The Microphysics of Power

Blogging, like exercise, requires self-discipline. I’ve never possessed much in that department. That said, it’s a new semester, a new opportunity to teach “Shakespeare and Justice” to a new group of students. Onward.

Based on students’ feedback, for this semester, I decided to omit The Spanish Tragedy. The entire first unit on the “Spectacle of Justice” is devoted to Titus and supplemental readings. The more relaxed reading schedule allowed us to spend a session (90 minutes) on the first chapter of Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish. For many students, it was their first exposure to this seminal text (and chapter).

I started the class with a very brief effort at contextualization, mentioning Foucault via his reception by New Historicists (Greenblatt) in the 1980s and the way law and literature scholars engage with Foucault. Next, using a series of Powerpoints illustrating the “Places of Judgment: Scaffold, Body, and Soul” I talked about the scaffold/theater connection, the “alphabet” of the criminal law as it brands felons with “M,” “T,” “SL,” “F” and other marks of shame, and the “soul” as a site of judgment.

“What does Foucault mean by ‘soul’?” Asked a student. So began a rewarding conversation about subjectivity, communal judgment, and the complicity of knowledge fields (including literature, it must be said…) in thjudgejudye production/reproduction of juridical power. One student pointed out that each Judge Judy episode involves the good judge raking the plaintiff or defendant–or both–over figurative coals. This student was so right. Judge Judy isn’t really about exploring the finer points of law. The show is about using the law to translate messy human relations to more legible, more graspable moral “lessons.” There’s some easy pleasure to be gained in watching her (crude) dissection of the soul in the virtual company of millions of anonymous viewers.

Foucault Discipline and Punish Ch 1 (PDF…with my annotations)


Be it resolved…

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 12.11.17 PMRight around the time when I started grad school, the first Munk Debate aired. Back then, I was set on returning to Toronto as soon as I had my degree, so anything remotely connected to my hometown was Of Great Interest. The Munk Debates are held in Roy Thompson Hall, home of the TSO, one neighborhood over from U of T. It was impossible to resist the premise. The format is fairly simple: an issue, two sides, two speakers (a mini team) per side. The audience–all 3000 of them–judges the persuasiveness of the speakers by electronically voting at the beginning of the debate and at the end. Topics ranged from “Global Refugee Crisis” to “China.” The debaters were impressive people. Policy gurus, academics, journalists.

To cap off the end of our first unit on “Spectacles of Justice,” I organized a Munk-style debate. The goal was to get students to work in teams, to scour the texts for evidence, and to think on their feet. I informed them that the debate would be judged by three faculty from other departments. (I was lucky; all three of the faculty I invited said yes right away.) The motion was:

Be it resolved that the English revenge tragedy, despite its glorification of vigilantism and lawlessness, reinforces the state’s orthodox view on law, justice, and order.

Going in, I was a tad nervous about exposing my students (and myself) to the scrutiny of strangers. What if the students blew off the assignment? What if they hated working in teams? What if the judges thought, what a waste of my time and my goodness is this what you do with your students?File Oct 22, 11 14 25 AM

But the students were great. Per the debate format, every person had to speak at least once. I could tell that some people loved the chance to argue in front of an audience, that some felt uncomfortable but forged ahead anyway. They had prepared, thoroughly, and were actively quoting from the texts. James’s True Law of Free Monarchy and Titus were key texts for the pro-side. They argued that Titus and The Spanish Tragedy were “cautionary tales,” in which the state emerges intact even if individuals were destroyed. Too simple? Too reductive? Perhaps–but their strategy worked.

The con-team was, of course, disappointed to lose (and to buy a fruit pie, as stipulated by the winners). I believe, at the end of the day, the experience of working collaboratively and training one’s brain to think about both sides of an issue was valuable–perhaps more so than any of my lectures.

PDF of ENGL 310 Debate Format

The red herring in Titus Andronicus

Arthur Golding--The Fyrst Fower Bookes of … Metamorphosis (1565).jpg

I had students read Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s story of Philomela before starting Titus Andronicus. They found the story to be quite horrible, and the black letter quite unreadable. (My mistake for not adequately preparing them for the long “s” and the interchangeable “u/v”s.)

Being so conditioned to the story of Titus, it never occurred to me to suppose that an audience versed in Ovid might have anticipated a grisly end for the boy Lucius, the youngest of the Andronici. But that’s exactly the direction that one of my students headed. When I bumped into him at the coffee table, and casually asked, “what did you think of act 5,” his immediate comment was, “I was worried they would kill the boy, but it makes more sense that they’d kill the Chiron and Demetrius.” The first part of that sentence gave me pause. Could it be that Shakespeare exploited the audience’s knowledge of Ovid to create a red herring?

In Ovid’s version, the innocent princeling Itys is murdered by his mother and aunt and baked into a pie. Golding’s verse is particularly disturbing:

His throte. And while some life and soule was in his members yit,

In gobbits they them rent: whereof were some in pipkins boild,

And other some on hissing spits against the fire were broild:

And with the gellied bloud of him was all the chamber soild. (L5v)

What’s minimalism? The onomatopoeia of “hissing spits,” the alliteration of “gobbits” and “gellied,” the almost stately anaphora “And…and”–all this poetic extravagance makes me feel really uncomfortable because I’m experiencing aesthetic pleasure and psychological horror at the same time. So I think, for my student, it wasn’t so much that he was a bad or careless reader of Titus (i.e. how could he, if he were a good reader, think that the narrative was headed in that direction when all along Titus has been promising a sticky end for Chiron and Demetrius?), but that he had been so impressed by Golding’s translation of Ovid that the image of the murdered child stayed in his mind irrespective of the play’s revenge tragedy logic.

First Day Exercise

Gueroult, GuillaumeSig.B6r.jpgThe first day of class has to be more than a survey of the syllabus. So I designed this short exercise that worked pretty well (it takes about 50 minutes, ideally). The exercise grew out of the research I did for my article on Henry IV, Part 2. I kept asking myself, why is the Lord Chief Justice walking the street? I just needed to know. So I started digging and soon came across some interesting commentaries about the magistrate in sermons and character books. I learned that preachers held tight to the Old Testament vision of the judge sitting at the city gate, hearing cases, dispensing justice. Aha. That partly explains the perambulation of the LCJ. I was amused by the then common and now extinct sayings about the law, e.g. “the law is made of a nose of wax” and my favorite, “laws are like spiders webs which catch the small flies, and let the great break through.” It’s easy to dismiss these as clichés. But these proverbs also served as a way for writers to skirt around censors and to affirm the people’s (vexed) experience with law.

So back to the first day of class. By way of an ice-breaker and first-day exercise, I gave students a handout–selected entries from Morris Palmer Tilley’s A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1950)–and asked them to work in small groups to extrapolate key words and broad cultural attitudes from Tilley’s magisterial and still unsurpassed dictionary of proverbial sayings. Students soon populated our white board with key words (“custom,” “kings,” “God,” “law,” “justice,” “manners,” “nature”)–terms which we will get to study in more depth via The Spanish Tragedy, Titus AndronicusOthello, Coke’s 3 Institutes, Bacon, James I, etc.–and they asked some excellent questions about how Shakespearean drama is engaged with popular legal culture.

Copy of my handout: Tilley Proverbs Law and Justice.

First blog post: The experiment begins

I started this blog two weeks into teaching my class ENGL 310 “Shakespeare and Justice,” an upper-level seminar that satisfies both the pre-1900 period requirement (for the English major) and the Legal Studies Concentration. My students are majoring in English (both Creative Writing and Critical), History, Psychology, Political Science, and Classics…and that combination of different disciplinary interests is awesome. My goal is to write a bit about this class every week. By the end of the semester, I ought to have a solid notion of what we achieved. And who knows, perhaps these musings can be a help to you, dear reader. Law and literature is a dynamic, transhistorical field. The work in it can be frustrating and difficult, but the rewards are usually worth the pain. Hopefully, my students get that!

Man of Law (Close-up)
Chaucer’s Man of Law