Now this is what I’m talking about when I say we ought to be kicking the Bard around on the anniversary of his death. Major kudos to Aryeh Cohen-Wade and an overflowing shot of virtual tequila for this gem that appeared in the New York Times last week:
According to one internet source, the word “academe” was invented (or first written down, depending on your perspective on what “word invention” may mean) by Shakespeare. Here’s a story from my own adventures in academe that demonstrates how investing such a vast quantity of cultural import in one author shuts out voices and depletes the quality of our art.
In this anecdote, the voice that got shut out was me. (That’s probably why I remember this moment so vividly. You can add “spiteful” to the list of all the awful things I am.) The year was 2001. I’d just started my PhD program, and the year before, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out in theaters.
Anyone remember Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet? No? Well, maybe you know it better as the Ethan Hawke Hamlet.
Yes, this version of Hamlet was all the rage, both in critical and academic circles. Rolling Stone called it “a visual knockout that sets the Bard’s words against striking images.” (One of the visual knockouts they mention: “to be or not to be” happens in a video store. Wow, that’ll never not be profound!) The New York Times calls the movie “voluptuous and rewarding,” claims it “makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you’ll ever see in a film” and that “Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare.” Okay then.
You get the idea, right, Fickle Readers? Almereyda’s Hamlet is the hottest Shakespearean shit ever to land on Hollywood. Curious, since Rotten Tomatoes now gives the film a 55% rating (which translates to “rotten”). Their Critical Consensus blurb sums up the movie as “stiff performances fail to produce any tension onscreen.” Pretty low marks for a new standard, huh?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still in 2001. Large populations of professional analysts of culture are peeing themselves in praise of this film. I can attest to the scholarly reception at the time because I remember discussing the film in one of the first courses I took in my PhD program. In fact, we had a special speaker that day to tell us about the many ingenious ways that Almereyda used the spectacle of consumerism to illuminate the emptiness of the corporate world. This speaker was especially fascinated by a moment when the ghost of Hamlet’s father walks through a corridor in a building and then seems to dissolve into a Pepsi machine (a shot that other critics have noted). She dissected the image enthusiastically, holding it up as innovative commentary on modern society. I thought it looked like product placement. And I said so, albeit in the form of what I thought was a diplomatic question: Product placement is everywhere in movies. How are we supposed to tell what’s a thoughtful aesthetic statement and what’s a somewhat sophisticated way of squeezing yet another ad into a film?
The woman must have thought I was an idiot. I’m not sure she really answered my question, either, as she brushed me off. She definitely didn’t look me in the eye. The expression on her face was reminiscent of someone trying not to notice a distant relation who came to a wedding in a see-through cocktail dress.
If you’re curious as to what the intelligentsia has had to say about Almereyda’s film, here is a PDF file on Brooklyn College’s web site that makes a similar case about all the brilliant bells and whistles Almereyda includes in the movie. I have no idea when this document was posted. I have no idea if any literature, film, or media scholars out there are still avidly watching this movie for its “visual energy,” its “use of mirrors, screens, windows, and natural reflective surfaces,” or the grave digger humming “All Along the Watchtower.” (I don’t have to comment on how no one in the TV industry or Hollywood ever uses that song, do I?) I’m guessing everyone has moved on. Especially when even watching bits of the film now is enough to give a person a full-on poseur headache.
But hey, it’s Shakespeare, right? All those ham-fistedly artsy video clips made with a Fisher Price Pixelvision camera must have been worthy of countless hours of study time. It’s an adaptation of Hamlet, by gum! That means no matter how wooden or god-awful the acting, we’re not going to acknowledge it because any unique little twist on Shakespeare’s vision should be slaveringly admired! Viva the Bard!!!
Granted, I’m not being entirely fair here to the fawning critics of 2000. Any film can fail to outlive its historical moment. No one at the time expected that video stores would be gone in ten years. Or that CGI and digital film technology would become so powerful and widely used that you couldn’t rely on the lasting influence of your knockout visuals. Still, it’s puzzling that droves of academic professionals and media critics would lavish such eloquent praise on what is a fairly mediocre, style-over-substance offering. Have these people no understanding of the basic elements of good filmmaking, you might ask? Have they no standards?
Of course they do. It’s just that when Shakespeare enters the picture, he always comes trailing a cloud of prestige. Many critics and academics have been trained to respond to the kind of cachet that a Shakespearean text adds to a work of art, be it film, novel, or theatrical performance. So engrained in our cultural perception is our belief in the prima face merit of Shakespeare that we can overlook countless original narratives by new or unknown artists so we can study the latest vaguely competent go-round with the melancholy Dane.
Don’t we, as writers and readers, deserve a teensy bit better after 400 years?
If you want to talk about it, I’ll be the one by the cash bar in the skimpy, red dress that barely covers my nipples.
Greetings, Fickle Readers! Yesterday I was telling you about my belief that all of us living writers (and readers, for that matter) should be smashing at the authoritarian edifice that this guy
has become, in honor of the 400th anniversary of his death on April 23rd. (If you didn’t catch my little rant yesterday, you can read it here.) Today, I’m wondering how many people I’ve convinced. I’m thinking that quite a few of you Fickle Followers are out there thinking, hmm, Miss Fickle Reader may have blown a gasket due to dementia or boredom. Because really, bashing on Shakespeare’s corpse? Aren’t there corpses out there more deserving of a desecrated grave?
First of all, you do realize I’m speaking metaphorically, right? I’m not talking about beating up this kind of ugly, clownish monument in the Stratford church that everyone hates already:
I’m calling for the wholesale foundation-shaking of a literature that tells us this little, bald Englishman is worth more cultural capital than thousands upon thousands of living writers. And I’m saying that this little, bald Englishman who died in 1616 is, in fact, controlling our culture from the grave. His work is so omnipresent in the English language that it’s virtually invisible.
That, my friends, is a scary thought. That a single composer of plays and poems can, with his words and ideas, influence societies 400 years and counting in the future–that represents an insane level of power almost too widespread to comprehend. Shakespeare is literally everywhere: in books, on TV, in the movies, online, on coffee mugs, posters, aprons, t-shirts, jewelry, curtains, flip-flops, umbrellas, water bottles, pillows, lunchboxes, stationery, underpants, teapots, coins, and written on people’s skin. And that’s just the stuff that was created now, with his words, his picture, or images from his plays deliberately used. There are far more phrases and sayings out there that were born in Shakespeare’s texts and have since passed into common parlance. Many of us may mouth his words and expressions without even knowing it.
I’ll bet you Fickle Readers out there read Shakespeare in passing at least once a day. I’m not even talking about the words he’s credited with inventing, which it turns out isn’t quite so many as once was thought. No, I’m thinking you read Shakespeare on the ads in the subway, in magazines, on shop signs and billboards that go sliding past the windows of whatever vehicle you’re traveling in. You listen to Shakespeare in podcasts, pop songs, and the news. You may even hear Shakespeare in conversation without registering his presence, as you move on to the next moment of your day (a phenomenon, by the way, known as “threshold amnesia“–not a concept or a phrase Shakespeare invented, but one that sounds positively Shakespearean nevertheless).
Anyway, I’m so confident that you will face Shakespeare’s text, in some form, at least once during the course of a normal day, that I’m challenging you out there to try to have a Shakespeareless day. Don’t go out of your way to read anything Shakespearean or related to the theater. Temporarily stop following any Shakespeare-bots on Twitter. (Am I the only one following Shakespeare-bots on Twitter. Oy.)
Then go about your business and keep a tally.
I dare you. I double-dog dare you to see how much Shakespeare you passively absorb in a day. Two days. A week.
Then see how you feel about the power this guy has over your life.
For a while now, I’ve been meaning to give a shout-out to the Pittsburgh Poetry Houses project. This experiment in community poetry, in which free poems are available from three adorable little mini-houses placed around Pittsburgh, makes me want to stand up and cheer. PPH also has its own web site where they post pieces that have already appeared on the street. This particular poem, “Translator,” was the first poem I clicked on at the site, and boy is it breathtaking. Seriously, I don’t quite know what to say about it apart from: read it. It’s gorgeous. Three cheers for the brilliant minds behind PPH, and brava to the talented and amazing Leah Mueller.
So here’s a confession, Fickle Readers: I’m not a good trend-setter. I like weird, random stuff. I go after knowledge and feel as though I’m digging up keys to the universe. Other people? Kinda just go about their business like I’m not around.
In terms of social media, I tend to be more of a re-tweeter than a self-promoter. I share things and spread things and then I find I’m being courted by all sorts of people who want their own publicity.
I’m not sure how that happened. Really, I’m one of those types (and there are many of us) who felt from a young age we were going to become best-selling superstar writers. I’ve worked hard on my writing for at least 35 years–maybe more–and no one knows who I am. This is the ugly truth of living your life as a hard-core, dream-filled writer. You write and you write. You submit your work on bended virtual knee and you get a two-line Rejecto-message back (or maybe not even that). You try your best to be community oriented and interested in other people’s writing passions, but when you start in with, “Hey, you know what I’m into right now?” you can feel energy levels sinking and enthusiasm dimming to politeness.
Or this could be projection. Or me being socially anxious. Or me sucking on my copious supply of sour grapes. Or any number of situations where I turn out to have read the room wrong. I’m infamous in my ability to get circumstances totally bass-ackwards. So if I’ve misunderstood the Internet, or stayed under my Chronically Ill/Parental/Old Person’s Rock [tm] for too long, I apologize in advance for the rant that is about to unfold. Which is…
Everyone knows that April 23rd of this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, right? Or, at least, the date we like to say he died, since it conveniently corresponds both to the day of his supposed birth and the feast day of St. George, who happens to be the patron saint of England. (I’m baffled that more people don’t mention this little coinkidink when they talk about the history of Shakespeare. I mean, Shakespeare, whose birth and death dates can only be estimated, just happens to emerge from the mists of history as coming into being AND ceasing to exist on St. George’s day? Almost like some serious Bardolaters were trying to suggest that said Shakespeare were, hmm, I don’t know…the patron saint of English literature? Retcon, anyone???)
(Sigh. It’s hard being a Shakespeare nerd…)
Anyway, everyone now knows that April 23rd is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Why, exactly, has hardly anyone in the writing community seemed to notice? I mean, the theater people are all over this, of course. In Los Angeles, they’re even having a “star-studded” affair that includes star stud Sir Patrick Stewart. (Ah, Sir Patrick Stewart. Long may he remain ageless.)
However, I have yet to see any great activities or statements from the writing community. This may be because I haven’t been doing my due diligence, but so far I have found that a grand total of one literary magazine, that being New Orleans Review, planned an issue commemorating the event. And now they don’t seem to be talking about that anymore, instead putting out a new call for submissions for a special issue dubbed “The African Literary Hustle.” This seems wonderfully apt–kind of a reverse Academy Award pattern, where they get the old white privilege out of the way so they can explore voices that ought to have been explored ages ago.
But back to old white privilege. Many of you Fickle Readers and Writers out there probably don’t realize how much Shakespeare permeates our culture. His words are virtually invisible to us, and we trip over them everywhere. (Like The Fault in Our Stars? Totally didn’t realize til today that that was more than a teen tearjerker. And I spent 12 years more or less immersed in bardology and bardography.) More to the point, dear Fickle Ones, he is the master template for the single, conquering genius that takes the literary world by storm and puts all other writers to shame. He is the icon for winner-take-all authorhood. Most of his personal history and virtually all of his private life and personality are lost to us now–he’s been dead 400 years, after all–but in the intervening centuries he’s been built up, appropriated, painted over, and worshiped to the point where the entire Western literary canon and mountains of elitism and intellectual snobbery have been foisted on to the shoulders of this guy:
So what have we writers done to combat the fact that this single individual writer has been dominating literary culture since long before we were all born? Like his work or not (and many readers and writers come up with their own Best Friend Shakespeare to combat the fact that he’s such a symbol of literary privilege), writers everywhere are beholden to this idea that only a select few writers get to reign supreme, that it’s totally fine for one Englishman to anchor our cultural response to literature and influence what gets labeled “literature” and what doesn’t.
So far in 2016, we’ve had one literary journal look at Shakespeare. The rest is silence.
See, to me, this year, when Shakespeare will be 400 years dead, is the perfect year to start tearing down some of these authoritarian structures and start questioning what it means to have this guy
as the patron saint of Literature. Many people have already been doing this work, of course, but it seems to me that this year is the perfect opportunity for even more writers to tackle Shakespeare head-on. We should be feasting on his remains, or what remains of his remains. We should be talking back to him, taking his image and his texts and ripping them apart, exploring what exists in the gaps between his words, and reworking those words to reflect what the writing world of 2016 is like. So many more people can read today than when Shakespeare was alive. So many more people are writing things down. Our literary culture can and should reflect that.
So today I’m calling on writers to start looking at this thing called Shakespeare and to see what you can do with it. Play. Experiment. Trash. Consume. And most importantly, produce what comes of your discoveries. Shakespeare is one author who is very, very dead. Time to see what we can make of him and leave off figuring out what he makes of us.