The Bard Is Dead 400 Years: Shakespeare and Academe

Too late, Will. Your curse already worked on me. I have no PhD. Now I get to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” on your bones.

 

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.

So deep.

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!!!

This guy would definitely approve.

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.

Throwback Thursday: Finishing the First Semester of My PhD Program

 

Journal entry (no date):

First semester PhD in English literature is over, plum-consarnit. I have nothing to do for 5 weeks besides think about my own thoughts, feelings, insights, etc. I can go Christmas shopping, I can send out my stories and think about this or that. I have a reading list to work on for next semester, but do I have to worry about it right now? Not really, no. It might be best to take those books home w/ me for Christmas so that my mom doesn’t catch me checking out the hippie books. All is well for a whole semester. Yay! Freedom! Let freedom ring, sing a song, sing a freedom song. Ugh, dear God, eighth grade choir. How far I have come since then. How I never thought I would finish, how I remember walking home on my final day, opening the gate to the backyard, realizing I would never have to go back to that terrible place. And I haven’t.

10-Minute Meditations: Getting Rid of Books

Today my friend–let’s call him Wikipedia Brown–and I sorted all of my old books into a pile to get rid of. And oh, what a tremendous pile it is. About 90% of the volumes I scrounged and scurried to get for my dissertation, both for my comprehensive exams (two reading lists that were required to contain about 100 titles apiece) and for my ill-fated dissertation. My exams I passed (although not without controversy). My dissertation I never finished.

These were books I desperately wanted to obtain, books that made me feel like a queen when I found them. I luxuriated in their bulk of pages, material unread and undiscovered, soon to go straight into my brain and make me–what? I have no idea now. I think when I went into the PhD program, I mistook being an information hoarder for being a scholar. Or maybe being a narcissist for being a researcher. Because now that those books no longer serve a purpose (most of my primary sources long ago passed into the public domain, and nowadays that means I can get them for free, chock-full of typos and bad formatting but instantly accessible nonetheless), I couldn’t be happier to throw them in a giant pile and cart them out of my house. One time I thought I might do something creative with them, like write found poetry from each book that was meaningful to me in my program. Then as I looked at each title, I realized how nonessential most of these volumes were to my life.

I have no idea how I could have thought I wanted that PhD. I have no idea how I worked on it for twelve years.

The Fickle Bottom: Love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

From her excellent blog, The View from Sari’s World:

We know this play is about the fickle nature of love. Shakespeare seems to be lecturing his audience on the frailty of love and just how easy it is to transfer one’s emotions from lover to lover. On a deeper level, we are reminded that over the course of our lives we can be different people to different lovers, and vice versa; what attracts us or makes us attractive to others can change over time. For some reason this train of thought led me to Bottom. He too wants to be several players on this world’s stage, and Shakespeare lets him. Bottom is our fool, a dreamy lover, a wise man, and would be troubadour.  Bottom’s antics mirror that of the over all plot. Like the lovers he is fickle and easily distracted by the next thing. Who he is and what he wants depends on whom he is with.

–Sari Nichols, “A midsummer night’s dream, Bottom style

Things I’m Going to Hell For: Not Celebrating Shakespeare’s Birthday

“[…]”

Okay, look Bill, I completely know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. I’ve been neglecting you these days. I’ve had my own work and life and neuroses on my mind, and I’ve been ignoring you and disrespecting your role as the original inspiration for this blog.

“[…]”

But in all fairness to me, I think I deserve a little self-focus from time to time. I mean, how many hundreds of blogs, scholarly studies, movies, TV shows, theater productions, spinoff comics, Sparknotes pages, plagiarized student essays, and ads are out there devoted to you? Not to mention the entire Western canon that’s built on your work and your legend. I only have this weensy little space on the Internet to promote myself. You get what I’m saying?

“[…]”

Okay, I know you personally are stuck on my shelf in your Original Packaging, and I’m out here living my life. But lives are more important than plastic. Seriously. Plus, you really shouldn’t be giving the Icy Stare of Doom to someone who can turn you around and make you face her Complete Prisoner DVD set for the next fifteen years.

“[…]”

This year’s an off-year anyway, right? We’re sandwiched in between the 450th year of your birth and the 400th year of your death. This year’s April 23rd was a day of rest and reflection, a time to meditate wordlessly on your greatness before we gear up for the next big cultural shebang. Plus, did you see that awesome comic that Mya Gosling posted on Good Tickle Brain? The one where she compares “Game of Thrones” to your history plays? That was SO funny and spot-on, wasn’t it? And I totally retweeted that! So in a way, I DID lift a finger to celebrate your birthday, didn’t I? My mousepad went click, and everyone who looks at my Twitter feed if they happen across my blog would see in that instant that I heart Shakespeare!!!

 

 

“[…]”

Fine. You’re right. I suck. I totally knew it was your birthday and I let it slip my mind. You can call me all the names you like. Here, I’ll get you started. I’ll consult the Shakespeare Insult Generator I got for Christmas: I’m an artless, beslubbering, greasy, barren-spirited, eye-offending, lisping, lumpish, sodden-witted, wanton, witless measle. Feel better now?

“[…]”

Sorry, Fickle Readers. This might take a while…

 

 

 

The Fickle Nature of Values

The reliability and reproducibility of science are under scrutiny. However, a major cause of this lack of repeatability is not being considered: the wide sample-to-sample variability in the P value. We explain why P is fickle to discourage the ill-informed practice of interpreting analyses based predominantly on this statistic.

–Lewis G. Halsey, et. al., “The fickle value generates irreproducible results,” Nature Methods 12 (2015): 179-85

Found Poem #3: The Great Moon Hoax in a Blender

Yup, I’d definitely say I’m on a roll now. Just finished two more of the PoMoSco assignments. The first is going to take some technical finagling to put online. The second is all online, which allows me to keep my butt firmly planted on my couch.

So here are the fruits of my efforts: a poem based on the first few paragraphs of what became the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. This is a little known yet highly entertaining journalistic prank in which the New York Sun published a series of articles claiming that a famous British astronomer had discovered life on the moon. Frankly, I have yet to delve into this piece successfully–the prose is old-timey and academic and as such is thick as cement. Which is probably why it was so much fun putting these passages through the Lazarus Corporations’ Text-Mixing Desk, a lovely internet deelie that rearranges the words of any chunk of prose you can paste into its text window. The excerpt I used from the Sun didn’t change much in terms of readability (at least for me), but the exercise itself did show how pompous diction sort of becomes an end in itself. You start following these enormous periodic sentences because your brain thinks there’s going to be some sort of gigantic, meaningful payoff at the end when really you’re chasing wave after wave of vague big-picture concepts. A familiar experience if you’ve ever spent any time binge-reading nineteenth-century novels (or criticism of those novels, in which case you’re probably even more traumatized).

Here’s hoping my humble poem makes a teensy bit of sense. I wanted it to reflect the original text on a thematic level, especially since the mixing process left big chunks of original wording which I promptly ripped off. (But I sourced the whole thing at the end, so that makes it okay! Right?) Anyway, enjoy!