Apparently, people have been talking. Recently I received an email from an editor at Bookforum who was asking a number of writers to contribute essays to a book to be called Should I Go to Grad School? for an institution called the Platform for Pedagogy.
She told me, somewhat mysteriously, slightly ominously: “Several people have mentioned that you have strong feelings on the subject.”
Hm. It’s true, I had recently spoken to a grad school class on Shakespeare at NYU (led by my colleague, the gifted poet and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke) about my book The Shakespeare Wars. And if all grad school teachers of literature were like her, I would have no problem with the institution.
But I must admit I expressed some very “strong feelings” in that class. Specifically about the controversy stirred up by some academics who have arrogated to themselves spurious authority to discard parts of Hamlet. I had indeed emphatically warned the impressively bright students in the seminar against the kind of grad school-nurtured exegesis of Shakespeare most egregiously represented by James Shapiro in the section of his book, 1599, wherein he purports to read Shakespeare’s mind and discover that Shakespeare would have wanted to cut, trash, delete, and disappear Hamlet’s final soliloquy; one of the high points of the play and of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre.
It’s true that the fourth act soliloquy (“How all occasions do inform against me/ And spur my dull revenge ...”), which is present in the so-called “Good Quarto” of Hamlet, the one published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, was omitted from the posthumously published Folio edition. But there is no evidence that this was Shakespeare’s preference and not that of, for instance, a theater manager who wanted to speed up the action of one of the Bard’s longest plays, which in fact revolves around extended delay.
As I suggest in my book, the mind-reading case Shapiro makes for the excision is no small matter. It’s emblematic of a whole academic mindset, of the sort of tin-eared arrogance that would consign to the dustbin on no good authority 35 eloquently tormented lines of self-reflection by one of the greatest characters in world literature—a character defined by his penchant for introspection and self-reflection—on the basis of a half-baked theory. In this case, the theory that Shakespeare decided he wanted to revise Hamlet to make Hamlet more of an action hero! Like Schwarzenegger in True Lies! Or maybe a Bruce Willis vehicle: Die Hard With a Vengeance: The Elsinore Conundrum.
In this analysis Hamlet’s last soliloquy slows down the action, makes Hamlet too “dark and existential,” as Shapiro disparagingly notes. Wouldn’t want that! That Shapiro’s theory has been taken seriously by academics is not merely an intellectual scandal but makes it the perfect metaphor for the way most graduate study of literature in America diminishes it—and has become something to be avoided like the plague. I’ve tangled with Shapiro before and I will never cease condemning his grad school-bred disembowelment of Hamlet ’til the day I die and hopefully, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, return to haunt those who advance this meretricious attempt to pour poison into the ears of grad students, to besmirch one of the high points of English literature.
Yes, I guess I do have strong feelings.
But, I told the Should I Go to Grad School? editor, I couldn’t speak about graduate school education in general for two reasons. First, it seems intuitively true that for subjects such as history, philosophy, the hard sciences, and even some of the softer ones, it would be hard for me to make a case against graduate study.
But grad school for literature, I can't advocate. I escaped Yale before it became the center of the frenzied fad for French literary theorists, as a result of which students read more about arcane metaphysics of language, semiotics and the like than the actual literature itself. But, even though many of the most sophisticated contemporary intellectuals who once bought into this sophistry (such as Terry Eagleton) have abandoned it, the tenured relics who imposed this intellectual regime are still there, still espousing their view that literature itself is only to be understood through their diminishing deconstructing lens. I can testify to it, having sat through enough seminars at the Shakespeare Association of America conferences to last a life time. Please don't waste your life this way.
Second, she had said she was asking two kinds of writers: those who had, and those who had not gone through graduate school. I fell into neither category: I had only spent a year at Yale’s graduate school (in English literature), and then fled the institutional comforts it offered for an unknown future.
All the better, she said. I’d looked at life from both sides now.
And so return with me to the moment I made the choice about whether to stay in graduate school; the moment when two roads stretched before me. I don’t suggest anyone take the path I did—I don’t want to ruin any lives—but maybe it will help some see if it’s the road for them.
It was the spring of 1969, around midnight at a lovely house on a comely cove a few miles up the coast from New Haven, a place I shared with a couple of Yale friends. I was sitting at the kitchen table. I had been up late paging anxiously through the classified ads of the Village Voice (long before they became a porn emporium), looking for a traveling salesman job, not finding one, and wondering if I should accept what seemed to be my fate and continue on in graduate school.