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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, 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
 and James’s Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and The World We Live In.

The idea of a metamorphosing lens is nicely illuminated by
Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespeare’s
Freedom
, 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
.  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
, 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