Introduction to presentism - Claire Hansen
[W]e need urgently to recognise the permanence of the present’s role in all our dealings with the past. We cannot make contact with a past unshaped by our own concerns. (Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, (2007): 3.)
presentism has developed as a theoretical and critical strategy of interpreting Shakespeare’s texts in relation to contemporary political, social, and economic ideologies, discourses, and events. In so doing, presentism has consequently challenged the dominant theoretical and critical practice of reading Shakespeare historically. (Evelyn Gajowski, ‘Beyond historicism: presentism, subjectivity, politics’, Literature Compass 7/8 (2010): 675.)
For none of us can step beyond time. It can’t be drained out of our experience. As a result, the critic’s own ‘situatedness’ does not – cannot – contaminate the past. In effect, it constitutes the only means by which it’s possible to see the past and perhaps comprehend it. And since we can only see the past through the eyes of the present, few serious historians would deny that the one has a major influence on their account of the other. Of course we should read Shakespeare historically. But given that history results from a never-ending dialogue between past and present, how can we decide whose historical circumstances will have priority in that process, Shakespeare’s, or our own? (Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, London: Routledge (2002): 3.)
In the past ten years, Presentism has become a way of doing literary criticism by explicitly evoking the present concerns that motivate a desire to reread old literature (especially Shakespeare) to discover resonances that it could not have had for its first audiences or readers, because these only became possible as a consequence of what happened between then and now. (Gabriel Egan, ‘The presentist threat to editions of Shakespeare’, in Cary DiPietro and Hugh Grady (eds), Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now: Criticism and Theory in the 21st Century. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2013), 39.)
“[M]eaning” in theatre is constituted by the qualities of a particular (and passing) encounter and not by the fulfillment of a hallowed original intention. In this vein, meaning is generated by intersections between the imaginative plenitude of the play-text and the conscious exigencies of the cultural moment in which it is performed. (Kate Flaherty, Ours As We Play It: Australia Plays Shakespeare, Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing (2011), 4.)
The question is – what do we do with that moment of recognition of the utter contemporaneity of Shakespeare? Do we let it flit away back into the obscurity of unconsciousness? Or do we analyze it, intervening into past meanings that have been constructed over decades and centuries? From a presentist’s point of view, the answer is obvious. (679-80)
Presentism thus highlights what has been termed drama’s ‘performative’ function: a feature that always operates concurrently with, and perhaps as a modification of, its referential function. The effect of that realignment is to sophisticate and expand our notion of performing, and to refocus interest on what the early modern theatre meant by the activity it termed ‘playing’. (Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, 5.)
For we can never, finally, evade the present. And if it’s always and only the present that makes the past speak, it speaks always and only to – and about – ourselves. It follows that the first duty of a credible presentist criticism must be to acknowledge that the questions we ask of any literary text will inevitably be shaped by our own concerns, even when those include what we call ‘the past’. (Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes (eds), Presentist Shakespeares, London: Routledge, 2007, 5.)
- Is it inevitable that we will relate what we read to our own context? Does this help or hinder our understanding of Shakespeare?
- Consider your own ‘present’ context in which you are experiencing Shakespeare’s plays. What shapes your present?
- Are there ‘contemporary political, social, and economic ideologies, discourses, and events’ that relate to the play you are reading at the moment?
- We tend to think about the past and the present as definitively separated, even as opposites. Is there a different way of considering this? How might you describe the relationship between the past and the present? How (and why) exactly do we differentiate between the ‘early modern period’ and our own time period?
- What role does the future have in presentism, and in Shakespeare studies? If we consider the past and the present to be important, should we also be thinking about the future?
This [Richard III] is clearly a play that carries a certain historical weight, that has given rise to many adaptations and revisions, and that is most often talked about as a ‘history’ play (even if it also partakes of tragedy). Whether concerned with the Tudor myth, Shakespeare’s use of the chronicles as sources, or the dramatization of debates on the nature of kingship and political subjectivity, Richard III has been a fruitful jumping-off point for historicist readings. (Mark Robson, ‘Shakespeare’s words of the future: promising Richard III’, Textual Practice 19(1), 2005, 15.)