Hello once again from your friend Louis Butelli. The folks here at the Folger Production Diary have asked me to contribute some late summer entries before rehearsals begin for the Folger’s upcoming production of Julius Caesar: click here for more information on the production. In the meantime….
As a long-time Shakespeare practitioner – nearly 18 years, which gives me no small amount of pause – I want to speak about something that came up a few weeks ago.
You may have heard about NPR personality Ira Glass‘s “dust-up” on Twitter. The story goes something like this. This American Life host Glass attended the Public Theater’s production of King Lear, starring John Lithgow in Central Park. Soon thereafter, he tweeted the following:
“@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”
As you might expect, the internet blazed for the next several days with responses to Glass’s glib communiqué, with detractors and supporters alike weighing in.
I disagree with the reductive simplicity of the statement, “Shakespeare sucks”: Glass was probably just being cheeky. However, contained within Glass’s seemingly innocuous tweet is the uncomfortable truth that 21st century artistic culture requires a person to say that they enjoy Shakespeare, even if they don’t.
After calling Glass a “philistine,” The New Republic‘s Adam Kirsch said – in a rather more incendiary fashion – “Those who automatically praise Shakespeare because they know it is the right thing to say, or because they fear Glass-like ostracism if they say otherwise, may also be philistines.”
Is Kirsch correct on both counts? As a probable-philistine myself, I’m not qualified to judge anyone else’s tastes, however I understand his point.
Some of the fiercest criticism of Glass’s sentiment focused on the idea of Shakespeare being “relatable” and the radio host’s view of it as a requirement for good art. This notion inspired a scorching response from Rebecca Mead writing for The New Yorker.
Mead wrote, “To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation….Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends.”
Mead continued, “But to demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer…If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”
By implying that Glass wants Shakespeare to come to him rather than the other way around, Mead accuses of Glass of behaving “like a resentful millennial filling out a teacher evaluation.”
Here is where I start to simmer and stew.
To begin, Shakespeare definitely doesn’t “suck.” I don’t believe that Ira Glass thinks so, either. He has since attempted to walk back from his comment saying, “That was kind of an off-the-cuff thing to say that in the cold light of day, I’m not sure I can defend at all.”
Still, for me, critically speaking, the cat is now out of the bag, and I have a bit of discomfort with both sides of the discussion.
The work of William Shakespeare, a man born 450 years ago, is a cultural touchstone even today. His plays are still beloved, and still performed at festivals in every American state and all over the world. His work has been repurposed and served as inspiration for countless other works of art, including theater, film, novels, visual art, opera, ballet, and on and on. One need only visit the Folger Shakespeare Library to get a sense of just how much influence he has had.
It is this phenomenon, I believe, that leads to the 2014 notion that Shakespeare is sort of inevitable, inviolable and beyond criticism.
In the age of the internet, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in terms of the creation, distribution, and definition of art. It is easy to drop the phrase “Shakespeare sucks” into a tweet. If we take Mead’s accusation of Glass’s “millennial” nature to heart, this reaction is even less surprising. Youth culture is driven by taking aim at sacred cows. It is, and has always been, the nature of “hipsters” – at all points in our history – to rail against anything that smacks of “establishment.”
Many writers on this topic have pointed out that William Shakespeare has never wanted for critics, beginning when his contemporary and fellow poet Robert Greene (1558-1592) referred to him as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”
Admittedly, there were class issues at stake. Greene was an Oxford educated sophisticate. Still, the list of eminent critics through the centuries also includes John Dryden, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy and Voltaire, who referred to Shakespeare’s body of work as “an enormous dunghill.” “Shakespeare sucks,” indeed!
(I borrowed the above list from the Observer’s Killian Fox who you can read here.)
The point isn’t whether or not Shakespeare is worthy of his perceived cultural primacy. Productions and scholarly discussion of his work currently show no sign of stopping due to Ira Glass or Twitter.
Furthermore, I don’t think that there is a problem with youth culture. It is no more vain, no more solipsistic, and no more petulant than ever.
When I was a fiery young man, I was equally inspired by Arthur Rimbaud as I was by Jim Morrison. I myself wrote passionate screeds against the establishment that were probably as ham-handed, and considerably less succinct, than Shakespeare sucks.
If there is something that does concern me vis a vis the theater in general and Shakespeare in particular, it is that neither has found a way to integrate itself into the device-centric, plugged-in, easy self-sharing nature of our lives in 2014. This is not to say that our “theater lives” are better or worse than our “internet lives.” Nor is it to suggest that one is more highbrow or lowbrow than the other. Rather, it is to say that distinct perceptual barriers exist between the two – barriers which seem to grow exponentially every time we open Twitter on our phone, casually, we imagine, at dinner with our friends or family.
I don’t suggest that I have any quick and easy answer for knocking down these barriers. However, I worry about “relatability” in the arts as much as Mead does. I suspect that Kirsch may be right when he says, “not just Ira Glass, but all of us, are growing increasingly unused to the kind of abstraction that art requires.”
Still, as lovers of Shakespeare, I believe it is our responsibility to share our point of view with those who feel they “don’t like” Shakespeare. We must do this by studying, exploring, experimenting, and producing excellent stagings of Shakespeare, whether Ira Glass spray-paints some graffiti on a bust of Shakespeare or not.
I was recently invited to talk at a book club in New York City about Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In The World.
One patron, a 72 year old man with a broad, smiling face, and twinkling eyes full of warmth and intelligence, looked at me and said, “I gotta tell ya. I loved this book. I love the biographical story. But I still just don’t like the work. I don’t get it. I don’t feel like I know it.”
“I’ll bet you do know the work,” I said. “How about this. ‘A rose by any other name….”
“’Would smell as sweet,’” he said.
“’Friends, Romans, countrymen….’” I said.
“Lend me your ears,” he said.
“Ok. How about this. ‘To be or not to be….’”
And then an amazing thing happened. He blushed, lifted his glass of wine, closed his eyes, and recited the entirety of Hamlet’s soliloquy from memory. A hush fell over the room.
“Yeah, I guess I do know it,” he said. “But let me ask you this.” We all waited to see what he might say, after his wine-fueled Shakespearean possession. “Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, wasn’t he?”
The moment had passed.
We continued on to read aloud from The Merchant of Venice and to talk extensively about the portrayal of Judaism in Elizabethan literature before moving on to a heated discussion of the current situation in the Middle East.
In 2014, Shakespeare can still inspire a long, passionate conversation about politics, family, tribe, identity, ambition, guilt, fear, love, passion, desire, and many other aspects inherent in the human condition.
And because of that – Shakespeare doesn’t suck.
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