Sacred Shakespeare PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 17 September 2010 08:51

Closely following Hamlet, the conflict in Disney’s The Lion King begins with a regicide, Uncle Scar’s murder of King Mufasa.  Instead of rising to vengeance, Prince Simba runs away to live a life of hakuna matata with a wise-cracking Meerkat and a noisesome warthog until his father appears in a vision and urges him to go home to reclaim his patrimony.  Disney’s leonine Hamlet is, of course, thoroughly Disneyfied: Simba not only takes vengeance on Claudius-Scar, but lives to inherit the kingdom, and the athletic Nala-Ophelia is a far cry from the wispy fragility of Shakespeare’s play.  Hamlet’s tragedy turns to low-budget comedy in Strange Brew, as Bob and Doug McKenzie uncover the evil doings of the brewmaster at Elsinore Brewery and help the founder’s daughter, Pam, regain control of the business.  There is even a holographic paternal ghost.

Burlesque parodies of Shakespeare have been popular since the nineteenth century and culminated in Tom Stoppard and the Reduced Shakespeare Company.   From the other direction, the accommodation of “serious” Shakespearean productions to pop culture standards is striking – from Baz Luhrmann’s MTV Romeo + Juliet, through Michael Keaton’s Monty-Pythonesque Dogberry, to a Royal Shakespeare Company poster for Coriolanus with the caption, “a natural born killer too.”

But this raises a question: How Shakespeare did become, in Douglas Lanier’s phrase, “unpopularized” in the first place?  How was Shakespeare sacralized?

As Lawrence Levine has shown, through much of the nineteenth century Shakespeare’s plays were produced regularly throughout the United States all the way to the frontier, often interspersed with vaudevillian entertainments, as in an 1839 production of As You Like It that shared a playbill with Il Diavolo Antonio and His Sons, who promised a “magnificent display of position in the Science of Gymnastics.”  Shakespeare was popular culture, in the sense that Shakespeare was widely enjoyed across the spectrum of American life.  Shakespearean quotations larded political rhetoric, and the Bible and Shakespeare were among the essential books in American homes, such that Tocqueville read Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.  Shakespeare was well enough known to be parodied, both in novels like Huckleberry Finn and among minstrels who appealed to the authority of the “Bird of Avon.”  Shakespeare was honored as a man of the people.  His plays were not treated as sacred texts, as is evident from the popularity of adaptations and parodies.  Performances were accompanied by catcalls, nut-cracking and apple-crunching from the mixed-class audiences, and at times the boundary between audience and performers dissolved.

By the end of the century, Shakespeare was being detached from the “singers, jugglers, dancers, acrobats, orators” that once surrounded the plays.  Critics increasingly complained that audiences flocked to Shakespeare for the wrong reasons; Shakespeare, it has often been said, wrote for the groundlings, and in America he was discovered by a nation of groundlings.  To accept this consensus, Levine argues, is to project later attitudes toward Shakespeare into the nineteenth century.  Shakespeare was popular with American audiences because they found him so American.  America was still a largely oral civilization that reveled in three-hour political speeches and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and Shakespearean rhetoric appealed to them.  Performed melodramatically in adapted form, Shakespeare’s plays often appeared to reinforce American moral sensibilities, their understanding of the clarity of good and evil, and Shakespeare personalized moral and political issues in a way that matched American sensibilities.  In short, “nineteenth-century Americans were able to fit Shakespeare into their culture so easily because he seemed to fit.”

Levine notes several factors that help to explain the elevation of Shakespeare from American popular entertainment into the epitome of high literary and dramatic art.  As immigration increased and the American population became more ethnically and linguistically diverse, oratory declined in importance.  Rising literacy rates had a similar effect, encouraging private reading of newspapers in place of public declamations.  Nativist sentiments among popular audiences also contributed to Shakespeare’s de-popularization.  A speech exalting the virtues of England might be taken as unpatriotic, and in some cases riots ensued.

Yet, the extraction of Shakespeare from popular theater was also partly a deliberate effort on the part of upper class theatergoers to rescue the Bard from an inappropriate setting and audience.  Shakespeare, some argued, was so archaically difficult that he could be understood only by specialists who read the plays rather than hearing them performed.  As Shakespeare moved from stage to page, he became part of the sacralized literate culture of the universities and schools.  Upper class Americans were also appalled by the behavior of their fellow citizens in the theaters, and sought out their own theaters where stamping and shouts would be prohibited and everyone would sit in cultivated silence.  As they left, middle and upper-class theater goers took Shakespeare with them.  Norman Hapgood argued at the time that high quality plays needed their own high-quality theaters, since “the most ignorant spectators, who formerly followed the lead of the educated, now read, have opinions, and enforce them.  Caliban is in power and sits in judgment at the theatre.”  Hapgood and many others wanted to reclaim the theater for Prospero.  The clash of popular and elite Shakespeare turned violent in the famed Astor Place Riot, revealing, as one newspaper correspondent put it at the time, that “there is now in our country, in New York City, what every good patriot hitherto has considered it his duty to deny – a high and a low class.”

If this history throws “high” culture’s monopolization of Shakespeare under suspicion, it equally challenges popular culture’s frequent concession of that monopoly, seen in the tendency to assume that parody is the only available mode of popular appropriation of Shakespeare.  As many producers and directors in the last century have recognized, the most faithful presentations are those that are serious and popular.

But this means that faithful presentations are, in the nature of the case, assaults on the high/popular hierarchy, and implicit assaults on the “civilizing process” as well as the state formation to which it has been twinned since birth.  Shakespeare has been a battleground of culture war for centuries, and no wonder, since he is Exhibit #1 of literary and theatrical high culture, at least in English.  Sacred Shakespeare is one of the untouchable holy things belonging to the priests of high culture, and popularization is rightly perceived as subversive, a transgression and a sacrilege.

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