Created for Necessity, Employed for Passion

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

Let's build a world. Explore what we believe by writing. In many ways my characters’ experiences with fate, destiny and free-will mirror my own. What is up to us and what isn’t? It’s one of the great questions of the human experience, I think. But no matter what is for us to control, we must own the identity. You’re a writer if you write. Period. Writing is a lovely way to spend one’s time. Enjoy it. And I hope you enjoy my writing here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Calling All Shakespeare Fans!

I had the extreme honor of talking with Professor Douglas Lanier--- Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare And Modern Popular Culture. It was an awesome chat and gave me so much to think about that I wanted to share it here with you all, too! Read a bit of our exchange below…pretty interesting stuff, huh?  I feel so lucky to be a part of such a dynamic that allowing me the opportunity to come in contact with such brilliant folks. 

You wrote a book called Shakespeare And Modern Popular Culture. Can you tell us what draws you to the topic? And why you think Shakespeare is still so relevant all these years later?

The genesis for the project was my experience as a college teacher of Shakespeare.  From the start, it was clear that I was encountering far more information and assumptions about Shakespeare than I typically encountered in my other literature classes.  What's more, students tended to be highly invested in those assumptions, far more than with the assumptions they have for other authors, even when I could relatively easily demonstrate that they might be problematic or incomplete or just plain wrong.  I began to wonder where those assumptions came from, why they had such power, whether they formed some kind of ideological belief system, whether those assumptions had a history, and other related questions.  From there I began to look to popular culture as one particularly powerful source (though certainly not the only one) of ideas about and images of Shakespeare, his life, his works and his cultural significance.  Popular culture is one place where bardophilia is forged, where Shakespeare is aligned with all kinds of ideas and values (the range of specific alignments is staggering!), but also where bardolatry, the impulse to resist worshiping Shakespeare, is equally at work. 

Myself, I don't believe that in and of himself, Shakespeare has relevance to us.  His works spring from a world and a worldview that is quite different from our own, and so I think it's marvelous in a way we often don't appreciate that his works survive at all (and some, we know, didn't).  Shakespeare is relevant to us because we are willing to do the interpretive and adaptational work to make him relevant.  Of course, this only pushes back the question a notch: Is there something in the works themselves--a vision of humankind, a timelessness or universality, a capacity to capture human nature in his characters, a level of artistic excellence, a particular kind of metaphorical suggestiveness or adaptational malleability--that makes Shakespeare reward our updating in a way that we aren't so rewarded by others playwrights?

However one thinks about the problem, it's also important to acknowledge that our attachment to Shakespeare comes with a history of prior cultural attachments to Shakespeare - we love him because prior generations loved him.

You raised a very interesting question: When does a work stop being Shakespeare? I find this particularly interesting on the subject of re-tellings. Can you speak a little bit about what your answer would be?

Almost every adaptation of Shakespeare implicitly poses the question, "is this Shakespeare?" and I think most adaptations offer an implicit answer.  Some adaptations stress that what is essentially Shakespearean is the language, and so they pay homage--through imitation or parody (and parody is a form of imitation)--to the Shakespearean texts we've inherited from the past.  That Shakespeare's language is the essence of Shakespeare is an article of faith among most modern scholars and many theater practitioners, but in reality there are other ways of thinking about where we might locate the essentially Shakespearean in Shakespeare. 

One might locate Shakespeare in particular character types, who need not speak using the word Shakespeare assigned them; Shakespeare himself was adapting character types he inherited from the theatrical and classical past. 

One might locate the essential Shakespeare in the particular narratives he tells, though this is tricky because Shakespeare himself inherited many of those plots from earlier writers. 

One might locate the essential Shakespeare in his characteristic themes and concerns--the possibility for cross-gender experience through cross-dressing, for example, or the personal interior lives of kings or playacting as a metaphor for life. 

Each adaptation, because of what it chooses to value from its Shakespearean source texts, poses an implicit answer to the question of when a work stops being Shakespeare.  And it has to be said that different ages have answered that question in different ways. 

With Shakespeare, it's important to remember that he was not a particularly original writer in the modern sense of "originality."  Shakespeare rarely wrote a story or created characters from scratch;  rather, he was a brilliant adaptor of other writers' works, pulling them together into new wholes, reshaping them for theatrical presentation, using them as a catalyst for linguistic, metaphorical and thematic invention. 

Themes like fate and destiny were not invented by Shakespeare, but there does seem to be something inherently Shakespearean in them…why do you think that is?

Shakespeare didn't invent the concept of destiny or fate, it's true.  This was a venerable theme from the classical period, and it was supplemented and complicated by Christian understandings of God's plan for the world ("providence") which medieval thinkers wrestled with.  In Shakespeare's own day, that issue was complicated even further by Protestant reconceptualizatioons of providence.  I think the theme was particularly potent for Shakespeare because in his day the notion that one's destiny was pre-established and inescapable (whether by God or some impersonal force) ran up against the very palpable new social mobility that he experienced in London, and also up against new ideas about man's capacity for self-determination. 

For a boy from a small village where everyone knew each other and where the possibilities for one's life must have seemed quite fixed, London must have seemed an incredible experience, a place where one might encounter peoples from all kinds of lands, classes, and creeds, and therefore a place where one encountered all kinds of possibilities for human lives. 

The tensions between ideas about fatedness and the human capacity for self-determination are, it seems to me, central to Shakespeare's outlook.  Romeo and Juliet is all about that tension - on the one hand, Romeo and Juliet's "star-cross'd" romance is doomed from the start by their social situation, and on the other, Romeo and Juliet refuse to allow their love to be determined or destroyed by their situation, even at the point of death. 

Finally, tell us: What’s your favorite play? 

This is clearly a trick question.  :)  My favorites change over time as I encounter new productions of them and see unforetold riches in them, but I have returned to three most often - A Midsummer Night's Dream , the first play I ever acted in;  Hamlet, the Richard Burton recording of which was the first to enthrall me;  and King Lear, a play one grows into understanding as one gets older.

Thank you so much, Douglas! 



1 comment:

  1. Fascinating interview--I definitely want to check out Dr. Lanier's work now.