Sunday, January 18, 2009

Trusting the Reader

In Virginia's Woolf's essay, "On Not Knowing Greek," she explores a number of differences between Greek tragedies and other pieces of literature, like Jane Austen and Shakespeare. In Greek tragedies, characters speak superfluously. Their lines are long, emotionally packed, and dramatic. Woolf believes that we relate to these pieces of work through the depth of the emotions that they express, that within the lines and lines of text, we are able to find something represented for us, some emotion clearly defined, or as Woolf describes it, "the original human being." However in Jane Austen novels, Woolf notes that lines as simply put as "I will dance with you," are also capable of delivering sufficient punch. They may be a little less grand but, according to Woolf, they serve to represent the entire intent of the novel. In regards to Shakespeare, though Woolf believes the setting and action of a Greek tragedy is an indisputable component to the play's message, she also believes that Shakespeare would be more effective if only read. However, despite all her critiques of how and why certain types of literature convey their meaning, she proposes an interesting idea, "Time is so short and I have so much to say, that unless you will allow me to place together two apparently unrelated statements and trust to you to pull them together, you must be content with the mere skeleton of the play I might have given you." This quote, for me, embodies the fear of every author, Greek or not, as well as the very difficult challenge of trusting the reader. It doesn't matter if the language of the play is long and tormented, as the Greek write it, or concise and clear. It doesn't make a difference if a play, like Shakespeare, is more idea then action and therefore, better read than acted. What matters, to the Greeks and Jane Austen and Shakespeare is that the reader, whoever it may be, can take away from the text what the author truly intended to be taken away. What matters is that the author, in whatever way they choose, can convey their ideas and more importantly, can trust the reader to figure something out for themselves. The way in which a writers sets forth to express his or her story can vary, as Woolf pointedly points out in this essay, however, the one thing that doesn't change, the one thing that matters despite the time period or the way the literature is performed or read, is the relationship between the writer and the reader. 

1 comment:

  1. Hm. I guess I'm disagreeing with Woolf. I think that Shakespeare is nearly incomprehensible when read and, to be fully understood, must be performed (and performed well). That might be the actor in me coming out, or maybe it's a question of the time period we're living in, but I think that a lot of Shakespeare's greatness that reveals the truths of life and all that is just so hard to grab off the printed page alone. That's just my opinion, though.

    Again, harping on Shakespeare and theatre in general.

    "What matters is that the author, in whatever way they choose, can convey their ideas and more importantly, can trust the reader to figure something out for themselves.

    I'm wondering what you think about Woolf's reasoning that Shakespeare is more effective when read, and this in relation to the playwright, whose primary reader is meant to be the person performing the work. I mean, it seems like something might get diluted when going from Writer to Reader (performer) to Audience. That's a lot of trust.