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Graham Holderness

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Graham Holderness

Abstract

For two millennia the heart was considered to be the seat of intelligence, motion and sensation. Thomas Hobbes's friend William Harvey revolutionised the understanding of the heart by demonstrating how blood circulates, and correctly identifying the function of the heart as propulsion. Soon after the publication of De Motu Cordis, Descartes redefined the heart as a ‘pump’, and Hobbes as a ‘spring’. In these mechanistic and rationalist systems the heart lost its prestige, and could no longer be considered the source of sensation and emotion. Harvey did not, however, seek to displace the heart from its traditional position in metaphysical anatomy, but by retaining an Aristotelean interest in causes, continued to promote the centrality of the heart in ways that have persisted in philosophy, theology and literature even to the present day. A fresh look at Harvey's writings will help us to understand why.

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Graham Holderness

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Graham Holderness

In Britain, from the nineteenth century onwards, the default ‘setting’ for Shakespeare's plays (by which I mean costume, mise-en-scène, and assumed historical and cultural context) has been medieval and early modern: the time of the plays’ composition (late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries) or the time of their historical location (medieval Britain or Europe, ancient Greece or Rome, etc.). In this visual and physical context, Twelfth Night would normally be performed or imagined in Elizabethan or Jacobean, Macbeth and Hamlet in medieval, Julius Caesar in ancient Roman dress and settings. In the historical context of their original production, the plays were performed in contemporary dress with minimal mise-en-scène; through the Restoration and eighteenth century in fashionable modern dress and increasingly naturalistic settings. Today in Britain, Shakespeare can be performed in any style of costume, setting and cultural context, from the time of the plays’ reference to the immediate contemporary present, and often in an eclectic blend of some or all. But strong forces of tradition and cultural memory tie the plays, in their visual and physical realisation as well as their language, to the medieval and early modern past. We see this attachment in film versions of the plays and of Shakespeare's life. We dress Shakespeare in the costumes of all the ages, but we know that he truly belongs, as in the various portraits, in doublet and ruff.

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Terrorism and Culture

9/11, Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot

Graham Holderness

Abstract

This article addresses the question ‘can literature help us with terrorism?’ by interrogating the common assumption that terrorism always ‘has an agenda’ that needs to be understood and addressed. The article offers a critique of Robert Applebaum's argument that Shakespeare's Macbeth represents a denial of the political agenda of the Gunpowder Plot, and argues that terrorism – especially contemporary Islamic terrorism – is nihilistic, merely destructive and offers (in Derrida's words) ‘nothing good to be hoped for’. The achievement of Macbeth is to expose the ‘mystery of iniquity’ (2 Thess. 2.7) that lies behind all terrorism.

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From Summit to Tragedy

Sulayman Al-Bassam's Richard III and Political Theatre

Graham Holderness

Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s best-known characters, a familiarity independent of the history plays, Henry VI and Richard III, in which he appears. This celebrity has less to do with Richard’s historical reputation, and more with the way in which great actors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave the role status and popular visibility, particularly perhaps via Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film version. Just as Hamlet is automatically identifi able by black suit and prop skull, Richard is immediately recognisable by his legendary deformity (mandatory hump, optional limp), and by the famous opening line of his initial soliloquy: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’.

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Graham Holderness

IT seems to be a kind of Respect due to the Memory of Excellent Men, especially of those whom their Wit and Learning have made Famous, to deliver some Account of themselves, as well as their Works, to Posterity. For this Reason, how fond do we see some People of discovering any little Personal Story of the great Men of Antiquity, their Families, the common Accidents of their Lives, and even their Shape,Make and Features have been the Subject of critical Enquiries. How trifling soever this Curiosity may seem to be, it is certainly very Natural; and we are hardly satisfy'd with an Account of any remarkable Person, 'till we have heard him describ'd even to the very Cloaths he wears. As for what relates to Men of Letters, the knowledge of an Author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding his Book.

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Cleaning House

the Courtly and the Popular in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Graham Holderness

This paper explores the controversy as to whether The Merry Wives of Windsor is a celebration of royal and aristocratic power and of an imagined national community, or a suburban comedy whose viewpoint is that of the contemporary English middle-class. Drawing on recent work on female authority in household and community, it is suggested that Shakespeare's Windsor is not only discontinuous with the culture of nobility, but is presented as a parallel world or alternative universe where things are done quite differently. The play thus engages in a critique of the aristocratic values embodied in the Order of the Garter, and offers an alternative source of power in the domestic lives of ordinary women.

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Graham Holderness

Jim Crace's novel Quarantine purports to be a text of 'post-Dawkins scientific atheism'. It re-sets the mystical gospel story of the Temptation in the Wilderness into a materialist universe where only the laws of nature preside, and thus converges on a well-established fictional form, the naturalistic biographical representation of Jesus in a fully realised historical setting. The Messianic claims of Jesus are assumed to evaporate under this scrutiny, and the truth-claims of religion itself to crumble beneath the application of scientific observation and the invocation of scientific laws. In the event however the novel discloses an imaginative and visionary realm in which miracles, for which there is no naturalistic explanation, happen. Holderness argues that like other agnostic writers who engage with Jesus, Crace is to some degree of God's party without knowing it.

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'An Arabian in My Room'

Shakespeare and the Canon

Graham Holderness

The literary canon is commonly thought of as ancient, accepted and agreed, and consistent between high and popular cultures. This article demonstrates the falsity of these assumptions, and argues that the canon is always provisional, contingent, iterable and overdetermined by multiple consequences of cultural struggle. Using definitions of canonicity from Harold Bloom, Frank Kermode and Pierre Bourdieu, the article shows how the canon is produced, consumed and reproduced. Picking up on Harold Bloom's use of a poem by Wallace Stevens, the article explores the impact of Arabic adaptations of Shakespeare on canon formation and canonicity.