Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Brightest Heaven of Invention

by Peter Leithart
1996, 286 pages

This book was a huge help to me in my own teaching of Shakespeare, hoping to cobble together some kind of logical Christian perspective on plays that can be diificult enough for students to comprehend, let alone appreciate.

Besides giving an overall suggested structure for the reading and study of each play, the introduction makes our love for stories clear, due to their ability to structure our understanding of our lives, and deals with the Bible as the master story.

You don't need to read Shakespeare to appreciate those insights; however, Leithart clearly has read both Shakespeare and the Bible with wisdom. Brightest Heaven of Invention deals with two of Shakespeare's histories - Henry V and Julius Caesar; two tragedies - Hamlet and Macbeth; and two comedies - The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing.

Let me explain why, and how much, I appreciated a few of these chapters. I had never taught (or even read) Henry V, and honestly didn't quite know how to approach history plays, but Leithart makes clear that the play turns on Shakespeare's revelation of whether King Henry V really can fulfill the description given to him in the play - "the mirror of all Christian kings." Similarly, while I have always enjoyed teaching Julius Caesar, I tended to treat it more as a tragedy than a history, which left me with two questions: "Who was the tragic hero?" and "What is the point of the play after Caesar's death?" Leithart shows how the play deals with how all the characters misunderstand and/or misuse power and either take it for granted or take it for themselves through force or fraud.

The chapter I probably appreciated the most was Leithart's view of Hamlet, a play about a young man whose tragic flaw had typically been viewed as indecision, which always seemed to me to be a very nebulous weakness. Leithart sees further by setting the play within the tradition of the revenge tragedy, which had been very popular with Christopher Marlowe and others writing just before Shakespeare. Seen in this light, Hamlet's mysterious encounters with other characters, including his (demonic imposter?) ghost father, become much more revealing and yet more sinister - and truly tragic. Leithart's analysis is brilliant.

Finally, let me deal briefly with the "gender issues" in the two comedies that Leithart looks at. While reading  his analysis of Taming of the Shrew, I read the play itself in a feminist edition (from a thrift store) that showed just how systematically women in Shakespeare's time were seen and suppressed as sources of evil.  Leithart's analysis of Petruchio's "taming of the shrew" Katherine demonstrated that there was more in play than simple oppression, but I don't know if Leithart's commentary acknowledged just how badly the Bible's commands for marriage have been misused, both in Shakespeare's time and in our own. On the other hand, Leithart's look at Much Ado About Nothing shows how a distorted kind of male bonding shuts down the possibility of love between the sexes, until some learn to see through their own self-willed pride and blindness.

With insightful questions after each of four lessons for each play, possible topics for an essay, and suggestions for the best video to accompany the study of the play, Brightest Heaven of Invention sheds Biblical light on every play Leithart looks at - a book I will continue to refer to every time I teach a play it deals with. Highly recommended.

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