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Picking up on cultural context

A came across this fascinating video about The Globe Theater’s attempts to perform some of Shakespeare’s plays in the original dialects. (Just a head’s up if you have little ones about: There are some bawdy jokes that are discussed–evident in the original that have been lost as dialects change.)

Recently, I listened to the Teaching Company’s Great Course on The Iliad. One of the things that Prof. Elizabeth Vandiver pointed out was some of the things that don’t translate — things that don’t change the heart of the story, but added layers and increased the beauty of the story for the original reader.  And it’s true of culture as well as language. There are nuances and allusions that the original audience picked up on that we only get after considerable education about that culture — and some things that everyone misses because they are lost to time.

Even the experience itself was different, changing the art. For example, the original theater goers saw Shakespeare’s work performed in the middle of the afternoon. That meant that the actors could look directly at the audience, which gave the monologues a completely feel. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is markedly different spoken into the aether versus addressed to an audience. In fact, one could argue that the “mono” in the term “monologue” doesn’t even apply, as the audience becomes part of the actor’s performance.

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Of course, that’s obvious to us when we’re looking at literature or art from hundreds (or thousands) of years ago. It’s less obvious when we’re looking at art from the recent past or even from cultures that don’t seem like different cultures. But even seemingly slight differences in understanding or worldview can impact how we experience art. I need to do a better job of asking what the author or artist is trying to say, what assumptions he makes because of his experience and culture, and how that might help me better understand his art.

How do you bridge the cultural gap when it comes to art and literature?

(I grabbed the Shakespeare video from the site 22 Words, which is always a source of fun, interesting, and thought-provoking posts.)

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