Monday, November 7, 2016

Coming at Truth Sideways: Carnivalization in Shakespeare

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I have been troubled by the difficulty of defining the exact point of any one of Shakespeare's works. In high school, one of my friends told me the Bard was a fraud because his plots were "childishly simple." Perhaps. But for the last four hundred years, some of the best scholars in the world, and many of the uninitiated besides, have devoted time, energy, and, genuine passion to the process of interpreting his work in light of some new idea, always striving to find some new truth within his plays--or, at least, one of the old truths told differently. And they have produced thousands upon thousands of new takes, new ideas--all based on his works. Why? Why does his work with such silly, "childish" plots, lend itself to reinterpretation like nothing else?

I have decided, after all of an hour reading "Shakespeare and Carnival," edited by Robert Knowles, that I have the answer. Or, at least, part of an answer. Yes, the Bard's plots are simple. But Shakespeare takes great care within his works to give readers heteroglossia, or more than one expressed viewpoint. His heroes are flawed. His villains are often sympathetic. And the range of side characters, all of whom have opinions of their own (even lowly soldiers in Henry V), is remarkable. He creates dialogues so that there is never one way to see the situation, any situation, in his plays. In this way, Shakespeare questions the authority of all his characters as they repeatedly contradict each other, and often--with the comical and sometimes tragic inclusion of plays within his plays--he contradicts himself in true meta fashion.

This is called carnivalization, a word referring to the medieval festivals peasantry would throw, during which they lampooned the aristocracy with abandon while drinking altogether too much alcohol. Their celebrations often culminated with the crowning of a fool king to show the ultimate rejection of traditional authority. Shakespeare's obsession with ascending thrones reflects this tradition, and it emphasizes all the means with which he refused to provide one right answer. Through exaggeration,, sheer tumult of action, and what Phyllis Gorfain labels as a "recurrent pattern of momentum and interruption" which "assaults orthodox order" and reinterprets "reality through representation" (156), Shakespeare produces the aura of the carnival in which anything goes and nothing is what it seems. To simplify, Shakespeare is an author of shadows. His shadows define his light. There is a doubleness to his truths, a conversation even about the simplest of matters, from the Dauphin of France and his servant arguing over a horse, to Hamlet throwing a play depicting his father's assassination.

In my paper, I am going to argue that Shakespeare used carnivalization to mock the authority figures of his world, but also to mock those like himself, who did the ridiculing. After all, do the lampooners within our modern society (think of SNL, internet chat forums, etc.) know the truth any better than those they mock? I doubt it. But in the formation of the dialogue, what is established? Merely that none of us imperfect mortals know which way is up. We're all faulty. We're all in shadow. And this paves the way for the element of the divine. This is why Shakespeare is so religious, why it's so easy--even in the most pagan of his works--to see Christ, God, and Christian values. Because he shows the absence of truth through carnivalization, he prepares his reader for the return of the true King.

Works Cited

Gorfain, Phyllis. "Play and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet." Shakespeare and  Carnival, edited by Robert Knowles, Macmillan Press, pp.152-176


  1. This actually got me really excited to read your paper. I think you have a fantastic topic and really hit the nail on the head! I know we're supposed to post suggestions for improvement, but I honestly just wanted to say that I think this will be a good paper.

  2. Micah, I'm also really fascinated by your topic. I think that they you will write a very interesting paper that addresses one of the reasons why Shakespeare's plays are so powerful and timeless.

    1. Well, I hope it's interesting. Shakespeare is hard for me to get a handle on. He's excited so much reverence for so many centuries, even approaching the topic of "why" feels daunting, but I think looking at it through carnival elements will help me get more of a grasp on it.

  3. Yeah all I can do is agree—sounds fascinating! You're explanation made me want to read your paper! (Which I definitely can't say for a lot of papers and articles.) Something strange I noticed is that there are often big Shakespeare carnivals and festivals, right? I wonder if that has anything to do with the actual carnivalization of the plays themselves.

    1. That is a really good point! I hadn't thought about it, but it sounds like something I should research