‘Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction’ (A Review)

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Oxford does it again! Once again the good folks over at the Oxford University Press release a well written, cogent, and exemplary ‘very short’ introduction to a topic which is vital to furthering the capture of knowledge. Jens Zimmerman’s introductory primer to the act of interpretation is not only a bonafide guide to the field as it is practiced in its various disciplines, but also a text which should be in any Humanities’ student library.

Told across seven chapters, Zimmerman’s book informs the reader on the nature of interpretation, also called ‘hermeneutics,’ hence the namesake’s title; these chapters explore the history and practice of interpretation as it pertains to the fields of philosophy, the humanities, law, religion, and the sciences, with a couple of chapters acting as a brief overview of what hermeneutics is and a brief history of its application.

Each chapter holds true to the name of the parent series: in a ‘very short introduction’ you will receive a very short chapter. Each chapter functions as a speed teacher whose only goal is to get you caught up the bare bones essentials. Generally, the outline is as follows: you are introduced to why interpretation in a certain field is relevant and needed, the major proponents of certain theories of interpretation as it relates to that field, and then you are introduced to some controversies or problems and the subsequent current research which attempts to articulate and overcome the problem.

Soon after you are sent off onto the next chapter to repeat the process all over again. It is a tried and true formula to educational guides and it works well in this volume. More so since Zimmerman manages to squeeze in a short appendix of major hermeneutic debates; inserted at the end of the primary chapters, the appendix expands upon the major ideas of the text without bogging down the initial reading. It is an ideal set-up and allows for learners to take the new information and re-read previous chapters with a newly deepened understanding of specific chapter controversies. If you wanted to go a level lower, you could even say that such a reading prompts the reader’s own inclusion in Hans-Georg Gadamer ‘hermeneutic circle.’ But perhaps this would be reading too deeply.

As a very short introduction, I still managed to learn ideas which I did not already know, despite having some familiarity with many of the concepts before I started my read through. Specifically, the chapters on philosophic hermeneutics, and hermeneutics in the legal and scientific fields, offered some food for thought and pushed what I already knew into new territories. Something which many introduction are only able to accomplish with an expanded number of pages.

The reason Zimmerman is able to accomplish so much with so little pages, however, is because they write in a clear and concise style. Academic writing is not always so easy to follow—anyone who has read Derrida can attest to this—but Zimmerman’s straight to business, no nonsense prose manages to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. So, new readers will trust that they will be softly led by the hand as they cover each new chapter and its unique approach to how we, as humans, interpret in order to understand and order our world.

In the end, I enjoyed Zimmerman’s introduction. It helped me. It expanded what I already knew and filled me in on what I did not know. It was not a hassle to read and it remains a sleek and elegant addition to my library of titles. So, even as their Heidiggerian approach may alienate some philosophically minded individuals, I was able to overlook such discretions and focus on the informative center, the educational nougat. Zimmerman’s miniature book manages to do what it promises—educate, inform, and do so without a headache. Any student searching for a means to help them understand ‘hermeneutics,’ the practice of interpretation, should look no further.

Jen Zimmerman

Hermeneutics: A Very Short Interpretation

159 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $10.75 (Print), $6.15 (Kindle)[1]. 2015.

 

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon and were accurate at the time of writing.

Into the Woods

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As we walked into As You Like It, our last play of the week, at the Festival Theater, we were given a cloth bag with a tree branch, a love poem hand-written by a seventh-grader, a clothes pin, and a blue fan, and we found Robin Hutton already on stage, in jeans and a vest and long coat, holding court.  “Welcome to Newfoundland,” she said to the puzzled Californians in the front row.  She sipped on her drink.  “Have you got your tree branches, now? . . . Show us your bush . . . You, over there, are you going to sing for us? . . . Hello, balcony . . .  I hope you’ve got those stars . . . We’re going to have a kitchen party here.”   Eventually, she introduced herself as Hymen, the goddess of marriage (who indeed appears at the close of As You Like It, to bless the various “country copulatives”), cued the band (guitar, fiddle, accordion, drum), brought out the cast and called a lively traditional dance, “Running the Goat”: “Circle to the left . . . now to the right . . . swing your partner . . . first couple, now, promenade.”

That was just the first fifteen minutes.  This production of As You Like It was set in 1980s Newfoundland, which the director, Jillian Keiley, characterizes as “a dance-together culture,” in which “art is not to be examined or observed but to be experienced by all of us, together in a circle.”  The atmosphere throughout was raucous and participatory.  When Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone fled to the forest, we all waved our branches, and they fought their way down a row, carrying their luggage, pushing greenery out of the way.  We clipped our poems onto branches for the characters to pluck off and read; we waved our blue fans in unison for the seaside scenes; the balcony’s stars illuminated the night; characters roasted marshmallows on coals held by the audience, plucked carrots from audience members’ hands, and shot at rabbits passed along the rows.  Hymen continued to address us directly, cueing our props and commenting on the various couples falling in love–“Look, here’s couple number one”—and telling us it was “time go have a pee” at intermission. Other characters occasionally encouraged our responses directly, too—for example, in the wrestling scene in Act I, where musclebound Charles played the heel and we all cheered skinny, long-haired Orlando as he said, “You mean to mock me after; you should not have mock’d me before,” slipping on his checkered headband.   The fight was pure WWE, full of ostentatiously fake blows and exaggerated reactions.  Lisa said the whole thing was like a London panto, joyous and vulgar and self-aware, and that seemed about right to me.

Somehow, miraculously, in the midst of all this, a smart and funny play broke out, too.   As You Like It is one of my favorites of the comedies, because of its playful intelligence, its heroine, and its literary self-consciousness.   The characters go off to the forest and adopt conventional attitudes—pastoral idealism, melancholy, romantic love, carnal desire, sophisticated court irony—and test them against one another.  The play has a relaxed, discursive feel: characters meet, talk, try out various tropes and postures, move on.  The spirit of parody and mockery is everywhere.  We encounter an actual lovesick shepherd (at our performance, the audience tinkled sheep bells on his arrival) and his scornful mistress, who makes fun of the idea that her unkind looks are killing him:

Now I do frown on thee with all my heart,
And if mine eyes can wound, then let them kill thee.
Now counterfeit to swound; why, now fall down . . .

After hearing Orlando’s conventional Petrarchan verses about Rosalind (“Let no face be kept in mind/But the fair of Rosalind”), Touchstone says, “I’ll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners and suppers and sleeping hours excepted”:

If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So be sure will Rosalind . . .

“’Tis good to be sad and say nothing,” says the melancholy Jaques.  “Why then,” Rosalind replies, “’tis good to be a post.”  Rosalind, brilliant and generous, one of Shakespeare’s greatest female characters, is at the center of all of this comic play, testing Orlando’s love in a boy’s disguise—taking him to husband school, as one of my students said last spring.   In the end, court society recreates itself, transformed and renewed: Hymen blesses all of the couples; the evil repent; the exiled and usurped are restored.

As it turns out, this play adapted itself to 1980s Newfoundland quite easily.  The forest characters wore plaid shirts and stocking hats, split wood and went fishing; the songs (there is a lot of singing in this forest) were accompanied by fiddle and accordion and had you tapping your feet; the court world was populated by men in white linen suits and women with big hair, holding Rubik’s cubes and gigantic portable phones.  (In general, this all reminded me of the first Die Hard film, which came out in 1988, and which my family watches every Christmas.)  I kept looking for Donald Trump in the history plays, but he was actually here, as Duke Frederick, a coarse bully with blow-dried blond hair, a model on his arm, barking orders and making threats.  It was a relief to move from his world to the Newfoundland forest and coast, where the Duke’s sister, Duchess Senior, and her friends were singing, reading, and talking, in a more democratic and congenial environment, and where we might find a disheveled lover greeting his mistress with flowers and fresh-caught fish.  The open, unpretentious, participatory spirit of this imagined Newfoundland gave the play its comic and regenerative force and infected the entire production, audience and all, with its joyous energy.

The cast was very strong, again.  I can’t say enough about how consistently good the acting was, all week long, with a largely different group each night.  Petrina Bromley’s Rosalind was lovestruck and forceful by turns, and she was entirely convincing as a boy, with her baggy jeans, loose white shirt and pencil-thin moustache.  Her epilogue—a pastiche of Shakespearean texts—was a small tour de force.  Cyrus Lane, who had excelled in a comic turn as the Porter in Macbeth the night before, was an appropriately goofy and engaging Orlando.  But I thought Trish Lindström stole every scene she was in as Celia, whom she played as a sort of Valley Girl, struggling through the forest with pink sunglasses and a hatbox.  I would have paid money just to watch her split wood—she ended up trying to sharpen the axe with her nail file–or to watch her dance with excitement as she told Rosalind that Orlando was in the forest.   Seana McKenna also gave Jaques, the melancholy outsider, unusual dignity and grace; her delivery of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech was mesmerizing.  (This was, with Brigit Wilson’s Duchess Senior, one of two traditionally male roles played brilliantly by women here.)

Jaques leaves the happy scene just before the end, because she knows what is coming.  “I am for other than for dancing measures,” she says, sadly, on her way to an “abandon’d cave”—and there was certainly plenty of dancing at the Festival Theater after she left, including members of the audience who had been prepared before the show and joined the cast on stage.  “Now, thread the needle,” Hymen said; the line of dancers snaked through an arch made by two of their number; we stamped our feet and clapped.  It was a great way to end the week.

—Dan  Gunn

 

Dark Shadows

Macbeth

We saw the Breath of Kings sequence at the Tom Patterson Theater—a simple, barn-like structure on the Avon River which became a festival venue in 1971.  (Patterson was a journalist who had the idea for the festival in 1952, hoping to develop something new for the town’s economy following the departure of the railroad industry.)  Macbeth, by contrast, was at the Festival Theater, a much larger and more impressive building, in a park overlooking the river, surrounded by flower gardens, with a gift shop, a lounge, and glossy video presentations on technical aspects of the season’s productions.  The building was designed to look like a tent, in memory of the festival’s earliest years, and it features a beautiful thrust stage in dark, polished wood, three steps high, with a large balcony supported by wood posts and flanked by curved staircases.

This Macbeth was a mainstage show—in every way bigger and more impressive (and more traditional) than The Breath of Kings.  The lighting was generally dark, brooding.  The set was full of moss, dead branches, uncanny hanging shapes.   There were claps of thunder, distant shrieks, and eerie bass notes.  The actors wore rough, shaggy period costumes and exhibited a trace of a Scottish burr here and there.  The weird sisters were grotesque, robed crones, stirring a cauldron, their faces half-hidden in darkness.  Macbeth was tortured and ambitious, Lady Macbeth desperate not to miss her chance. There were striking, remarkable, even breathtaking effects and transitions.  For example, after the three murderers chased Banquo and Fleance down off the stage and into the aisle, there was a momentary cut to black and then a dramatic burst of light and sound to introduce the banquet, already fully in progress.  Banquo’s ghost appeared from nowhere a few minutes later—he must have stepped from behind servants, but it was like a magic trick—and the mechanics of Macbeth’s terrified vision, his movement in and out of the feast, were handled seamlessly.   In another spectacular scene, the weird sisters hung Macbeth from a tree and anointed him with blood as they showed him the future kings of Scotland.  Sound was deployed and calibrated with great skill throughout, both electronically and on stage, as characters shouted or fought or cried “All hail!” in unison.   There was brilliant stage fighting in the final battle, particularly between Macbeth and Macduff, with sword and shields.  (I meant to say that this was a noticeable feature of Breath of Kings, too.  Hal and Hotspur battled up and down that long stage, handling heavy swords and long spears at the same time.)  The acting was assured, professional, impeccable, up and down the cast.  This was an excellent production, in every way.

But still.  It left me cold, finally—Lisa, too–and I’m not completely sure why.  Is it perhaps that the play is too familiar—overexposed—and so has lost some of its force?  Perhaps.  And then there was the relatively white bread nature of this production, strong as it was: at every turn, the expected thing, visually and thematically; the dark castle; Lady Macbeth in a nightgown, wringing her hands; Macbeth center stage, grasping at an invisible sword or holding a bloody one; Macduff, bewildered by grief (“All my pretty ones?”); the witches scowling into the cauldron.

But I have repeatedly had the experience of being moved  by material just as familiar—by Richard II and As You Like It just this week, in fact—so that can’t be the whole story.  I find myself thinking of Jayne Decker saying, after a rehearsal, that there was just no energy in a scene—or, conversely, of the increased power and force—energy—I have felt from other actors when we finally found ourselves in front of an audience, after weeks of playing to empty seats.   What I am talking about is in some sense ineffable, impossible to describe.   But it comes from an irrational place, deep down; it is communal, interpersonal, transformative; it is a kind of fire.  Somehow, I felt this energy all through The Breath of Kings; I believed every word the actors were saying; they seemed up, consistently, for six hours.  But it was missing, a least for me, in Macbeth, in spite of the quality of the production.   Lisa said that for her the power in Breath of Kings came from the language—from the characters, speaking–but in Macbeth it came largely from the set, the sounds, the dramatic effects—and I would agree.

Still, in spite of these reservations, I was very glad to have seen the play, and I have to say a word in praise of the two principal actors—Ian Lake as Macbeth and Krystin Pellerin as Lady Macbeth.   They gave accomplished, professional performances, and who knows why the unknowable black magic of theater did not occur for one gray-haired person in the orchestra, off to the side? In Pellerin’s opening scene, reading a letter from Macbeth and then calling on spirits to “unsex [her] . . ./And fill [her] from crown to toe topful/Of direst cruelty,” she was electric, in exactly the way I’ve been trying to describe—and I can still hear the anguished tones of her “To bed, to bed, to bed” after the sleepwalking scene.   And Lake delivered the “Tomorrow” speech slowly, with a beautiful, understated desperation, emphasizing the repetition and monotony in the lines:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
Unto the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I have seen Macbeths who became so shrill and unhinged in the earlier speeches that they had no subtlety or introspection left for this moment in Act V.  But Lake made it the highlight of his performance.

Finally, walking back to the car, Lisa and I wondered if we just weren’t ready, on this night, for so much  darkness.  Macbeth is so despairing—so much evil, so little redress—and perhaps we couldn’t go there.  As the victorious forces shouted “Hail King of Scotland!” and Malcolm restored order at the end, the weird sisters looked covertly out at the audience, sneering, unconquered.   We went and had a drink at the Queen’s Hotel.

—Dan Gunn

 

Three Kings

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Stratford, Ontario, is a small, Midwestern town, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a flat terrain of cornfields and square brick farmhouses with railed porches.  Since 1953, it has improbably hosted a distinguished summer Shakespeare festival, which now runs from May to October in four theaters, presenting not only Shakespeare but plays like A Chorus Line, Le Malade Imaginaire, and John Gabriel Borkman.  My wife, Lisa, and I are here to see this summer’s Shakespeare offerings—four performances in three days.

Yesterday we saw the four plays of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy condensed into two remarkable performances—Breath of Kings: Rebellion (Richard II and Henry IV, Part I) in the afternoon, followed by Breath of Kings: Redemption (Henry IV, Part II and Henry V) in the evening.  The Stratford title comes from Bullingbrook’s bitter comment to Richard II after the latter has reduced his banishment from ten years to six:

How long a time lies in one little word!
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word: such is the breath of kings.

The phrase suggests both the strength and the fragility of the king’s power: the breath of a king can wipe out four years in a moment, but it is still human breath, tied to a mortal human body.  Two plays later, as Bullingbrook (now Henry IV) lies dying, his son Hal looks to see if he is still breathing:

By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not.
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move.

The king’s breath can fail, because he is merely human—a point which Breath of Kings: Rebellion makes in its opening scene, by stripping Richard to the waist and then representing his anointing, enrobing, and coronation while a murder he has ordered takes place at the other end of the stage.   How can the king be both human and “God’s substitute”?  What does it mean, in human terms, to assume the awful weight of kingship?  These are the central questions posed by this extraordinary sequence of plays—not just in Richard’s complex amalgamation of self-indulgent narcissism and regal posturing but in Henry IV’s agonized brooding (“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”) and Hal’s conflicted movement between tavern and court.

Seeing all four plays in six hours in a single day brought into relief not only these recurring thematic concerns but broad story arcs extending over several plays—in particular, the momentous deposition of Richard and its afterlives; the development of Bullingbrook’s character as he deposes Richard and becomes a powerful and then sick and tormented King; and Hal’s emergence from the “foul and ugly mists/Of vapors that did seem to strangle him” at Eastcheap to become the hero of Agincourt.   There was an overriding sense of unity not just in each of the two Breath of Kings performances but in the day as a whole.  As Henry IV has trouble sleeping, for example, images from the early plays haunt his dreams: hooded figures chant Carlisle’s prophecy that “the blood of English shall manure the ground” if Richard is deposed, and soldiers wear masks of Richard’s face.  Northumberland’s character spans three plays, appearing first as a bold supporter of Bullingbrook, then as a conspirator against him, shying uneasily away from battle.  The moving scene in which Hal publicly rejects Falstaff—“I know thee not, old man”—has more pathos when the earliest scenes of them carousing and drinking together are still fresh in our minds.

The plays were performed here by twenty energetic and talented actors, all of whom played multiple roles, representing nearly fifty separate characters.  Their performances were casually and un-self-consciously color- and gender-blind, with women frequently playing men, moving easily back and forth across gender lines, and color and ethnicity having no apparent significance in the action.  There were one or two instances of self-conscious play—for example, when the actress playing the Dauphin deftly removed a doublet, unfurled a white skirt, and became the Princess Kate in a matter of seconds, or when the actor who had previously played Falstaff spoke about him, as Fluellen, with a knowing and playful expression—but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.  The costumes were spare and eclectic: Lisa said that it seemed as if the actors had been turned loose in the wardrobe room and invited to take whatever seemed appropriate for their characters: skullcaps, jerseys, doublets, animal skins, gunbelts, eye patches, robes.  The lozenge-shaped stage was relatively bare, covered by bark mulch and surrounded on all sides by steeply-tiered seats.  (The mulch was often manipulated for dramatic affect: a body dragged through it left a gash; cross-shaped lines were raked through it; it  became the earth when Richard returned from Ireland and knelt to touch it.)   The actors played skillfully to the entire house, turning gently and naturally during long speeches.  They also used the periphery of the stage and even the audience’s space: Richard stood high up in an aisle, with scepter and orb, to address Northumberland from the walls of Flint Castle, before descending “like glittering Phaeton”; as they entered Hal’s coronation scene, Falstaff and his cronies moved through the audience and said, “Excuse me, I think these are our seats,” sitting on the stunned patrons’ laps.

The effect of all these production choices was to place the emphasis on the language, which the actors handled with great skill and feeling, driving the story forward and articulating its themes.  Astonishingly, through the two long performances, we never felt that the production dragged: we were pulled along by the lucidity and energy of the speeches.  It was all one story.  The pace was often rapid, with entrances and exits coming from all sides of the stage, but there were quiet, introspective moments, too—for example, Richard’s melancholy speech about the death of kings, or Henry IV’s dying speech to his son.   As the evening performance moved into its triumphant phase—the celebration of Henry V’s victories in France—the Elizabethan equivalent of Boston fans talking over the 2004 ALCS–the production reached its own triumph, in Henry’s ringing speech at Agincourt (“We few, we happy few”) and the multilingual courtship scenes between him and Kate.   After spending the better part of the day in this world, we were genuinely sorry to have to leave.

The actors in the principal roles were all impressive:  Tom Rooney’s Richard was tense, unpredictable, witty, poetic, fascinating; his presence (alive and dead) dominated the production.  Graham Abbey showed an astonishing range as Bullingbrook and Henry IV. At first, he was like an English football fan on his best behavior: there was a suppressed, mulish force just below the surface even of his most gracious speeches, and he outfaced Richard even in the deposition scene.  But he evolved into a complex, vulnerable, guilt-ridden old man, lying on his deathbed with the crown next to him on a pillow.  Although he was slight of stature and seemingly lacking in presence at first, Areya Mengesha grew into his performance as Hal and Henry V.  His forceful reply to the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls was one of the highlights of the evening performance.   But Geraint Wyn Davies’s Falstaff deserves special notice.  Wyn Davies, who played the ham actor Henry Breedlove in season 2 of Slings and Arrows, commanded the stage during the tavern scenes and (especially) Falstaff’s soliloquies.  He was buoyant, shrewd, unsinkable—and his corrosive deconstruction of court virtue served as a counterpoint to the play’s main themes. “There’s honor for you!” Falstaff says, looking down on the corpse of Sir Walter Blunt.  Indeed. The strength of Wyn Davies’ performance raised real questions about the value and trajectory of Hal’s heroic evolution.  Can it be right for Hal to turn aside from Falstaff’s ironic knowledge to become a hero and a king?

–Dan Gunn