The Bard Is Dead 400 Years: How Many of His Lines Will You Hear Today?

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:

 

Clearly this was a man who did not expect to get posthumously famous.

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.

The Bard Is Dead 400 Years: Where Are the Writers?

 

Truer words were probably spoken by someone else (but none louder than by Shakespeare).

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:

Long may his nondescript features reign.

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.

Women Covering the Beatles: Norah Jones

So two years ago, there was a concert called GeorgeFest in Hollywood. Well crap, why didn’t anyone tell me???

I just discovered the live album of the concert, which is amazing and surprising. (Conan O’Brien singing “Old Brown Shoe has to be one of the most surreal yet thoroughly fun musical post-Beatle experiences out there.) And there’s this breathtaking cover of Norah Jones singing “Something.” I’m speechless. And, of course, my initial reaction was, “Wow! How great is it that they managed to dig up Norah Jones to do this concert! Haven’t heard from her in a while.” Then, in the next millisecond of brain function, “Oh right. She’s Ravi Shankar’s daughter.”

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.

In Excellent Company: I Get Published in matchbook

Hey, Fickle Readers! Just thought I’d share with you that one of my pieces is featured this week on matchbook, a lovely flash fiction journal that posts one story at a time along with authors’ notes about how that story came to be.

I’m particularly honored by this publication because I’m in such amazing company. The wonderfully talented and remarkable Annabel Banks and Megan Giddings both have stories in matchbook. There are many other beautiful pieces in the archives, so if you haven’t already I personally invite you to go there and explore. It’s a marvelous venue for very short fiction.

[UPDATED]The One Year Anniversary of Jan Hooks’s Death: She’s Still Funny

UPDATE: Astute reader Elizabeth points out that Kevin Nealon confirmed that Hooks had cancer in a December 2014 Howard Stern interview (see the link in the comment below). Nealon and Stern also discuss how Hooks moved out of the city after 9/11, and how Hooks had recently gotten a laptop before her death (Stern sort of fishes around, asking whether Hooks was “off the grid” in her final years.) All information I’ve never heard before, and all “tantalizing,” as Nealon might say. (He uses the word over and over in reference to his friendship with Hooks that turned into a relationship and then back into a friendship. I’m not quite sure what Nealon meant by it. Either he was trying to put off Stern’s more probing questions or he kind of doesn’t know what “tantalizing” means. You readers can have a listen and see what you think.)

Thanks for the heads up, Elizabeth!

 

Hey, Fickle Readers! A year ago today, the great Jan Hooks passed away at the age of 57. A year ago tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the post I wrote about the loss of this wonderful yet underrated actress. To this day, there’s still no official word on what she died of. The only article online that mentions her cause of death is from the Daily Mail, and they got their information from random neighbors and the head of the co-op building where she lived. No go-getting milennial journalists have gone out and tracked down Hooks’s story. As far as I can tell, no one has even done a retrospective of her life, although a few of us, like blogger Little Kicks Dance and Austin (who contributed a guest post to my site), have been cobbling together what pieces we can find online and elsewhere. Mostly, you can find stories about her in interviews and biographies of fellow actors and friends. It’s kind of a shame, though. She really ought to have her own corner in the pantheon of modern actresses and comedians. We shouldn’t have to go scrounging and filling in the gaps to know who she was.

One thing we know for sure: she was really damn funny. Today, I found yet another SNL sketch–one I don’t think I ever saw before–of her performing as Bette Davis’s living will. Not only is this a nicely preserved portion of the late 20th century (Phil Hartman, who plays Davis’s son, acts shocked when he hears he’s going to “see” his mother speaking to them), it’s another fine example of Hooks’s over-the-top kookiness. She never stops with one or two gags–she always pushes herself to come up with something new. Also, it seems like she does the fast-forward noises on the VCR herself. Really goofy fun.

Above is a picture of Hooks as Davis. The link to the video is here. Enjoy!