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.

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.

Throwback Thursday: Politics in 1982

I haven’t been posting a lot on this year’s election, mostly because I’m willfully ignoring it, mostly because the whole spectacle makes me queasy. I feel like ever since 2000, I’ve plunged myself in these roller-coaster elections and tried to influence the course of events with my willpower alone. Now the whole thing seems kind of a waste of time. I know who I’m voting for. No one and nothing will change my mind. And so, watching people I detest say detestable things in debate after debate seems masochistic in the extreme. I know a lot of people like the reality-show absurdity of the whole process, but I for one don’t enjoy watching horribly unqualified people bloviate and then having nightmarish imaginings of said people in the Oval Office. I don’t need the extra stress.

And yet sometimes, even when trying to avoid politics, I find a lovely moment in my fickle reading that manages to put everything in perspective. This passage comes from May Sarton’s journal At Seventy, written in 1982, and therefore does indeed bring with it that security that comes from knowing that everything that’s happening and is going to happen will do so from the safety of the past. You can be the judge as to how much things have changed since then:

There is never any depth in Reagan’s perceptions of the world. He behaves like an animated cartoon, wound up to perform futile gestures and careless witticisms. It made me feel sick when his reaction to the despair of blacks about this administration was to engineer the other day a visit to a middle-class black family who had been threatened five years ago by a burning cross. So the TV cameras were marshaled, and Reagan and Nancy were shown kissing the family one by one. He made a few remarks about “this sort of thing” not tolerable in a democracy. But what is not tolerable is such a cheap ploy. Meanwhile, forty-eight percent of young blacks are jobless, and the administration offers no help. The black family behaved with perfect dignity, but the whole false “scene” was shown up clearly for what it was, a public-relations media event, an insult to the black community, neglected and shoved under the rug.

Good Reading Break: Arthur Chu on Gun Violence

Hey, Fickle Readers! I know I’ve been away for a long time, and I have much to discuss. However, when I read this piece by Arthur Chu on Salon.com, I just had to take a moment to re-broadcast it. Chu does a fabulous job of arguing that mass shootings in the U.S. are fueled by a toxic sense of entitlement and a need for attention similar to the way Internet trolls bully people online. Not only does he back up this position with lots and lots of excellent articles and research, he weaves in a historical perspective on what you might call extreme trolling–acts of public violence that are meant to garner publicity for the criminal.

I feel like this article is tremendously important. It looks at the issues surrounding gun violence in a different way and doesn’t beg out of the discussion with the usual cop-out “the guy snapped” explanation.

I’m sending you a whole bottle of virtual tequila, Mr. Chu! This essay is excellent, excellent stuff. Well done!

And Now for Something Completely Different: An Opinion on Birth Control First Published in 1919

[H]usbands and wives have a right to use such rightful means for the limiting of the number of offspring as are conducive to the interests of all parties concerned–themselves, their circumstances, the born or unborn children, the state, the nation.

–H.W. Long, MD, Sane Sex Life & Sane Sex Living, Eugenics Publishing Co.

The Simpsons Called It: Historic Homes Edition

By the way, in the midst of the sadness and tragedy in the Eaton article on L’Wren Scott I posted the other day, did anyone notice something a little…creepy? Not as in morbid-creepy or tasteless-creepy, but creepy as in something we astute pop culturists on the Interwebs might have heard of before? Describing Scott’s relationship with Mick Jagger, Eaton writes:

Nobody has a cooler life and friends than Mick Jagger, who had plenty of time to trot the globe as the Stones really weren’t touring much. In the Loire Valley, [Scott] and Jagger, a history buff, would roll up strangers’ driveways, browsing stately homes.

Anybody catch that? Mick Jagger as a “history buff”? Spending his time looking at “stately homes”? Any fans of The Simpsons out there do a double-take when they read this?

Have a look at this run of dialogue from “Lisa’s Wedding,” which first appeared in 1996:

Hugh Parkfield (Mandy Patinkin): I can’t believe how much we have in common. We’re both studying the environment, we’re both utterly humorless about our vegetarianism, and we both love the Rolling Stones.
Lisa: Yes. Not for their music, but for their tireless efforts to preserve historic buildings.

Holy God, Simpsons writers! What sort of magic Portal of Futuristic Accuracy did you have in your clubhouse back in the 1990s???

Okay, maybe it wasn’t so accurate. Note the poster behind Lisa’s fiance, Hugh.

 

Good Beatle Break: Paul and Martha

If you haven’t started following @oldpicsarchive on Twitter, you should. It’s like a little time machine taking you on surprise visits back when the cultural zeitgeist didn’t include Kardashians.

There! Didn’t that do your spirit good?

(In case you didn’t know: the dog featured here with Paul McCartney is his old English sheepdog, Martha, for whom he wrote “Martha My Dear.” If you don’t know who Paul McCartney is, I’m afraid I must weep for your soul.)