a signifying system and then within all forms of representation that, even when we understand the codes through which they signify in the first place, simultaneously appear to mean and to deny unequivocal meaning. All signifying systems, whether poetry or physics, construct forms of representation whose internal coherence is continuously mistaken for reality itself, or actually constitutes what we take for that reality until something questions it. The politics of the sign obtrudes when representation, and the reality to which it lays claims, slides from an epistemological or cultural into a political agenda. Although these always overlap and often cohere, we can make separations for practical analytical purposes. This is the point where interpretation's complicity with assertions of unequivocal meaning becomes problematic. A surprising number of critics still show their readings to be constructed by one aspect of these always equivocal texts.

A critique written within and for the university does not always penetrate outside. In spite of assumptions to the contrary, there is a real sense in which understanding Shakespeare is still part of a recuperative political discourse and a matter of contention, although this applies primarily in cultures where interpreting Shakespeare can usefully become the subject of public debate. Where there is a national curriculum, its interpretation is contestable; where there is not, radical scholarship does not need to be challenged or faced down, since it can so easily be recuperated as pluralism.

During the last twenty years significant developments in Shakespeare criticism have emerged. These changes came remarkably late: some sixty years after Brecht's radical rereadings of Elizabethan drama through his texts and their performance. Precisely because he is considered politically helpful, Brecht has also been compartmentalized by those critics who wished to release Shakespeare from older presuppositions. Yet there are interpretive consequences. Reducing the potential of a Brechtian perspective to constant foregrounding of class struggle may not be the most useful way of enlarging understanding of a Shakespearean text.

Two observations about Coriolanus from dierent critical positions corroborate a common misapprehension about Brecht's response. Assuming "the text itself" will not settle interpretation, Stanley Cavell offers a psychoanalytic reading of Coriolanus in terms of the "character" of the main figure. This is used as a carte blanche for a hermetic interpretation that equates Coriolanus surrounded by the three Vs-Volumnia, Virgilia, Valeria-with Christ surrounded at his crucifixion by the three Ms-Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses. Cavell gets to this after first envisaging a political argument, but in terms of "whether the patricians or the plebeians are right in their conflict." In that context he assumes Brecht had "little further to add" after showing the viability of choosing the plebeians. This means "the politics of the play is essentially the politics of a given production."

Terence Hawkes shares this assumption, although within a different context: "Of course, any 'reading' of a text can only be achieved by a suppression of the pluralities of which all texts are composed. That is how texts, and indeed language, work. But there is a sense in which this latent plurality is exactly what Coriolanus makes overt. As a result, every attempt simply to shackle the play to a specific party-political position must run into crucial difficulties; something which Brecht discovered and which Günter Grass makes the subject of his own critique." Hawkes and Cavell both cite Brecht, despite his usefulness, to illustrate the perils of reductive readings. Neither investigate what actually happened when Brecht contemplated performing Coriolanus, how he resisted arguments about "right" or "wrong," and sought to recapture its complexity, so that the text itself could indeed be made to speak. Nor do they separate sufficiently between the different levels of historical engagement with this story from Roman culture. Yet if we do this, we discern a complex intercultural dynamic between the different versions in their specific historical contexts. We encounter a more challenging intercultural sign than is envisaged by historically one-dimensional readings.


It is possible to imagine a Brecht-inflected Shakespeare quite different from what is here virtually taken as a narrowly focused class war correspondent's reduction of Coriolanus, appropriately humbled by the tribunes of history. Brecht's texts are now often equated with an inadequate epistemology and a discredited politics, of which the dramatic characters are appropriately superficial representations, deprived of any depth, without real subjectivity, paper creations, algebraic formulations, abstracting from abstractions, flattened by rationality, emotionally eviscerated, lobotomized by doctrine. Perceptions of this nature have a certain social force today and are produced by ideologies that shape those texts into models for disapproval. To see what is at stake for re-evaluations, we first need to defamiliarize this conventionalized Brecht.

I begin with Nietzsche, whose impact on Brecht started early, went deep, and lasted long. Certain passages in The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music read like an uncanny presaging of Brecht's theater. The anticipation of Brecht's methods in Nietzsche's sympathetically critical analysis of Euripidean tragedy is inescapable. For Nietzsche the Socratic infusion into tragedy had a remarkable effect upon the shaping of the texts and the dynamic of performance. It cannot have been entirely bad news, even if he describes it as a form of decline. Utterly opposed to the Dionysiac, the result is closer to "the dramatized epic, an Apollonian form which precluded tragic effect" (77 [83]). Nietzsche argues: "The poet who writes dramatized narrative can no more become one with his images than can the epic rhapsodist. He too represents serene, wide-eyed contemplation gazing upon its images. The actor in such dramatized epic remains essentially a rhapsodist; the consecration of dream lies upon all his actions and prevents him from ever becoming in the full sense an actor" (78 [84]).

Apollonian contemplation alone would not result in tragedy. It needed the wild Dionysiac rapture, its torrent of music, the remorseless and destructive lust for life as an expression of the relentless world will. Yet if Euripides deprived himself of Dionysiac rapture, then he embraced passionate Socratic rationality. Although Nietzsche cannot conceal his dislike of Socrates and what Socrates stands for, he finds him a worthy opponent, not because they are so different but because they are so similar, which naturally reinforces the distaste. Beneath the flood of criticism we can discern a steady countercurrent of admiration. Socrates drives knowledge to its limits, forcing "generation after generation to reconsider the foundations of its art" (91 [97]). That is why, as Nietzsche reports, Socrates told his friends in prison that a voice in a dream spoke to him: "Practice music, Socrates" (90 [96]). In our times such music must be the Socratic, anti-Wagnerian fusion of the passionate and rational in the extraordinary settings of Brecht's texts by Hanns Eisler or Kurt Weill. Consider, for example, this passage from The Birth of Tragedy in relation to Brecht's dramaturgy:

What in Euripidean, as compared with Sophoclean tragedy, has been so frequently censured as poetic lack and retrogression is actually the straight result of the poet's incisive critical gifts, his audacious personality. The Euripidean prologue may serve to illustrate the efficacy of that rationalistic method. Nothing could be more at odds with our dramaturgic notions than the prologue in the drama of Euripides. To have a character appear at the beginning of the play, tell us who he is, what preceded the action, what has happened so far, even what is about to happen in the course of the play-a modern writer for the theatre would reject all this as a wanton and unpardonable dismissal of the element of suspense. Now that everyone knows what is going to happen, who will wait to see it happen? Especially since, in this case, the relation is by no means that of a prophetic dream to a later event. But Euripides reasoned quite otherwise. According to him, the effect of tragedy never resided in epic suspense, in a teasing uncertainty as to what was going to happen next. It resided, rather, in those great scenes of lyrical rhetoric in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonist reached heights of eloquence. (79f. [85])


Excerpted from SHAKESPEARE, BRECHT, AND THE INTERCULTURAL SIGN by Antony Tatlow Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1. Reading the Intercultural: Cultures of Reading

2. Intercultural Signs: Textual Anthropology

3. Desire, Laughter, and the Social Unconscious

4. Historicizing the Unconscious in Plautine and Shakespearean Farce

5. Coriolanus and the Historical Text

6. Macbeth in Kunju Opera



Works Cited


What People are Saying About This

Hugh H. Grady

An interesting and commendable contribution to Shakespeare studies and comparative literature. Tatlow has a cogent, complex, and distinctive point of view.
author of Shakespeare and Modernity: Early Modern to Millennium

Anthony C. Yu

This work by Antony Tatlow is timely, original, and provocatively and lucidly written. Its theoretical and analytic sophistication makes it a welcome exemplum of East-West comparative study-one that rings with the authority of a seasoned eyewitness no less than that of an erudite thinker.
University of Chicago

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