Ranting About Literature—Shakespearean Characters, and the Need to Time-Travel When Reading

Once upon a time, I went on a rant.

Okay, maybe it was more than just once. There were probably a few times. In fact, rants aren’t uncommon for me. Y’all don’t see me, sitting in my room by myself, throwing up arms at whatever subjects I find on social media.

But this rant in particular was about literature. I’m prone to those now and then. After all, I was an English major; I do so love literature and writing. And several years ago, I remember being very annoyed after seeing GoodReads reviews, stating that “old” books and characters were boring. It spurred several different rants for me on an old blog—which I’ll link to below. Yet now that I have a few more years of writing under my belt, and I still feel the need to rant, this felt like a good place to provide an updated version of that rant.

So, let’s talk about classic literature, Shakespeare, and the need to time-travel when reading.

Classic Literature

I am exhausted with how people today talk about classic literature, especially the characters within. It’s an issue I’ve had for years. Even over a decade ago, sitting in literature classes, I noticed it. Books set centuries ago are being judged based on modern-day standards. And I just don’t feel classic literature is meant to be compared just against today’s world and rules.

I’ll admit: I’m not reading tons of classic literature myself these days. I’m finally feeling comfortable falling into the fantasy genre, despite being discouraged from it in my college years. And beyond that, I’m just going where my judgment-of-book-covers takes me. A lot of times, it ain’t dragging me into classic literature.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a fondness for these books. They were the foundation of my English degree; I’d be lying if I didn’t have a soft spot for them. But I’m finding that people today are judging them based on today’s standards rather than those of the past where their set. And when you do that, you’re gonna run into some issues.

Listen, it’s a good thing to look at classic literature—and history—through a modern lens. We need to reflect on what the past was like and compare it to now: how have we grown; where have there been improvements; what would we do differently; where do we still need to grow?

These are all great things to reflect on when reading classic literature (and history). I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t look at these subjects through our own vision and world; it just shouldn’t be the only way we look at them.

We have to be aware of the time period and context in which they were written. That allows us to understand their significance in a better way.

Shakespeare

With this particular rant, I’m going to focus on Shakespeare. Why? Well, perhaps it’s because I remember my Shakespearean Literature class and have regrets about not arguing with classmates on their opinions… But it’s also because I have to save the Victorian Literature rant for its own post.

But Shakespeare is one I remember having some examples for. And it still works because Shakespeare, too, is classic literature that is often interpreted through a modern lens.

The example I’m going to use here is Cymbeline. For those who haven’t taken a Shakespearean Lit class in a while (I’m guilty as well), let me set the scene for this argument.

Scene-Setting

Our main man, Posthumus, has been bragging about his bride’s devout sense of chastity to his new pal, Iachimo. Iachimo is fed up with it and bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen, Posthumus’ lady. Posthumus accepts the bet. (Listen, I agree, this is already pretty gross by modern standards, but we never said the plots in classic literature would stand the test of time).

Now, Iachimo does not manage to seduce Imogen. What he does manage to do is sneak into her bedroom, steal a bracelet of hers, and see her while she’s sleeping. Oh, did I mention that when he saw her while she was sleeping, she was partially naked, so he’s able to describe a mole on her breast?

Thus, from these intimate descriptions of her bedroom, the theft of a gift given to her by Posthumus, and intimate knowledge of her bosom, Iachimo is able to make it seem like he has seduced her.

And Posthumus—the idiot—buys it.

Back to Ranting

Okay, now first and foremost: this is crap. As I was typing out this scenario, I was just thinking about how ridiculous it sounded. See, I’m prone to falling into the modern way of thinking as well!

But if we take away the absurdity of this situation, it’s also insane because we don’t have these type of conflicts between men and women as much these days. We live in a world where men and women can and do interact with each other a lot more than they might’ve in the past. Today, there are no issues with men and women hanging out together in bedrooms, watching films or playing video games—even without anything sexual occurring. So, a guy claiming he seduced a woman on the basis that he knows what her bedroom looks like wouldn’t hold up today.

This is why it’s important to remember that this world—our modern world—isn’t what has always been. In Shakespeare’s time, Iachimo’s proof would have been more than enough for Posthumus because men would not enter a woman’s chambers unless for intimate purposes.

Hearing arguments about how stupid these characters are for believing such a statement based on such minuscule evidence shows that people are looking at it from a modern viewpoint; they’re not thinking about how it would’ve appeared in Shakespeare’s time. And when we forget to do that, we miss out on what these stories might have meant to people living in that time.

We need to remember that as a society, we’ve been undergoing a lot of social changes since our classic literature was written. And that requires us to look at these stories both from a modern lens to analyze, but also time-travel to consider what they might meant to people of the past.

Time-Traveling

Now, yes, this is one example. There are plenty others, but I don’t think I need to bog you down with them. The point still stands: we can’t read these classic tales just from our own perspectives. I think they require a bit of time-traveling.

What do I mean when I say time-traveling in this sense?

Simply this: when reading literature, take time to think about what the world must have looked like through the eyes of one who lived long ago—who never could have imagined what the world would be like today.

Yes, reflect on how much we as a society and individuals have grown and changed. But also consider how different people from the past would look at the world. Consider the social norms of the time and how they would impact the characters in the books you’re reading.

We should always consider the way the world used to be in the time and place a story was conceived and set in, as this often brings a greater understanding and appreciation of the piece itself.

And I’m a believer that literature can help us connect to each other better—past, present, and future alike. That’s the magic of books and stories. They help us see things from other eyes and perspectives. They can help us reflect on the past and even continue building a better future.

But it also means we have to be more open-minded in our reading, especially if we want to get the most out of them.

(Originally posted at: Write it up ye)

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