Oates on Shakespeare: An investigation into the Artist/Critic

I have always found criticism made by actual artists particularly interesting. People who make art see it in a different way from those who merely study it. Artists have a personal closeness to the process of artistic creation, and are thus often able to understand more easily how a piece of work is put together. An artist’s criticism, however, provides insight not only into the object under scrutiny but also, reflexively, into the artist/critic’s own methods or beliefs. 

Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific and well-known contemporary authors in the world, brings a personal artistic intuition to her reading of Troilus and Cressida. Her essay, “The Tragedy of Existence: ‘Troilus and Cressida’” (1966) coherently explains one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays, and does so in a fashion that is indicative of the nascent postmodern outlook of the mid 60’s.

According to Oates, Troilus and Cressida grapples with multiple philosophical issues that, over 300 years later, dominate the discourse of the mid 20th century. She considers the play an exercise in mocking and undercutting tragical and theatrical conventions: “Troilus and Cressida is a tragedy that calls into question the very pretensions of tragedy itself” (Oates 14). Oates’ explanation of this mockery comes close to embodying Frederic Jameson’s concept of “pastiche,” introduced in his book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). The important idea that Oates tries to explain is that Troilus and Cressida uncovers tragedy’s failure by inserting a tragic framework into a world that simply does not allow tragedy.

Tragedy in its conventional form, according to Oates, relies on an essentialist humanism that suggests a restorative communication between ‘man’ and the universal. She uses the plot line of Othello as an example of this classical framework: “Othello is shown to us first as an extraordinary man, then as a man, then as an animal, but finally and most importantly as a man again, just before his death; this is the usual tragic curve” (Oates 13). What allows Othello to win back his humanity, Oates says, is language.

In Troilus and Cressida, however, Shakespeare creates a world in which man is unable to ascend into an essential or ideal realm through language: “What is withheld—and deliberately withheld—is ‘poetic justice'” (12). Oates uses the eloquent and philosophical speeches of Ulysses and Hector as examples of languages impotency. Although these speeches are undoubtedly “vertical” in that they demonstrate the ideals of classical humanism, they are proven disingenuous by those characters’ base actions. The infidelity of these characters, in line with the general theme of infidelity that permeates the entire play, suggests that the ‘reality’ of the world that Shakespeare creates does not permit the tragic, but only the pathetic: “man is trapped within a temporal, physical world, and his rhetoric, his poetry, even his genius cannot free him” (14). According to Oates, Shakespeare demonstrates this existential reality by placing the conventional tragic framework over it and watching its remarkable failure.

Oates’ analysis of Troilus and Cressida is a great example of why I enjoy reading criticism created by actual artists. Oates’ focus on the significantly postmodern elements of Shakespeare’s play locate her in the specific moment of the mid 1960’s, when many of the ideas of postmodern thinking were germinating but were not yet fully self realized. While I have described Oates’ to understand Shakespeare’s play as a form of ‘pastiche’, there is only a resemblance between her essay and Jameson’s specific term because Jameson defined pastiche around 30 years later.

But what I find also indicative of ‘the Artist’ in Oates’ essay is her insistence on Shakespeare’s control over his play. Whereas many critics have questioned Shakespeare’s artistic command of Troilus and Cressida, Oates constantly asserts the intentionality of Shakespeare’s decisions. As a writer herself, it makes sense that she would want to envision a Shakespeare who has authority over his material. This vision could perhaps quell, in an ironically anti-postmodern way, any anxieties toward her own authorial command over her creative practice.

Oates, Joyce Carol. ““The Tragedy of Existence: ‘Troilus and Cressida’” The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature”. Toronto: The Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1972. 9-36. Print.