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To Be or Not to Be an Elizabethan

Emma Caspi

Staff Writer

Via The New York Times

“I'm always thinking about why we still really enjoy reading and putting on plays and going to see versions of Shakespeare’s plays?” responds Matt Bergbusch, a Professor at Dawson who teaches Themes in Shakespeare. To my inquiry about his thoughts on how we have evolved from the common practices and standards of Elizabethan society, he answers by reflecting on how 21st-century civilization finds Shakespeare’s plays simultaneously alien and familiar.

We have consequently inherited traits and, if one could be so broad, particular ways of being that Professor Bergbusch expertly narrows down to provide familiarity between the partition some historians have built between us and Elizabethan society. I suppose you can say it is not merely how we have grown out of the norms of the Elizabethan community, but how we have grown from it, inhabiting and nurturing its ideas into full maturity.

As an example, take the idea of reputation. Professor Bergbusch extrapolates on this idea about modern-day society by explaining how “They [Elizabethans] are interested in the idea of reputation very much so, and Shakespeare’s plays delve deeply into the idea of reputation." Though the idea of “reputation” began as far back as the ancient Greeks and Aristotle referred to it as an efficacious guide that one can follow to perform well behaviour-wise, it remained solid through the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

However, Professor Bergbusch explains that “At times, he [Shakespeare] seems almost to suggest that a concern for reputation can be a little sleazy if it’s carried too far.” This negative reputation is bound to our constant social media consumption and how we seek and solicit gratification for our appearances, achievements and possessions. Hence, the need to withstand one's respectability will increase. Of course, the standards by which one could deem a reputation worthwhile have changed over centuries, but the concept of holding a stature nevertheless has stayed intact.

Our understanding of our idea of “sense of self,” which is still as relevant as it was almost four centuries ago, helps us understand how reputation is important both now, and in Elizabethan times. Professor Bergbusch explains that “The self is not simply internal; it’s distributed across all the various people and fields of activity we encounter, so that our sense of self is always something that is reflected or refracted—I call that the specular self”. Professor Burgbusch applies his idea to the Elizabethans who depended very strongly on the idea of the specular self by soliciting others' points of views so that they could alter themselves according to the norms of their society. We partake in the specular self, only that it seems so apparent that we neglect its existence.

Most people understand their ‘self’ as their soul, experiences and personality that contribute to their own ‘self’, but it is more so how others perceive us. Think of a ray of light that we human beings emit; they must be reflected on other human beings for us to see our particular light. Society can provide either negative or positive responses to our being that sequentially provoke us to uphold a distinct reputation. Therefore, the way Elizabethans depended on the idea of the specular self has extended vastly to how 21st-century human beings view themselves.

Additionally, Shakespeare’s plays include thoughts of gender and sexuality that seem almost ubiquitous. Professor Bergbusch scrutinizes these plays yearly and is qualified to state that “when you look at Shakespeare’s plays…it is quite clear that Shakespeare is fascinated in what it means to be a woman…a man…[and] where the ideas of being and man and women come from.”

Of course, Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not have access to gender, queer and feminist theory, but their lack of resources did not hinder their curiosity about the topic. This spirit of inquiry about the nature of identity did not emerge recently. Our questions about the relationship between gender and sexuality, what characteristics determine being a proper so-called man or woman in conjunction with the idea of non-exclusivity within gender stem from Elizabethan ideas that had its development hindered further left many questions unanswered.

So, are we really that different from the days of Shakespeare? Can we call ourselves unassociated from a time when we are, in fact, so similar? Considering that we all believe in a sort of reputation, have a sense of self, and maybe pose questions about the theory of gender and sexuality, are you curious about where these topics of a disquisitive nature first stemmed from? A proper cognizance of our history is crucial to understanding where we have been so we can understand the trajectory of where we are bound to go.

Who we once were will never be who we will be. However, there can be no future lest we understand and try to solve the complexity-riddled past. Although we no longer wear bodices and ruffs, our minds will never cease to be as curious as Shakespeare has inspired us to be. When you read about figures in Elizabethan society, are you really just reading about yourself?


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