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.

10-Minute Meditations: The Chatter That Goes On In My Head

Yesterday, I lied about writing up the chatter that goes on in my head. No, yesterday’s post–the first of the ten-minute meditations I’m making myself do each day–is more like what comes out of my head when I focus on one thought and channel that train of thought onto the page. (It’s not particularly coherent, I know, but that’s what appears when I sit down and launch into written language.)

What goes on in my head is much more tiresome and repetitive. I think about all the things I need to do, or remember to do. Like cleaning the house. I ruminate on cleaning the house quite a bit–to the point where I feel like I’ve done something already, and then the next thing I know I look in that corner and the mess is still there and I’m convinced I’m a worthless schlub that’s incapable of taking care of a house.

You see the problem with this kind of process.

Just the other day, I had a five-minute stare-down with a silverfish I found on the bathroom door. (I myself was seated on the toilet.) Over and over, I thought to myself: I’m going to kill that thing. I’m so going to kill that thing. After I’m done sitting here, I’m going to get up and walk over and squish that little slip of hairy legs and antennae with a wad of toilet paper. I wanted to inscribe this on my memory like Hamlet scratching “avenge my father’s most foul murder” on the tablets of his mind. (Hah! See what I did there? Shakespeare Is Everywhere! SIE!!!)

But we all remember how well Hamlet’s tablet-scratching went. He says those lines at the end of Act 1, right after meeting the ghost of his father. “Remember me,” the ghost says before he disappears. And then Hamlet says, in essence, “By gum, I’ll remember!” Then he spends the rest of the play remembering, or goading himself to remember, or testing himself to see if his father’s injunction is worth remembering, or chastising himself for not remembering the right way.

This is how my mind works. Any task–cleaning the house, squishing a bug, even working on my writing–goes through this painstaking process. I am not spontaneous. I guess this is also why I loathe Hamlet so much: he reminds me too much of myself. Friggin’ Prince of Denmark.

And I think I’ve overrun my ten minutes by now. I’m not much of a clock-watcher, either, unless there’s something I must must must do, like pick up my kid from camp.

And that sentence at the top of the last paragraph? I rolled that over and over in my mind, trying to keep it there before I forgot it. That happens a lot with things I’m unwilling to forget.

Must write that down, must write that down.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Bard vs The Beach

This comes from a book Little Fickle has been reading: Mr. Sunny Is Funny!, by Dan Gutman. Note how Shakespeare is defined as the antithesis of everything fun about summer vacation:

That Shakespeare guy made no sense at all. The question isn’t to be or not to be. I’ll tell you what the question is. Do you want ice cream or cake? That is the question. Trick biking or skateboarding? That is the question. TV or video games? That is the question. Would it be better if a piano or an elephant fell on Andrea’s head? That is the question.

Andrea lined up her dumb books on a shelf in ABC order.

“Hey, maybe we can read together on the beach, Arlo!” Andrea said. “What did you bring for summer reading?”

Summer reading?! What is her problem? “Summer” and “reading” are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence. The only reading I brought was a comic book that I finished in the car. It was about a superhero named Mold Man who can turn his body into any shape. He’s cool. I bet Mold Man would kick Shakespeare’s butt.

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Mid-Life Crisis Edition

Okay, normally I try to be nice. I know that’s hard to believe, but really, truly, I try not to call out everyday working writers on awful, awful mistakes, judgments, and opinions and instead try to focus on writing that inspires me. I’d rather save the bitterness of my little existence for comic self-flagellation and find work to share that makes me see the world in a new way.

But really, Pamela Druckerman of the New York Times, I can’t let your article pass without speaking out.

Granted, I love listicles, especially Great Wisdom Listicles. I love listicles that are little essays unto themselves, that have a little meat to them and aren’t just the entertaining little fluff pieces most of them were meant to be (that is, lists of anecdotes with no evidence backing them up). And I further love listicles that are relevant to me. So I was all set to settle in and find out What I Would Learn in my 40s, according to a New York Times-affiliated writer, a writer who’s living out her 40s in freaking PARIS, no less, which is absolutely one of the outcomes I would have chosen for myself and my family had I the option of giving the Fates my list of Dream Destinies. (Inspector Spacetime is becoming an excellent chef, and Little Fickle and I love eating and relaxed lifestyles. I’m sure we Fickle-Spacetimes would have done great.)

So I start reading your article. It’s late at night. Things are going great. Then I get to this passage:

The existing literature treats the 40s as transitional. Victor Hugo supposedly called 40 “the old age of youth.” In Paris, it’s when waiters start calling you “Madame” without an ironic wink. The conventional wisdom is that you’re still reasonably young, but that everything is declining: health, fertility, the certainty that you will one day read “Hamlet” and know how to cook leeks.

Excuse me, Ms. Druckerman? Did you just say that, out of ALL the books that exist on the planet today, out of ALL the books that people are expected to read in their years of education and being well-read adults, you could actually picture a world in which your example New York Times reader who has made it to her 40s has never read Hamlet????!!!!

HAMLET??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

No, seriously, this was just a lapse, right? You were probably drowsy from your long day of consuming fine wine and coffee and cream-laden foods, and just meant to say “the certainty that you will one day read Anna Karenina,” isn’t that right? Because as a New York Times-affiliated writer, you surely know that the entire text for Hamlet only takes up about 350 pages of a paperback–which is about as long as the first two Harry Potter books, far less long than Game of Thrones (817 pages), and even less long than Gone Girl (422 pages). You surely know, too, that, since many of the lines of Hamlet are written in verse, the text is far less dense than a novel, and that even with the difficulties involved with understanding Elizabethan English, the average 18-year-old could likely read Hamlet in less than a week. You know that Hamlet has been the most esteemed book written by the most revered writer in the English language for at least 200 years, that bits of Hamlet have been included in English schoolbooks since the 18th century (check the contents of William Enfield’s The Speaker, published in 1774, that was meant to help students learn elocution, if you don’t believe me), that some of us readers of the New York Times have also read Hamlet far too many times to count. You know that the average citizen of the Western world often can’t go a day without bumping into some line or passage from Hamlet. (Hell, “To be or not to be” and its iterations alone must pop up in some god-awful huge percentage of modern advertising.) That said average citizen probably reads or hears a couple of pages of Hamlet every year based on chance encounters with pop culture.

You know all of these things, Ms. Druckerman, right?

Right???

And you really think that somewhere out there, there’s a New York Times reader who has somehow avoided reading Hamlet?

Dear God…

you’re not really saying, are you, that, as a New York Times-affiliated writer, you’ve

NEVER

read

Hamlet?

 

I…I’m not sure of anything anymore.

 

 

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