Shakespeare's Simple Forms
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CitationNee, David. 2021. Shakespeare's Simple Forms. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractWhile critics have long recognized the presence of folklore in Shakespeare’s sources, Shakespeare’s relationship to folkloric forms has remained an underexplored aspect of his work. This is in part because forms such as the folktale, proverb, and riddle have been kept at the outskirts of literary theory, relegated to neighboring disciplines such as folkloristics and ethnography. In particular, we have lacked a sustained account of what happens in the convergence between folkloric forms and the major genres central to literary theory since Aristotle, such as comedy, tragedy, and epic. Absent such an account, analysis of folkloric form in Shakespeare’s plays has stalled at the level of source study and thematic criticism.
My dissertation seeks to remedy this lack by examining four convergences between Shakespeare’s drama and folkloric form. To do so, I draw on the theoretical model supplied by André Jolles, whose Simple Forms (1929) I view as an important but underappreciated milestone in literary theory. Focusing on four narrative forms theorized by Jolles—the fairy tale, the case, the memorabile, and the saga—I show how Shakespeare’s drama grows out of a productive symbiosis with simple form, and in addition, how latent response to simple form has structured our interpretation of the plays. For example, I connect the simple form of the case, in which a conflict arises between competing values, to perennial critical debates over the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The difficulty of making our minds up about Shylock reflects the built-in undecidability of the case, a narrative structure whose primary function is to afford debate. Shakespeare, in turn, wreathes the poetic language, thematic patterning, and characterization of his play around this simple form, constructing a drama that constantly invites us to weigh one value against another.
What emerges from this study is a new picture of Shakespeare’s plays as grounded in the reciprocal enrichment of poetic drama and simple form. From the family tree that structures the simple form of the saga, and leaves its mark on Hamlet, to the fairy tale, whose naïve morality underwrites our sense of the tragic in Romeo and Juliet, simple form provides the trellis upon which Shakespeare cultivates the full richness of his dramatic genres.
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