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.
Hey, all you Fickle Readers Who Are Also Writers! Do you like Shakespeare? Of course you do! Right now, I’m here to interrupt my regularly scheduled navel-gazing to tell you about the New Orleans Review and its special Shakespeare issue to be released in 2016, just in time to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. (Yes, it’s sort of a macabre thing to celebrate, but whatever.) Here’s what they’re looking for:
We welcome submissions that riff on, respond to, reimagine, or recast any of Shakespeare’s works. Submissions may be in any genre, including short fiction, poetry, image/text pieces, creative nonfiction, and scholarship.
Deadline is December 31, 2015, so that should give everyone plenty of time to brush up their Shakespeare-based projects or start new ones.
Am I going to submit to this? You bet your booty I am! I’ve been re-re-re-inspired. Deadlines and submission calls do that to a person. It’s easy to want to fulfill someone else’s desire.
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…
Comparisons are odious…
—Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 5
Dang! Who knew that one of my go-to pithy philosophical life hacks appeared in Shakespeare? I always thought this was an Emerson quote. Shows you what I know. Madame Almost-a-Doctor, me.
The February face–it sums up this ugly little stub of a month to a tee. (And the speaker of these lines isn’t even a flat-out evil character! Hooray for consequence-free context!)
Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?
–William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 5, Scene 4
(Of course, now that I’ve celebrated freedom from consequences, I’m sure to find out that the subtext of this passage is that Don Pedro likes to juggle puppies and eat raw goldfish, and didn’t I learn that in all my years of having my head up Shakespeare’s supremely significant ass? Just like how, in my excitement about Harper Lee’s new book, I didn’t anticipate that the publication might have been set up by Lee’s manipulative lawyer, who may have conned a senile Lee into signing over her first manuscript after her 103-year-old sister, who’d been protecting Lee’s literary legacy, died less than three months ago. Yes, the God of Stories gives, but the God of Painful Irony often loves dunking that gift in rancid mayonnaise and horse manure and seeing how long it takes you to start sobbing from the shame of it all…)
If any of you Fickle Readers out there follow me on Twitter (@msficklereader in case you’re wondering!), you know that I love retweeting quotes from the various Shakespeares I follow. Here’s a tweet that came up today:
I am able to endure much.
I looked at that and thought, Oh, baby, that’s me. When you have a chronic illness especially, you endure a hell of a lot. Achy muscles and joints. Painfully cold hands and feet. A brain that doesn’t want to function. Then, because one of my big issues with Shakespeare is how his words get pulled away from their contexts, I decided to look up where this particular Shakespeare found this little tidbit of wisdom. Sure enough, it came from a much less noble source: Jack Cade, the batshit-crazy and ultimately incompetent revolutionary depicted in Henry VI, Part 2. Have a look at Cade’s self-absorbed pomposity in the scene where the quote comes from. All the characters are being mocked through their own actions, and the guy who’s the biggest target is Cade. Minor characters Bevis and Holland poke holes in his grandiose demeanor in a Stephen Colbert-esque way: the men agree with Cade, but they’re also idiots, and everything they say in support of Cade makes him seem more delusional and pathetic than his overblown speech already does. Of course, there’s nothing about the speech, the words Cade says, that cues you into his lunacy. But Shakespeare’s audience would have known about Cade’s failed worker’s revolt against King Henry VI and so would have realized what an anarchist asshole he was being made out to be.
So, the quote above isn’t really championing those who suffer and survive. In context, Shakespeare’s saying something more along the lines of, “You, endure much? Yeah, whatever.”
Another fun fact: this is also the scene where Shakespeare’s famous quip, “let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from. Again, this isn’t meant to be taken at face value. Even though people back in Shakespeare’s day had as many Lawyers Suck! jokes as we do now, Shakespeare also seems to be saying, dudes, you of all people are going to need lawyers after this whole debacle is over.