Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Without Shakespeare Without Tears

It's been a remarkably Shakespeareless summer here. I haven't noticed any local productions and we haven't made it up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There was nothing on my recent visit to Pittsburgh, where I used to enjoy attending the Shakespeare festival at the University of Pittsburgh, now abandoned.

But going to Shakespeare is more dangerous these days anyway. The fashion to transpose the plays to dubious times and places shows no signs of waning. Jorge Luis Borges (in his story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote") called such transpositions "useless carnivals" yielding only "the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or are different."

The postmodern fetish for literary mashups goes on unabated, along with the attempt to extend and exploit classic works to take advantage of their brand names. Even poor Jane Austen has generated stories that cannibalize hers, some that overtly mock the author's writing while sucking its blood.

And that's the problem. The richness and power of Austen's or especially Shakespeare's works can inspire fascinating new works. Shakespeare after all was so inspired by his predecessors. But so many are simultaneously acts of cannibalism and oversimplification, exploiting an audience anxiety that they should know these texts but haven't bothered to explore them. They want the plays made simple enough so that they can feel superior to them.

What I did see this summer was an article in Bookmark Magazine called "Reviving the Bard" which begins: "We're certain that all of you haven't read Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Jane Austen or Ayn Rand. But we're sure that, sometime in your life, you have sampled William Shakespeare."

There are so many things wrong with that first sentence that it's hard to know where to begin. It's obviously false as stated, because it isn't true that "all of you" haven't read these authors. Some of us have. I'm guessing she meant something on the order of "not everyone has read..." Then she caps her short list of three classic novelists with Ayn Rand (to balance male and female writers, I suppose) who has at best a cult following, and no one else would put her in the same league as the others.

The article describes several novels and a play that use themes from various Shakespeare plays to various extents. Some sound interesting, some depressingly banal. But they have nothing to do with "reviving" Shakespeare. There are ways of doing the plays that offer new meanings and experiences, which revive the contemporary audience. But essentially it's not Shakespeare who needs revived. I'm reminded of something Gabriel Garcia Marquez said in an interview: Some say the novel is dead. But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead.

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