I am taking a break from expounding my LIFE PHILOSOPHY to talk about some other things, as a kind of intellectual palate-cleanser. Today’s subject on which I will now go on at length, pulled randomly from the heaps of garbage that I read every day, is this article by Colin McEnroe over at Salon.
For whatever reason, I find I’m always more exercised by running into junk like this at sites I read regularly, as opposed to sites like the New Yorker, where I only once in a while check-in. It seems to me that not only is the thing itself wrong, but that it’s also a kind of betrayal that they published it in the first place — not necessarily because I don’t agree with it (though, I’ll be honest here — as we all should strive for honesty in every one of our doings — that’s probably a big part of it), but because it seems like the kind of thing an editor should have looked at and said, “Nope, too dumb. Send it back.”
(Well, I know, it’s Salon, obviously that wasn’t going to happen, come on.)
Anyway, the piece is for the most part some fussy hand-wringing about Kids Today, and I think that all articles about Kids Today should be answered not necessarily due to their merits, but just for the sake of having the counter-argument exist, in the hopes that this generation will, at long last, be the generation that beats back the idea of Kids Today, if not forever, at least for now, a momentary peace in a world constantly under threat.
It’s mostly fussiness, but it takes at its heart Ira Glass’s apparent disinterest in Shakespeare: “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks?” And then seeks to take him to task on the grounds that Shakespeare self-evidently does NOT suck, and Ira Glass is somehow representative of a generation of increasingly-stupid children who don’t seem to realize that.
Before I get into it, let me just be clear: I like Shakespeare, as a reader, as an actor, and as a speaker of English. I’m also GOOD at Shakespeare; ask anyone, I’ve got a knack for this kind of stuff. If I was willing to live a little more in poverty, I could probably work consistently just doing Shakespeare. Shakespeare often speaks to me in a way that I find deeply intuitive and affecting. I have, in other words, a vested interest in seeing Shakespeare maintain his position as the most important playwright in the English language, and in seeing all of us remain idolators to his genius.
What IS meant by “Relatability”?
Glass is taken to task for declaring that Lear isn’t relatable, and that task-taking comes typically in two forms: the first is something along the lines of “Shakespeare tells us profound and universal truths about the human condition”, a particularly vile canard that I’ll get to later; the second is usually, “You just want things to be easy, because you’re lazy [and a milennial]!” It’s the second that I want to address first. Here’s McEnroe:
“What is meant by “relatable”? “House of Cards” is basically “Richard III,” right down to the trope of the villain addressing the audience; but it’s relatable because it’s not period or linguistically complex or otherwise difficult. Relatable means easy to digest. I worry about our drift toward idiocracy. I worry about a dystopian and stupid future in which there is nobody willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting except four people hiding in the offices of the New York Review of Books.”
A clever bit of elision, here, equating “not finding anything meaningful about Richard III” with “incapable of intellectual heavy-lifting.” Because of course Richard III ought to be meaningful to us; who DOESN’T find meaning in the story of a 15th century prince murdering his way to the top of an unstable monarchy? Surely, understanding this story is the greatest use of our respective intellects.
Challenge, then. “House of Cards” is “basically” Richard III in the same sense that Richard III is “basically” history — that is, it isn’t. Well, they have a passing resemblance to each other, maybe they’d recognize each other if they met in the deli or something, but I don’t think “House of Cards” is going to run up and embrace Richard has his long-lost Antipholus.
(As an aside, “trope” in this case I think means “convention”, and it should be noted that not only is “direct address” not unique to Richard III, it’s not unique to Shakespeare, either, and was actually the standard of theater for all of human history except for the brief period in the 20th century when Colin McEnroe grew up; of all the elements of “House of Cards” that resemble Richard III, I’d be as eager to use that as an identifier as “They both have guys named ‘Edward’ in them.”)
But let’s say that “House of Cards” IS basically Richard III, why should it be so much more relatable?
Well, could it be that “House of Cards” doesn’t require a familiarity with a five-hundred year old war for succession over the crown of a completely irrelevant modern monarchy? I mean seriously, the English barely care about who their king is these days, I’m not sure why I or anyone else ought to be interested in the verifiable lies that Shakespeare made up about how it got that way. (Game of Thrones actually maybe more closely resembles the War of the Roses — “Lannister” and “Stark” actually sound a bit like “Lancaster” and “York”, which puts it about as close as the “guys named Edward” standard requires — but at least Game of Thrones explains a little bit about what that war is and why we should care about it.)
Could it be that relatability maybe doesn’t mean “easy to digest” or “not linguistically complex”, but actually something more like, “about things that I have some direct interest in?”
McEnroe points out that “House of Cards” is less linguistically-complex, and of course this is one of the reasons why we should all move Shakespeare immediately to the top of our “desert-island reading lists” — that the language is so beautiful, so extraordinary and look, I’m not denying that there’s some great language in Shakespeare. No argument there. Nor am I denying that Shakespeare was the source of many of our modern idioms, or the first recorded instance of many of our modern words.
But one of the things that Shakespeare always gets admiration for is his use of dialect — of technical terms used by sailors and laywers and fencers, of a colloquial vocabulary that showed how cosmopolitan his life was. So how, if you’ll pardon my asking, how exactly is it that the pinnacle of our modern use of language is a four-century old lexicon whose author went out of his way to make as modern as possible?
What OTHER author would we admire precisely because his language is so archaic that it’s almost completely removed from a modern frame of reference? Shakespeare didn’t try to write to his audience using Chaucer, for fuck’s sake. (Though Chaucer was only about a century and a half behind Shakespeare — our idolizing Shakespeare’s lexicon is more like Shakespeare idolizing…Christ, I don’t even know; Beowulf, I guess.)
How strange, then, that we’ll deride “House of Cards” for being too easy to digest for precisely the very same reason that we mount a bust of Shakespeare on a pedastal.
That’s not even the half of it, though.
The Divine Right
Shakespeare’s frame of reference is so far removed from ours that the differences often become invisible. “House of Cards” is about a minor congressmen’s manipulation of the machinery of politics as part of a personal vendetta against those whom he feels slighted him (oh, when you put it like that, it sounds a lot more like Othello, doesn it?); Richard III is about a desperate and ambitious prince, trying to seize and hold a throne that doesn’t belong to him.
A key difference, that “doesn’t belong to him” part — foundational to understanding Richard III (and to the War of the Roses cycle in general) is that there IS a foreordained outcome, there IS a correct and proper king, and Richard isn’t it. He is, like everyone else who sat on the throne since Henry Bolingbroke stole it from Richard II, a usurper, and is in violation of God and Nature’s law. Blood war and conflict are inevitable, because even if Richard III were a good king, he’s still not the true king, and that means he can’t keep the throne. (Incidentally, this is exactly the premise of Henry V — the play resides in the tension between the fact that Henry V is a great king, but still not the right king, and thus his reign will end in tears.)
This idea of “true kingship” is actually essential to a lot of Shakespeare — Julius Caesar isn’t a tragedy about the fall of the Republic, it’s a tragedy about the fact that Julius Caesar would have been the best emperor you guys, oh man, so great; Macbeth isn’t about an ambitious man whose reach exceeds his grasp, or about how a conniving wife can corrupt a noble heart, or how the horrors of war can desensitize us to cruelty, it’s about a man struggling bootlessly against an unchangebale and immutable fate. Even Hamlet, often described as a play about what happens to man when all the orders of the world are broken down, relies very heavily on the audience having a clear understanding of that social and natural first for its dramatic tension.
Trying to get American audiences to understand this is a nightmare, because Americans do not understand anything about monarchy. It might be easier to get modern Englishpersons to understand it, I don’t know; I’m sure it was easier to get Elizabethan audiences to understand it, because it was what literally every one of their fucking plays was about.
The thing about relatability is that this idea, which is so essential to so much of Shakespeare’s work, usually zips by so high over our heads that we don’t even notice that we’ve missed it. Why is it, then, that we should look at this work as key to understanding ourselves, when parts of it are so alien as to actually be invisible? (Nevermind what else might be going on in there that we can’t even see.)
Another important note: Shakespeare was wrong about that. There is no divine fate when it comes to rulership, there is no such thing as a “true” king, or a divinely-endorsed one. That is incorrect! It is not only foreign to our experience, it is actually a complete misreading of the actual world that we live in and, importantly, of the world that Shakespeare lived in.
Is it possible that when Ira Glass says he wants something more relatable than Shakespeare, what he’s really talking about is wanting stories that are a superior reflection of the actual human world than Shakespeare ever managed? Why should it be so extraordinary that I say something like, “Shakespeare isn’t relatable,” and by that I mean, “Shakespeare often, despite his linguistic agility, isn’t talking about things that I perceive as part of or essential to my own experience?”
The Invention of the Human
Of course we’ll often say that you have to understand OTHER experiences to be fully human, and furthermore that Shakespeare is foundational to the Western Canon, and his ideas and perspectives have guided generations of authors since. But if that’s the case, then it seems to me that Shakespeare’s perspective is the one that needs the least elaboration, since we’ve basically been swimming in it since the mid 18th century.
(Oh, has anyone mentioned that before? That Shakespeare didn’t become foundational to the Western Canon as part of an organic process of natural selection, but by a conscious effort in the 1700s among scholars in England to seat him at the center of our understanding of literature, and that the reason that so many later writers were influenced by him is because they grew up being taught how influential he was? I feel like someone ought to mention that.)
Here’s Ken Ludwig (a notably successful author of some notably inconsequential plays) on twitter:
“Shakespeare invented us, as Bloom says. You just have to spend enough time with him to crack the code.”
I pick on Ludwig because he’s the guy who turned up in my twitter feed, but of course its Harold Bloom who insists that Shakespeare invented us. How extraordinary that ten thousand years of human history couldn’t manage it, that whole nations, full of language and culture and their own canons couldn’t figure it out, how extraordinary that in the two and a half centuries since Shakespeare was canonized, no one has found anything new or different to say about the subject of our shared humanity.
Well, I mean, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Chinese and their two-thousand year literary tradition invented some other kind of human that we won’t concern ourselves with for the moment. And let’s simlarly assume that the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples of North and South America achieved the invention of some third kind, also not relevant. Likewise the African nations, the cultures of India and Persia and oh, you know, everywhere else. These bodies of cultural canon invented A human, but not the SAME human that Shakespeare managed to discover.
Let’s, for the purposes of this argument, JUST look at the ideas that we’ve started to think and care about since Shakespeare’s time. Let’s look at the things that Shakespeare wasn’t really interested in, and didn’t have much to say about in a modern context: Democracy. Imperialism. Colonialism. Labour and capital. Intersectionality. Homosexuality. Racism. If you want to tell me that Othello had something interesting to say about the organization of societies into a systemically-oppressive system based on a concept that wasn’t even invented in its modern sense until the 18th century, then I will politely suggest not that Othello doesn’t understand racism, but that maybe you don’t. Feminism. I know there’s readings of Taming of the Shrew that insist on it actually being some kind of subversive, ironic feminist work, if you take “ironic” to mean “exactly the opposite of what it says and means”, so that instead of it being a play about a man who hilariously tortures a woman into learning her place in society it’s really a play about a man who hilariously “tortures” a woman into “learning” her “place in society”, but seriously, go home. We don’t talk about any one of Shakespeare’s other plays that way, and it’s time that we, as a culture here in the 21st century acknowledged the fact that, for however good the puns are, Taming of the Shrew is some misogynist shit.
You know what Shakespeare doesn’t talk about in its sociological sense? Erasure. That’s when the non-dominant perspectives in a culture are systematically, either purposefully or through a kind of malicious neglect, removed from the conversation within that culture. I realize it’s fashionable to dismiss criticism of Shakespeare as being representative primarily of the interests of bourgeois heterosexual white men as unnecessarily “PC”, but isn’t it an astonishing coincidence that the only writer you need to understand humanity in a culture dominated by bourgeois heterosexual white men to the exclusion of all other perspectives is…a bourgeois heterosexual white man.
What I’m suggesing here is that, while it’s often the case that people who aren’t worshipful idolators of Shakespeare are derided as having limited perspectives and an inability to see past their own little parochial corner of the world, maybe the reason that fewer and fewer people are interested in Shakespeare these days isn’t because our perspectives are so limited, but because Shakespeare’s is.
Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker writes about the Scourge of Relatability, and of course I can’t read the New Yorker here at work, so I have no idea what she says. I encourage you to read it, though, it’s probably very good, it has probably addressed and refuted all of my positions before I’ve even thought of them. (For all my pretensions as a cultural critic I am, at the end of the day, just a guy with a blog.)
I do think it’s interesting that the notion of “relatability” in its traditional sense (i.e., “can I identify with this character and his struggles”) is rejected specifically by a female critic, since the relationship of women to the Western Canon is often very different than the relationship of men. Women are challenged from day one to extract interesting material from stories about characters that they often don’t identify with, and whose struggles and stories in no way reflect their own; men, on the other hand, are presumed to identify automatically (since we have the privilege of being the assumed audience), and are thus much more sensitive when a character doesn’t seem to be acting like us. (I am not, I want to be clear, trying to be dismissive; like I said, I can’t even read the article, I don’t know what she’s writing about really. I’m bringing this up because it reminds me of the possibility of an asymmetrical approach to the study of the Western Canon that I’m interested in looking at.)
And in that sense I’m happy to agree that “relatability” is kind of a dumb criterion when assessing the work of a writer. We very well SHOULD be able to extract useful information from the stories of people who are not like us; the comfort we feel with being reminded of ourselves when we read is anaesthetizing and destructive. The purpose of literature is to expand our experience, by actually requiring us to step into the shoes of characters whose lives and experience are different from our own.
“Relatability,” though, can mean a lot of different things, and I reject similarly its use as a kind of empty, “I have a problem with this but I’m not sure what problem I actually have” word. It can mean, “this guy’s life doesn’t resemble mine.” It can mean, “I don’t understand why he’s doing the things that he’s doing.” It can, very importantly, mean, “this play is a lot of things that I actually don’t really care about, presented in a way that does not seem particularly profound or novel.” (Of course, “relatability” doesn’t literally mean that, but I think it’s what a lot of people mean by it.)
In a certain sense, Shakespeare did invent us, and by “us” I mean “me and Ira Glass” — that is, middle class white guys, indoctrinated into the Western Canon not (as many women are) as a tool for understanding foreign experiences, but as a kind of mould for our own sense of selves. Shakespeare DID invent the White Dude, and for the most part, we’ve all obliged him by becoming the White Dudes that he envisioned.
If that’s the case, though, then I think that it’s to Glass’s credit that he doesn’t find Shakespeare relatable — that he looks at stultifying and archaic notions of kingship, of masculinity, of the power dynamics of servitude, of sexual politics — that he looks at these things and says, “these are actually not things that I care about, they don’t have any relevance to my experience in the world, they’re not novel or interesting.”
Be It Concluded
Be it concluded then: I like Shakespeare, I don’t want Shakespeare to go away. I enjoy reading Shakespeare and performing Shakespeare and watching Shakespeare. Mostly, most of the time. But I didn’t give up my worship of deities just so I could worship authors instead, and I don’t think there’s anything more damaging to theater as an artform, to literature as a mode for investigating the human condition, or for all our own development as human beings, than pretending that there was one guy who had all the answers, who provides all the perspectives, who encapsulated all of human truth.
The world is vast, and none of us are done any favors by pretending that it stops at the limits of our vision.