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Literary Critic Braulio Fernández Compares Depictions Of History Across Spanish, English Classics

William Shakespeare's First Folio, behind glass at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Jessie Chapman
/
Wikimedia Commons
William Shakespeare's First Folio, behind glass at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Braulio Fernández’s literary journey began as a young child.

“I recall one afternoon when my dad came home and he gave me an issue of Robinson Crusoe, an illustrated issue hardback, and it was absolutely magic,” said Braulio Fernández, the director of the literature program at the University of the Andes in Santiago, Chile.

Growing up, Fernández was exposed to the typical Latin American literature of the time, but his studies of European literature through a British school and his British mother’s side of the family educated him beyond every other student. Instead of typical teenage rebellion, Fernández made waves by reading the most difficult pieces of writing.

“As everyone was reading Spanish literature or Latin-American literature, I feel [like a] rebel in having another interest,” Fernández said.  “Something cool maybe at 16 years old. ‘Well, I'm cool, you know? I'm cool. I read John Donne.’."

His love for literature continues into adult life, creating an astounding career. The European writers he read as children became the focus of his own work. Using knowledge of Latin American and European writings, Fernandez investigates the representations of freedom in theatre in the 16th and 17th centuries.

“The great revolution that writers as Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega in Spain or Marlowe, Shakespeare, Fletcher, in England, was to put everyday life over the stage,” Fernández said. “Not only kings, not only heroes, not only gods, but soldiers, prostitutes, rascals, pick-pockets, whatever, life - real life with tragedy and comedy altogether, and with the spectacle of liberty as the grand theme of those works.”

Bringing real life to the stage creates almost realistic representations of those time periods, forever captured in writing. Fernández, whose Ph.D. thesis compares historical plays of Calderón and Shakespeare, says taking these literary works as factual isn’t always logical.

“For example, in Calderon's, The Schism in England, at last Henry repents himself and calls crying for Catherine, "Please, give me back my wife." That's not history at all. So for these playwrights, as I told you, history is a raw material. And Shakespeare subverted history many times in Richard  III, in Henry IV, Henry V,” Fernández said. “As many scholars have said, in his histories, Shakespeare told us much about his time than of the time of the plot is not for historical purposes, but for representation of the, to say it simply, the common struggles of human life, the common challenges, tragedies, problems.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Braulio Fernandez, welcome to World Views.

BRAULIO FERNANDEZ: Thank you.

GRILLOT: So Braulio, you're a professor of literature at the University of the Andes in Santiago, Chile. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you into the field of literature, why you began to study literature, and, I know you're a writer too. Are all literature professors writers? Are we sometimes, yo   u know, just studying literature and sometimes writing? Tell me a little bit about the field. 

FERNANDEZWell, yes. I think that my love for literature began when I learned to read. Something goes on in me. I get absolutely amazed with this world of letters. I read everything that comes to my hands: butter papers, milk boxes, everything. And I recall one afternoon when my dad came home and he gave me an issue of Robinson Crusoe, an illustrated issue hardback, and it was absolutely magic. And from that day on, I didn't stop reading ‘til now. It's very difficult for me to explain. Maybe the most close explanation for me is that I found the way to join other worlds with the same admiration that sometimes you find in this real world. A kind of "Narnia wardrobe", where you can go there, live adventures, live another life. And then come back to your own real world, but you come back different, renewed in some way. Maybe it's a too poetic explanation, but I don't find another one.

GRILLOT: I think it's a perfect explanation: joining other worlds and literature being magical. I mean you've spent your career focusing on lots of different kinds of literature, you've done work focused on C.S. Lewis, and Shakespeare, and T.S. Elliott, and Tolkien even.  So you obviously have a wide range of interests in literature. But tell us a little bit about, maybe, Hispanic literature, Latin literature. I mean you live in Chile and work in Chile, so make some distinctions for us about literature in that part of the world versus literature in the United States or in Europe. 

FERNANDEZYou know, obviously as I started in a Chilean school. We read there all the tradition of Hispanic-American literature: Cervantes, Calderon, all Latin-American writers, pre and post boom. But as I attended a British school and my mother's family is a British family, maybe I think that since I was a little boy I had a special interest in English literature. Besides, as I told you, we used to read and study all our Hispanic literature tradition.  I don't know. Maybe I found there kind of a way of approaching the world, that for me was different than the way the Spanish writers do. Nevertheless, obviously I have a deep admiration for Cervantes, for example, and many writers of South America: Borges, Juan Rulfo, obviously, Neruda, my countryman. 

GRILLOT: But when you say a different approach, what do you mean? I mean, how would we understand it if we aren't experts in this area?

FERNANDEZ: I think that languages not only are different sign systems, they don't also be different linguistic articulations, but mostly they're different ways of understanding the world. Let me give you a very obvious example. We in Spanish, for the verb "to be" - two exceptions.  "To be" is ser or estar, “to be” and “being somewhere.” You in English do not have that distinction. "To be" is to be and to being somewhere at the same time. 

GRILLOT: Same word, different meaning.

FERNANDEZThat's a very simple example. I think languages always mean a different way to comprehend the world. I think it is not irrelevant then, for example, that there are languages where you have the verb at the end of the phrase and other languages where you have the verb at the middle of the phrase. So maybe that way of the English language apprehend the world, was for me more attractive. I don't know. 

GRILLOT: So is it just a language thing you think, or is there some kind of cultural representation that comes through with that that's not just the construction of the language and where you place verbs? How do you get the culture out of that?

FERNANDEZI went to a British school, you know. You used to read Shakespeare, and Chaucer, and John Donne and Keyes. All the classes were in English. The headmaster was English. We played rugby. We were beaten in the English manner. So obviously, my grandfather was English, I used to speak with him in English, though he wasn't a great lecturer. The literature is part of the culture of a country. And maybe, in my case, it was also a sign of rebellion I think. As everyone was reading Spanish literature or Latin-American literature, I feel rebel in having another interest, something cool maybe at 16 years old. "I'm cool," you know? "I'm cool. I read John Donne."

GRILLOT: You read Shakespeare. I mean, how cool can that be, right? So speaking of your work on Shakespeare, you talk about characters in Shakespeare investigating different ways in which freedom is represented. Tell us a little bit about that.

FERNANDEZ: It's a huge issue, but let me try to summarize. In the context of European literature and particularly European theater, what happens in the theater of the 16th and 17th century in Spain and England is that it occurs a great revolution concerning the classical ways of representing, the classical ways of performing, the classical ways of putting on the scene some traditional characters. This great revolution has to be with putting freedom on the scene. As you can recall, the characteristic of a classical tragedy: you have the myth of the stage, the will of the gods and the fate of man have struggled there, well everything now is what happens at last. The great revolution that writers as Calderon de la Barca, Lope De Vega in Spain or Marlowe, Shakespeare, Fletcher, in England was to put everyday life over the stage - not only kings, not only heroes, not only gods, but soldiers, prostitutes, rascals, pick-pockets, whatever, life - real life with tragedy and comedy altogether, and with the spectacle of liberty as the grand theme of those works. So that is what I think Shakespeare became the invention of the human. I mean, if I understood well, Howard Bloom, the invention of the modern human mind. For example, Sophocles was the invention of the human in the classical mentality. I think that could be a short explanation of this great revolution and in Spain as well.

GRILLOT: So it's also been said about these works that it has to do with the problems regarding rewriting history, so when you're connecting the project that Shakespeare and others that you've mentioned have about putting everyday life on stage, is this what you mean in terms of like rewriting the way in which we understand life or the way in which we understand history? That we're going to understand it from a different perspective. 

FERNANDEZ: I think that, as I said, just putting life on the stage. For example, in the case of the histories, I made my Ph. D thesis in studying a history play of Shakespeare in comparison with Calderon de la Barca. For these play writers, history is a pretext. They are not historians, they are poets. So history serves them as raw material. Actually, Shakespeare changes history at his own will permanently as Calderon also does. For example, in Calderon's, The Schism in England, at last Henry repents himself and calls crying for Catherine, "Please, give me back my wife." That's not history at all. So for these playwrights, as I told you, history is a raw material. And Shakespeare subverted history many times in Richard  III, in Henry IVHenry V. As many scholars have said, in his histories, Shakespeare told us much about his time than of the time of the plot is historically... 

GRILLOT: They're taking that historical material and making it relevant for today, rewriting it in the process. 

FERNANDEZ: But not for historical purposes, but for representation of the, to say it simply, the common struggles of human life, the common challenges, tragedies, problems. 

GRILLOT:  The fundamental thing here is, whether you're a playwright or a writer of literature, the way in which you use the past to help teach us lessons about today or the future. Well Braulio, thank you for sharing these thoughts with us today and making us all want to go grab a book and read. Thank you.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Bye bye.

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KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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