Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Great Aunt Catherine Debates #2 : Sanctity of Context

Continuing our series, here's question #2.  To recap, the priest took the liberty of pulling Antony's "The evil that men do lives after them..." quote to offer up a sermon on the truth that the good you do really does matter, and that you should strive to have a good life because it really will live after you.  I got his point, I think people appreciated the sermon, I'm not one to be trivial (not matter how much it grates on me when somebody says "Shakespeare was wrong."  Even if you are a priest I will take you down.)

So the question is this - how do you feel about that?  The "grab a quote and then make it mean what you want it to mean" thing, even if it turns out that you are drastically misinterpreting its original intent?  I've seen people rant and rave about overuse of Polonius' "To thine own self be true" advice

On the one hand I appreciate the exposure to Shakespeare. There's no doubt that people in that audience had never heard that quote, and got a quick lesson.  The problem of course is that the lesson may have left them with a misunderstanding of Shakespeare that who knows what it will take to correct.

Where do you draw the line?  How much of a purist are you about that sort of thing?

I'm torn.  Obviously I'm documenting my experience pretty heavily here, but it's not like I felt obligated to gather everybody up and give them a lesson in Julius Caesar. Honestly I just don't think anybody left the service thinking about Shakespeare.  They were thinking about what the priest said about living a good life. And I'm ok with that. If I'd heard anybody muttering about "Wow, Shakespeare was stupid" or "I can't believe Shakespeare wrote something ridiculous like that," then I might well have stepped in.


JM said...

I see nothing wrong with someone using the often debatable questions S. poses to make a point. This is the beauty of the writing. It can mean so many different things to different people, even out of context! But drawing hard and fast conclusions as to S. being 'wrong' when, as kj has already accurately addressed, the idea is totally irrelevant in such a case, pushes against his 'meaning' a little too hard in my opinion.

JM said...

I would only add that I wouldn't extend the 'out of context' license to include faulty summations as applied to technical 'textual analysis', when conclusions about the play itself are unsupported by the text.

catkins said...

I think your instincts are appropriate. The priest completely misunderstood the line--the implicit warning of the proverb is "no matter how good you have been, even one transgression can ruin your reputation, so be careful." Antony used the proverb for his own purposes--he used it to point out that those who speak evil of someone may be forgetting about all the good things he has done. So we may well forgive the priest for using the proverb as a springboard to discuss the value of a good life. He could well have done so, just as Antony did, without discrediting anyone, and no doubt it would have been a finer sermon for it--but nobody's perfect.
If asked for an opinion, you could praise the priest for knowing his Shakespeare, and for an excellent sermon, but suggest that there are some subtleties that may have escaped him in regard to textual analysis.

Genevieve said...

(Just posting on here for the first time!) I agree with JM that there is nothing wrong with someone using a quotation out of context to launch a string of thought- In that way (as well as many others) writing is much like any other medium of art-- You may see a face in a Renoir painting that draws you to come to conclusions completely separate from the painting as a whole. However (again as my fellow posters pointed out), using that same statement out of context to draw a conclusion about the whole work or generalize about the author is simply inaccurate.