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Life Arts    H3'ed 4/11/20

King Lear's Inner Breakdowns -- and Ours (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) April 11, 2020: Our current worldwide Covid-19 catastrophe reminds us of the Black Death that peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351 but returned less than a decade later. However, periodic recurrences continued for a century and a half, down to Shakespeare's day, as James Shapiro details in his 2015 book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (see the index for "plague" for specific page references). But will 2020 be the year when President Trump plays King Lear?

Now, in the midst of our current inter-related health and economic catastrophes, Princeton University Press is publishing Scott Newstok's accessible new 200-page book How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. If you find yourself with time to read, you might enjoy reading his book, because he is, in effect, working out how to think like the Shakespeare who wrote King Lear during the plague in England in 1606 but then subsequently went on to write The Tempest.

Now, by happy coincidence, Marta Steele has just published the OEN article "The Magic Word in Homer" (dated April 10, 2020):


In The Tempest, Shakespeare portrays Prospero as a magician practicing white magic, not black magic (as these were thought of in Shakespeare's time) suggesting that Shakespeare himself thought of his artistry as a playwright as a kind of magic and of himself as an artist as a magician. In my roundabout discussion of Newstok's new book, I will connect Shakespeare with Homer.

Of course, Newstok is not the first author to suggest a retrieval of certain past educational practices. For example, Edward P. J. Corbett (1919-1998) suggested a retrieval of certain past practices in his widely used 600-page 1965 textbook Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, which went through a second, a third, and a fourth edition the fourth edition in 1999 was co-authored by Robert J. Connors (1951-2000). But Newstok is not writing a textbook. Rather, he first undertakes to convince us of the merits of certain lessons he has gleaned from Renaissance education.

However, before I tell you about Newstok's new book, I first want to provide you with certain relevant background information to contextualize it. Incidentally, the following essay is written in a strongly additive style. (At times, Ong and certain other authors I discuss use conventional generic masculine terms inclusively to refer to all people.)


The title of Newstok's accessible new book calls to mind the work of the above-mentioned American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong in English at Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA) who studied the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic) in Renaissance education.

Over the years, I took five courses from Ong at SLU, starting in the fall semester of 1964. As a young English major in 1964, taking from him an upper-division course that English majors were required to take from one professor or another who taught it, I was impressed with him and with much of what he had to say, which prompted me to undertake further independent reading of his publications and certain other publications he had mentioned.

My interest in Ong's thought eventually culminated in my book about his life and work, Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, 2nd ed. (2015; 1st ed., 2000).

Now, the Jesuit order, known formally as the Society of Jesus, was founded by the Spanish Renaissance nobleman and soldier St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) and some of his younger classmates at the University of Paris. Certain early Jesuits became famous missionaries (e.g., St. Francis Xavier [1506-1552]). But a far larger contingent of early Jesuits devoted themselves to being Renaissance educators in Latin, the international lingua franca at the time.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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