Millennial Shakespeare: Profile of a Cultural Megastar

by

Andreas Höfele




There is nothing as short-lived as a millennium. Less than a year ago, it seemed the hottest event this side of Doomsday, something like Christmas, the eclipse, derby day plus the cup final all rolled into one. Only five months later, at the Eurovision Song-Contest in Stockholm (May 13, 2000), the Irish singer, Eammon Toal, was mocked by TV-commentators for the outmoded title of his entry, "Millennium of Love". The song ended up in a disappointing 6th place. The millennium, we know now, existed only prospectively, as something to be feverishly awaited, as a particularly charismatic kind of future. The moment it became a present, it vanished. As a past it is an embarrassment: a reminder of how silly we were yesterday, falling for the hype, getting all excited about something that turned out to be nothing. Present only in future absence, but absent in presence, the millennium - taken to refer to the year 2000 rather than the time span preceding it - is evidently the postmodern phenomenon par excellence.
The British for all their proverbial reserve and stiff upper lip seem  to have gone pottier over the Millennium than everyone else. While fireworks and a few million bottles of millennium champagne were good enough for the rest of us, the Brits felt that nothing less than one gigantic champagne bubble would do, and so they built the Millennium Dome. Easily the most pointless building in the Western hemisphere, probably its best use so far was in the latest James Bond movie, where it serves as a chute for 007 to slide down in one of the obligatory chase sequences. But it is precisely this spectacular pointlessness that makes the Dome  peculiarly suited to the non-event it represents. For if, as I suggested, the millennium itself becomes an embarrassment as soon as we see it in retrospect, then perhaps its memorial should be one too. Well, whatever the plan was, it has certainly succeded. The problem is it won't go away. It is the architectural equivalent of the pasta salad and half-empty bottles you find in your kitchen on the morning after the party. But what of that party, that "One Amazing Night", as the glossy official brochure calls it? Here's what the prime minister had to say about it:

As the clock strikes midnight tonight, the eyes of the world will turn to the celebrations here in the Dome at Greenwich, the home of time.

Britannia may not rule the waves any more but she can still amaze the world with a  jolly good party. Moreover, she is and always will be, as the poet of No. 10 Downing Street beautifully puts it, the home of time. Tony Blair's effusion on page 2 must give precedence, of course, to the Queen, whose portrait greets us on page 1. She, by the way, says nothing, which under the circumstances is probably a wise move. Browsing through the press releases issued by the MEPO, the Millennium Experience Press Office, a particularly spirited branch of the NMEC, the New Millennium Experience Company, one feels occasionally reminded of the phantasmagoric pageantry in the Circe episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, especially the passage where Leopold Bloom turns into the Messiah and announces the New Bloomusalem. But what about Shakespeare? Exactly. What about him? Quite amazingly on this amazing night, he was not invited. Not a trace of him, not a single word as Her Majesty the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury each on their meticulously timed separate courses (the Ulysses reference would be "Wandering Rocks") homed in on the home of time, the zero meridian, there to meet in artificial thunder, lightning and in snow on the appointed minute: 23.15 p.m., as scheduled by the NMEC and duly publicized by the MEPO.
And was the party a success then? Apparently a lukewarm one at best, if reports are to be trusted. According to The Times

Friday night's Millennium Dome show bore all the hallmarks of having been processed through the Blair blandness machine, promising something for everyone and ending up with nothing for anyone.

It just goes to show you cannot do things like this without Shakespeare. He is, after all, the accredited British Person of the Millenium. This, the result of an opinion poll conducted by BBC Radio 4's news and current affairs programme "Today", was announced one year earlier, at 8.15 on New Year's Day 1999. Of the more than 45,000 telephone votes, Shakespeare received just over a quarter, 11,717; only 760 more than his closest contender, Winston Churchill. Emeritus professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Institute, probably the nearest thing to the Bard himself available on earth today, said he was "delighted to receive the award on Shakespeare's behalf."  "Shakespeare has won", Guardian commentator Catherine Bennett writes,  "despite neglecting to lead us through the second world war. Churchill, on the other hand, has been found wanting in the blank verse department." And she continues: "In a normal year, the 'best of ' lists are a tolerable, seasonal silliness, ending with the New Year holiday. This year, they're just the beginning." Bennett then provides her own example of such millennial silliness:

Carbonated soft drink of the millennium: [...] Coke was the first to bring caffeine-enhanced refreshment where once there was only flat water or, for the privileged few, lemonade. Thanks to Coca Cola, we can travel the world, and feel at home anywhere: it made us citizens of the globe. Like Christianity but available in cans. There has been no more important drink in the past 1,000 years.

The key criteria of this tribute could equally be applied to Shakespeare: world-wide distribution and universal appeal, the alleged capacity to unite people across the divisive boundaries of class, race and age. Without any doubt: Coca Cola is the Shakespeare of soft drinks. Which can only mean: Shakespeare is the Coca Cola of culture. However, Shakespeare and Coca Cola clearly do not belong to the same category. Whatever amusement, or irritation, may be generated by their comparison derives from an act of misplacement, from the blatant inappropriateness of locating Shakespeare on a scale of soft drinks. His pre-eminence is thus radically deflated at the same time as it is seemingly avowed through his equation with the top brand on that scale. What is denied is the specificity of his pre-eminence: Shakespeare becomes, like Coca-Cola, a commodity.
I have somewhat laboriously unravelled  the workings of my Bard/Coke analogy because it seems to me to illuminate a central issue of this paper: how do we determine cultural significance? By what scale do we measure if we still dare to use the word his greatness? One such scale is indicated by the word 'megastar' I have used in my title. It belongs to the vocabulary of the entertainment industry and denotes an eminence based on the mutually reinforcing agencies of publicity and market value, or, in trendier terms, hype and megabucks. To call Shakespeare a 'megastar' shows a certain irreverence, similar to, but nowhere near as ostentatious as that flaunted in calling him the Coca Cola of culture. For while he definitely is not a soft drink, he may with some justification be said to belong to the domain of the entertainment industry. For was he not shareholder, script writer and actor in a commercial theatre where, to quote journalist Robbie Barnett (Womack S. 110), "the working class sweated into the armpits of the middle class",  a successful entrepreneur in a show business that may be legitimately described as the early modern equivalent of Hollywood? It seems no coincidence that the film which draws this parallel most persuasively has done more than any other to establish Shakespeare as a name to conjure with in the entertainment industry today. The film I am referring to is, of course, Shakespeare in Love. The 1990s were already a good decade for Shakespeare in the movies what with Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado,, Richard Locraine's Richard III and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet but Shakespeare in Love topped them all. Even before Shakespeare in Love was launched, Canadian academic Michael D. Bristol published a book entitled Big-Time Shakespeare  which seeks to chart Shakespeare's cultural significance in showbiz terms. "No less than the Beatles or Liberace, Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger", Bristol explains,

Shakespeare is big-time in the idiomatic sense of cultural success, high visibility, and notoriety. Other literary figures may achieve canonical status within the academic community based on claims of artistic distinction, but Shakespeare is unusual in that he has also achieved contemporary celebrity. (3)

At the turn of the millennium he is a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment world, a figure with blockbuster potential. Yet, for all that, the analogy with, say, the Beatles or Mick Jagger proves hardly illuminating beyond its initial frisson. What is really remarkable about Bristol's comparisons of Shakespeare with other celebrities is not how much they reveal but how little. Lined up with other big-timers such as Elvis Presley or Schwarzenegger, Shakespeare emerges not as one of them but as something rather different. Bristol has to admit as much himself. "Although [Shakespeare]",  he writes,

is probably not as bankable as, say, Clint Eastwood, there is nevertheless a considerable market for a range of cultural goods that carry Shakespeare's trademark. (5)

Precisely. Bankable Shakespeare certainly is. But neither quite as bankable as Eastwood, nor bankable in quite the same way. Even after the surprise hit, Shakespeare in Love whose repeatability one would not bet on Eastwood, in pure Hollywood terms, remains 'bigger'. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare's head, not Eastwood's, that adorns the VISA cards issued by several banks in Britain. Eastwood, I think we may safely predict, will never gain that kind of currency.  The more momentous question behind Bristol's rather facile analogizing is that of Shakespeare's ability to survive in a globalized media landscape flooded with an ever-expanding plethora of commercial mass entertainment. Bristol's answer, implied in the title Big-time Shakespeare, is emphatically affirmative. Spelled out in more detail, it would read something like this: Shakespeare, far from being confined to the ever-more marginalized ghetto of high culture, crosses effortlessly into the mainstream of popular entertainment. Thanks to his tough training, received in a kind of proto-Hollywood on London's Bankside some 400 years ago, he proves remarkably resilient even when pitted against the likes of Titanic or Star Wars: Episode I. A positive side-effect of this cheerful account is that it absolves Shakespeare from the charge of elitism. Look, the story goes, he cannot be elitist if he scores such hits, if he needs no subsidizing, if he is actually making a profit. On the downside of the story is the sobering realization, already hinted at, that if Shakespeare is big, or hot, or a megastar, there may always be someone else who is bigger, hotter, more of a megastar.
The present love affair between Shakespeare and the film industry may or may not last. But even if it should settle into something like a happy marriage, it would be reductive to predicate the cultural capital that Shakespeare represents solely on his direct profit-generating power as "the hottest screenwriter in town", "who doesn't demand mega-millions [...] or throw artistic temper tantrums when his words are cut or meddled with".  When taken to its logical conclusion, the big time may not augur  such happy times for the Bard, after all.
What other areas, what other perspectives are there, then, to gauge Shakespeare's cultural significance at the turn of the millennium? The obvious thing to look at must be the manner and degree of his institutionalization in contemporary society. Such institutionalization manifests itself most conspicuously in three areas: in the operation of Stratford-upon-Avon as a prime asset of the National Heritage, in the Theatre, and in the academic world.
First, the Stratford syndrome. Just as Greenwich, according to Tony Blair, is "the home of time", Stratford-on-Avon is the home of Shakespeare, both in the sense of where he originally came from and in the sense of where he still is, where you can, so to speak, find him at home. At least, this is the promise the site extends to its well over half a million visitors per year, the magical aura carefully sustained around some half a dozen Tudor properties in the town itself and the neighbouring countryside, an aura that becomes most tangible as you follow the signposted route through the modest Elizabethan town house known as Shakespeare's Birthplace. If Shakespeare is the most elusive of authors, this empty shell of a building is his perfect architectural correlative, an absence at the very root and centre of an identity known as 'Shakespeare'.
Stratford, the Mecca of bardolatry has in the last two decades come under heavy scrutiny, especially from Cultural Materialists. It is interesting to see how different a picture of Shakespeare as a cultural force emerges from such a perspective as opposed to one that seeks to map his position in the brave new world of the media. Returning from planet Hollywood to planet Stratford, Shakespeare undergoes a radical rôle change. Instead of figuring as an endangered species braving through clever adaptive manoeuvring the onslaught of a hydra-headed hegemonic infotainment industry, Shakespeare himself becomes the hegemonic superpower, a bulwark of reactionary cultural values, an insidiously efficient machine for reproducing and reinforcing establishment ideologies. What is a story of survival against considerable odds in one cultural arena becomes one of monopolistic ascendancy in the other. In terms of Star Wars mythology: instead of Luke Skywalker, Shakespeare becomes Darth Vader. In more traditional terms: instead of Robin Hood, Shakespeare becomes the Sheriff of Nottingham.) At least, this is the impression we get from Graham Holderness' celebrated 1988 essay "Bardolatry: or, The cultural materialist's guide to Stratford-upon-Avon".  According to Holderness, what is going on in Stratford is the ritualistic celebration of a reactionary cult whose unsavoury economic forces were in full swing by the early 19th century, when two local widows, Mary Hornby and Ada Court, the latter in possession of the birthplace, the former in possession of the relics, engaged in a fierce, and indeed sometimes physical, battle for the attention of unsuspecting bardolators.
What is striking about Holderness' account is the heavy artillery he deploys in his attack. Two widows squabbling become "rival enterprises within a cultural industry" and, even more grandiloquently, "[t]he cultural and commercial antagonisms of the Victorian period" (5). One suspects that such bombast is needed to construct a sufficiently formidable target in order to endow its critique with an air of iconoclastic daring. The same rhetoric of overstatement informs Holderness' central analogy, that between bardolatry and religion, more specifically medieval Christianity:

The modern tourist, as a growing body of sociological work has shown, is a direct descendant of the medieval pilgrim. Both are engaged in a ritualised passage to a sacred site; both are in search of the icons of their culture: relics, pieces of the true cross, burnished with age but sanctified by the miracle of survival through time. Pilgrims, Donald Horne argues in his fine study The Great Museum, were the first mass tourists, and sightseeing and souvenir collecting the inescapable material dimension of their spiritual quest. In marxist terms, tourism is a commercial exchange process whose symbolic centre is the fetishism of objects: and museum relics and treasures can certainly be said to possess such a holy, magical aura. (7)

All this is quite convincing, but only as long as the analogy between medieval pilgrim and modern tourist is not mistaken for an equation. For what "a growing body of sociological work has shown" is not that the modern tourist is really a pilgrim on a spiritual quest, but that the medieval pilgrim pursued not only spiritual but also quite worldly, we might say touristic, ends. The point of Holderness' argument, however, is the religious dimension of the modern 'pilgrimage' to Stratford; and here the analogy is overstrained. Even if we consider the cult of Shakespeare, adapting Irving Babbitt's verdict on Romanticism, as "spilt religion", a quasi-religious residue in a secularized cultural environment, the power of this pseudo-religion is as nothing compared with the real thing. For the medieval pilgrim, religion was a matter of life and death, a powerful, even inescapable, totalitarian régime of church and feudal rule beyond which it was impossible even to think, let alone live. No amount of demonization should convince one that Shakespeare has anywhere near that horrendous omnipotence, anywhere near that charisma.
What's new about Shakespeare in the theatre at the turn of the millennium? Not much, we might say, considering that he continues to be what he has been for at least two centuries now, a towering presence. One of the two national, heavily subsidized flagships of the British Theatre, The Royal National Shakespeare Company, is named after him and primarily committed to the regular revival of his plays. The other, The National Theatre, indicates its Shakespearean affiliation through its very location on the Bankside.
If Shakespeare's theatrical empire is in any danger at all, this arises from the somewhat doubtful prospects of the theatre in general. "The crisis of contemporary theatre", Dennis Kennedy writes,

can be identified in many different ways, in terms of ideology, aesthetics, subject, audience, subsidy, and so on. But the underlying problem for theatre today lies in its archaic financial footing. [...]

If live theatre has become something of an anachronism in this day and age, the latest addition to an already abundant array of Shakespearean performance spaces may be described as a deliberate intensification of that anachronism. The New Globe Theatre in Southwark, only a stone's throw away from the site of the old one, constitutes both a deliberate, antiquarian, turn to the past and a peculiarly postmodern enterprise, diagnosable, in Fredric Jameson's terms, as "a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism."  Owing its existence to the vision, the tenacity and the fundraising skills of the American actor Sam Wanamaker, the New Globe was highly controversial from the start, the cause and subject of extended legal action and of fierce political strife. Radical Shakespeareans like John Drakakis attacked his project as

an alarming, multi-national capitalist parody of the politico-financial economy of the original Globe Theatre, deploying an impressive array of those ideological State apparatuses whose function is to legitimise the power, and smooth over the contradictions, of the Establishment. (p. 34)

While the struggle has by now faded from public memory, not all of the doubts concerning the New Globe's raison d'etre have been allayed. Currently in its fifth season, it seems to be in good shape financially, having established itself as one of the obligatory sights on the London tourist circuit; but professional opinion has still to be described as reserved at best. Disneyland Shakespeare, or a serious attempt at creating stage conditions under which the plays can be performed and experienced the way they were meant to be? Anachronism, that historicist's nightmare, is, of course, always creeping, if not actually stomping, in, witness the jet planes noisily traversing an irredeemably post-Elizabethan sky above the 'heavens'. The hardware - i.e. the building - may be close to perfect, but the software i.e. the people filling it - never will. No amount of historicist mimicry will transform them into "those nut-cracking Elizabethans". The New Globe may serve as "a window into the past" (Dessen '95) but, looking through this window, we will never become time travellers: we will always remain fixed -  mentally and ideologically as well as physically - in our own moment in history.
The soundest claim for the usefulness of the New Globe is that it provides an experimental space where actors can if they are prepared to do so unlearn what they have been trained to do and not to do on the picture frame stage with its concomitant convention of psycho-realism. The potential, and limitations, of a  reconstructive venue such as the New Globe are expressed perhaps most clearly in an analogy suggested by Gary Taylor:

The impetus to reconstruct such buildings reflects the same conviction that leads the Academy of Ancient Music to perform Mozart on eighteenth-century instruments or reconstructions of them. The art of an age depends upon the artistic technology of that age and is distorted by the application of alien future technologies. A theatre is the instrument on which a play is played, and Shakespeare composed his plays for a certain kind of instrument.

Taylor, whose highly innovative work as an editor of Shakespeare may also be compared to the policy of playing ancient music on ancient instruments, shows a degree of sympathy with the New Globe project which is quite unusual among academic Shakespeareans. The quoted passage continues:

If [...] we have outgrown the instruments, why haven't we outgrown the plays? If we no longer want the Globe, why should we want Hamlet? (p. 310)

Which brings me to Shakespeare in academia, Shakespeare studies today. When Gary Taylor took stock of Shakespearean scholarship in 1986, he began by citing a statistical figure. "The World Shakespeare Bibliography for 1986," Taylor wrote, "contains 4.069 items." Over 4,000 publications on a single author in a single year! The figure should give pause to us all and yet it does not: we continue to enlarge that figure like academic ants manically raising a Babylonian ant heap of Shakespeareological annotations, commentary, exposition and revision; words, words, words. The latest available count is even higher: The 1998 World Shakespeare Bibliography lists 4,237 items.

For forty years in the second half of the eighteenth centurya Stratford entrepeneur sold curios allegedly carved from the wood of a single mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare; the very abundance of the relics eventually cast doubt upon their authenticity. In the second half of the twentieth century interpretations of Shakespeare, all claiming to be genuine, multiply even more rapidly than the fruit of that mythical mulberry, and the sheer productivity of the interpretation industries ought to undermine consumer confidence in their product.
It does not. Instead, the interpretation industries undermine consumer demand for authenticity.

Shakespeare may get depleted, but criticism is thriving. The self-empowerment of the critics, the performative, highly narcissistic character of much of their (I should say, our) work more than confirms Oscar Wilde's prophecy, made one fin de siécle ago, that the critic would take over the rôle of the artist; although Wilde probably did not envisage it in quite the way it is actually happening.
Shakespeare criticism at the turn of the millennium is by and large still shaped by a paradigm change that occurred some twenty years ago and has variously been called the cultural, the historical or the political turn in English studies. Its two main strands, Feminism and Cultural Materialism, are by now firmly established. Power and ideology hold sway where once image and symbol were innocently (or should one say far from innocently) sought and found. But this is by no means a new development, nothing specifically novel or millennial. Using the terminology introduced by Thomas S. Kuhn, the present stage may best be characterized not as "paradigm change", but as a phase of "normal science."  To those perceiving themselves as radicals and to a large extent those radicals now "objectively" form the critical and institutional Establishment such a notion must, of course, be distasteful. But there are, I think, unmistakable signs of a calming down.
The gusto and missionary zeal with which radicals and conservatives once crossed swords over Shakespeare seems to have largely abated. As long ago as 1993, Alan Sinfield (a prominent member of the radical camp), in a letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement, expressed his opinion "that all the arguments anyone can think of have been made a good while ago" and that "the debate is no longer intellectually exciting".  That the excitement of transgressive innovation has subsided is particularly noticeable in Shakespeare editing, a field where the 1980s saw some especially radical and, or so it seemed, irreversible revisions.
No less symptomatic of the present situation, in which yesterday's polemical excitements merge into today's "normal science", is a book entitled The Genius of Shakespeare, which appeared in 1997. What makes this a remarkable publication is the fact that its author, Jonathan Bate, is not an old fogey, and not an obscure outsider, but the King Alfred Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, a man barely turned forty, who has been described (according to the publisher's blurb) as "our finest Shakespeare scholar", which makes him sound like the Kenneth Branagh of Shakespeare studies. Even more remarkable, Bate treats the "genius of Shakespeare" not as a reactionary delusion or a particularly vicious ideological construct but as something which it is possible armed, of course, with the due provisos of postmodern sophistication to actually affirm.
No less uncompromising than the Cultural Materialists in his critique of the Tory appropriations of Shakespeare, he nevertheless insists that

confining it to its sociological dimension alone, the story of Shakespeare's extraordinary reputation and continuing prestige is a function not only of the impulses variously labelled by the New Iconoclasts as "reactionary", "hegemonic", and "nationalistic", but also of counterreadings which could variously be labelled "radical", "anti-Establishment", and "supranational".

Bate does not confine his argument to "the sociological dimension alone", however, but endeavours to uphold Shakespeare's "aesthetic excellence". Careful not to re-essentialize the genius of Shakespeare, he makes use of the "performative" philosophy of the later Wittgenstein in order to demonstrate that both Shakespeare's greatness and the kind of criticism attuned to it are just that performative: "Greatness," he argues,

should be thought about in terms of effects, not causes. This, it seems to me, is the only way we can satisfactorily answer the question of why the works of Shakespeare are indisputably greater than the collected cartoons of Bugs Bunny. [...] In the intensity and variety of the reactions and actions it provokes, the "Shakespeare Effect" is greater than the "Bugs Bunny Effect" (321)

For Bate, Shakespeare is not just great, he is the greatest, the "world genius". In this, Bate's book constitutes the antithesis of Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare, published seven years earlier. Where Bate sees Shakespeare's singularity triumphantly proven by the continuous renewability of the "Shakespeare Effect", Taylor voices his doubt "whether anyone who professes literature in the English-speaking nations really knows anymore whether Shakespeare is 'as good as they say'." (385) Where Bate praises Shakespeare's "negative capability", his limitless potential of signification, Taylor sees precisely this as a fundamental weakness. "His text", he writes, "is a blank cheque." (311) Where Bate preaches replenishment, the fullness of a singular genius, Taylor proclaims exhaustion, an abysmal emptiness filled by the endless chatter of the critics: "By overestimating Shakespeare's importance and uniqueness, Shakespeare critics insult the truth." (407) Is Shakespeare singular then? According to Taylor, only in the sense in which astronomers use the word.

A singularity [...] is the center of a black hole; it is a mathematical point in space having no length, breadth or depth, a point at the center of a vast, now collapsing star where matter is crushed by its own irresistable gravity into literally zero volume. Even the light cannot escape from a black hole; time itself stops.

If Shakespeare has a singularity, it is because he has become a black hole. Light, insight, intelligence, matter all pour ceaselessly into him, as critics are drawn into the densening vortex of his reputation; they add their own weight to his increasing mass.

Black hole or, to quote Stanley Wells, "still the brightest star in the constellation"  the sheer dimensions of the Shakespeare Effect apparently require the use of astronomical metaphor. That he will keep the ants busy for some time to come there can be no doubt if only because Shakespeare criticism has become a self-perpetuating industry. That he will continue to be taught, continue to be performed on stage and screen, that coach pilgrims will continue to throng to his home town, it seems equally safe to predict. Yet, for all that, a nagging doubt remains over his "real" standing today. Does Shakespeare really matter anymore, the way he mattered to the Victorians, for instance? Although he is spoonfed to more students than ever before, his works and, more particularly, his words are probably "planted in fewer memories than they once were."  Everyone knows "To be or not to be", but how many know substantially more than that? If advertising agencies feel they can count on most customers to recognize a pensive-looking male staring at a skull as Hamlet, do such Pavlovian reflexes really mean that Shakespeare "permeates" British culture, that he is a mightily powerful, well-nigh inescapable presence? We live in a flattened, de-hierarchized cultural landscape where even megastars are counted by the dozen. There may be a lot of Shakespeare around today, but the notion of his cultural centrality is ultimately untenable, simply because there is so much more of everything else.

© Dr. Andreas Höfele
University of Heidelberg, Germany



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