Update on Male Mary Sues and the Great Shakesday Wrap-Up

Hey, all! Here’s today’s thrilling Miss Fickle Reader update:

Alert reader Feliza Casano pointed out this week that the male Mary Sue does, in fact, have a name already: Gary Stu. Thanks, Feliza! If not for you, I would have had to get my ass in gear and look it up myself! Another alert reader, the fine poet, editor, and scholar Courtney Bambrick, mentioned that she’d never heard of the Mary Sue character before reading the MFR post last week. Well, that’s because in poetic circles, Mary Sue/Gary Stu is better known as The Poet. Snerk! But seriously, according to info on the Internets (yes, this time I did manage to get my ass in gear), the term “Mary Sue” originated in genre fan fic, so I’m not surprised that an artist such as yourself, Courtney, would be unaware of it. Poets also tend to focus more on self-awareness and less on narrative and ego flattery. There might be poems out there that are pure, unadulterated, unironic writerly wish-fulfillment, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

In a side note, although the male Mary Sue term is taken, I’m officially trademarking the Mary OOOH! as the name for a female character designed to swoon over the fictionalized version of a male author. (Does the “ooh” look better in all-caps and with an exclamation point? I’m experimenting with format…) Thanks for reading, Feliza and Courtney!

Now, on to Shakespeare: Shakesday has come and gone, and we’re still cleaning up in the aftermath of the big party. I realize I haven’t posted anything more on Shakespeare since his official birthday, but in my defense, I’ve had other things on my mind, including Little Fickle’s birthday celebration. (ACK! He’s getting so old!) At this point, Mighty Tiny Bill seems to have completely written me off. He’s been giving me the cold shoulder for days now, and he’s also started trying to scrape an escape hole through his plastic overlay–ala the Shawshank Redemption–using his action figure quill pen. So far, I haven’t told him that plastic is never gonna cut through plastic. (I figure since he’s a genius, he’ll realize the futility of his plan before too long.) But I do have one last comment I should squeeze in before Shakesday is a hazy memory:

After witnessing the glut of Shakespeare worship (also known as “bardolatry,” in literary circles), you might be wondering why we celebrate Shakespeare so vigorously in the first place. Sure, his influence is immense–unless you completely cut yourself off from any sort of human interaction, you’re likely to trip over at least one allusion to the Bard. Sure, he wrote plays that are still performed, revised, adapted, analyzed, and picked over after 400+ years. But is he really so great? Isn’t Shakespeare now just a cultural obsession that feeds on itself? You could certainly see him that way, especially since his name alone carries so much value. No matter how much we parody or mock or include him in goofy ad campaigns, Shakespeare is high brow. I read somewhere once (don’t ask me where–it’s hidden in the fog of grad school past) that students are often pressured by parents or others to take at least one Shakespeare course in college because learning Shakespeare is a mark of the well educated. But is he worthy, at long last, of all our adulation, or is his preeminence just a myth we maintain because we’ve had it pounded into our brains for so long?

My take on the matter is, yeah, he’s worthy all right. Even though I tend to scoff at some people’s blind worship (especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Shakespeareans–boy, were they ever batsh!t crazy), Shakespeare is without question an astoundingly good writer. I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: most people don’t think about Shakespeare engaged in the act of writing. Many, many of us get caught up in that romantic image of the Elizabethan master, receiving plaudits and admiration with his finished book already in hand. Even Mighty Tiny Bill was designed around this concept–he may have a quill pen in his packaging, but his other accessory, the little book, is already bound, and I’m pretty sure during the Renaissance they didn’t sell blank parchment journals. So between the yet-to-be-inked quill pen and the completed magnum opus, we never get a vision of Shakespeare sitting down and composing. As a literary critic would say, he’s always already done, a genius before he writes a word, because we always see him as having written. (“Having written,” by the way, is the state in which the vast majority of writers would prefer to spend their days. The process of writing is brutal and ugly, whereas Having Written allows you to lean back, sip tequila, and wait for the admiration to roll in.) But of course, the truth of the matter is that he DID produce all those words and images and sayings that pop into our heads almost instinctively now. For one moment in time–a few months, maybe a couple of years–the most familiar books in the English language were actively being shaped on a bunch of manuscript pages that went through the usual trimming and padding and ebbing and flowing that all drafts go through. From all the research I’ve read, and from my first-hand experience actually writing things, the overall writing process is the same for everyone. Writing comes out bad and gets better. And yet, when Shakespeare went through the process, his end result was pure brilliance. I have no idea why that is, and the more I find out about the traces he left of his craft, the more blown away I am by his skill.

For example: did you ever wonder where Shakespeare got the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? They seem a bit out of place in a character list full of Horatios and Claudiuses and Ophelias, don’t they? A little less mythic and a little more family name? One day, I stumbled upon the answer to this question I’d never thought to ask before. I was assembling a syllabus for a graduate course I was teaching on Shakespeare and adaptation, and I needed a solid critical article that would go in-depth into Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What I found was John Freeman’s “Holding the Mirror Up to Mind’s Nature: Reading Rosencrantz ‘Beyond Absurdity’ ” which prefaces an analysis of Stoppard by giving some context about the existential angst that marked both the 1960s and the Renaissance. According to Freeman, along with the sense that time is “out of joint” in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows how history works to shut down not just civilizations but whole schools of thought. To support this idea, Freeman points out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were the names of ancestors that Tycho Brahe, famous astronomer and supporter of the earth-centered theory of the universe, included on the title page of his Epistolae. Brahe’s laboratory, in fact, was located across the sound from Elsinore, the Danish city where Hamlet takes place. By incorporating this minuscule but meaningful detail in his play, Shakespeare manages to link the problems of a decaying kingdom with “the agony and self-doubt of an astronomer who desperately tried to save the orderly and reassuring Ptolemaic system from the challenges offered by the emerging Copernican paradigm” (Freeman 21; see below for a link to the article). In other words, Shakespeare used a throwaway detail–the names of a couple of courtly sycophants–to make an allusion to Renaissance cosmology and social upheaval in a play about the loss of identity in a crumbling world.

Now THAT, my friends, is genius.

I say that in all honesty. I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, either. As soon as I read about how Shakespeare had plucked this near-microscopic convergence of place and subject matter, probably recognizable only to a small percentage of his audience, then added it to a play without comment or explanation, and thus expanded the intellectual landscape of his work, I was convinced that Shakespeare’s mind operated in depths of genius that, for most writers, are not only unknown but also unknowable. He worked in the midnight zone of invention, where minds usually collapse under the weight and density of ideas. Over and over again, Shakespeare makes the tiniest of writing elements have immense, perspective-changing ramifications. Surely if Shakespeare didn’t exist, humanity would never have thought that scholars could study a single author for hundreds of years and still manage to discover new terrain and have new insights on his work.

I consider that genius. I also consider it reason enough to celebrate.

Link to Freeman: http://www.pacificcollegiate.com/apps/download/kAYLjiImQDZdTBb99iNH0zxXni2Mey8rv2nYmaCnPbH2sbfZ.pdf/RAndGAbsurd.pdf

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