Blog Post

Shakespearean countries?

Perhaps the best way of outlining a brief definition of what I propose to call Shakespearean countries is resorting to V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, whose title already suggests a Girardian reading of the work of the Nobel Prize.

Reflecting upon his life, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Ralph Singh, identifies a common feature between him and a “young English student”: “He was like me: he needed the guidance of other men’s eyes.” A little further, the narrator acknowledges the mimetic nature of his desire: “We became what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others”.

Whoever experiences this cultural circumstance lives a sort of “half a life”, always dependent upon someone else’s eyes and opinions—very much like Shakespearean characters, according to René Girard’s study William Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. Indeed, Half a life is precisely the title-metaphor of another novel by the same writer. In it, Naipaul deals with the same fundamental issue expressed by a character who has casually met the English writer W. Somerset Maugham. Due to a series of revealing cultural misunderstandings, the writer considered the Brahmin a sacred and wise man, and wrote about him as a holy man in one of his novels. Then, the Brahmin immediately became “famous for having been written about by a foreigner”, as J. M. Coetzee aptly summarized the plot in an important review of Naipaul’s novel. However, to the Brahmin this fame did not come without its pitfalls: “It became hard for me to step out of the role.” The role created by someone else’s eyes, and as the character has to accept:  “I recognized that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me.” In this case, fate has a proper name and refers to the foreigner’s gaze. And since the foreigner is seen as an undisputed model, he has the authority of defining what he looks at.

Shakespearean countries would experience this dilemma in different ways, and favour the question: how to develop an initial topography of cultural procedures engendered in order to cope with this circumstance? Naturally such a cultural and literary history should have a broad application, instead of being limited to Latin American countries. However, in order to propose an initial development of this approach, in my posts I am focusing primarily on Latin American cultural and literary history.

Indeed, Latin American cultural history, namely, since Romanticism, back in the 19th century, was defined primarily through a foreigner’s gaze.  It is as if they were objects of an exhibition whose curator was, paradoxically, the beholder himself, i.e., the foreigner’s gaze. The beholder has primarily been throughout Latin American cultural history a foreigner, whose authority is derived from his condition of being a foreigner, and therefore, the model to be imitated, and reproduced. It is a tautological mechanism that is still active today. Nonetheless, like typical Shakespearean characters that usually fall in love through someone else’s eyes, it seemed that Latin Americans learned to recognize themselves primarily through the authority attributed to a foreigner’s gaze.

Would a Shakespearean cultural history demand a Calibanesque approach? In the next posts, I will try to provide an answer.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha's picture

João Cezar de Castro Rocha is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). He is the author of Literatura e cordialidade: O público e o privado na cultura brasileira (1998; Mário de Andrade Award, National Library, Rio de Janeiro); O exílio do homem cordial: Ensaios e revisões (2004); Exercícios críticos: Leituras do contemporâneo (2008); and Crítica literária: em busca do tempo perdido? (2011, forthcoming). He has edited more than 20 books, among which are a collection of six volumes of Machado de Assis's short stories (Record, 2008); Producing Presences in Portuguese: Branching Out from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's Work (2007); The Author as Plagiarist: The Case of Machado de Assis (2006); and Brazil 2001: A Revisionary History of Brazilian Literature and Culture (2001). His book of dialogues with René Girard and Pierpaolo Antonello, Evolution and Conversion (2008), has been translated into seven languages, and received in 2004 the Prix Aujourd'hui in France.  

Among others, Castro Rocha has received the following distinctions: the Endowed Chair Machado de Assis of Latin American Studies (Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana / Brazilian Embassy, Mexico, 2010); Hélio and Amélia Pedroso/Luso-American Foundation Endowed Chair in Portuguese Studies (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 2009); Research Fellowship (Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung / Freie Universität - 2005-06); Ministry of Culture Visiting Fellow (University of Oxford, Centre for Brazilian Studies, 2004); Tinker Visiting Professor (University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2003); Overseas Visiting Scholar (Cambridge University, St John's College, 2002); John D. and Rose H. Jackson Fellow, (Yale University, Beinecke Library, 2001).