From “Shakespeare” To “shakespeare”: The Continuous Resemanticization of Shakespeare
By: Hannah Grace R. Dimapilis, BA Creative Writing
Disclaimer: All media forms in this post are strictly used for educational purposes only. I do not claim ownership over them nor did I intend to.
The name “William Shakespeare” is not unknown. It is widely used in schools, in popular media, and especially, in the world of the academe. Years of studies and discourse are attributed to the name all over the world, ranging far beyond common topics such as sexism and psychology. From the stories of the characters he created to the studies conducted on his life, one cannot argue that Shakespeare has made, and is continually doing so, a name for himself – a conceivable lasting place for him in the world, centuries after his death.
In its usage, the word “Shakespeare” has been connected to what the majority of society has deemed high forms of art or simply described as high culture. High culture art usually refer to classical art, art styles used in ancient Greece and Rome. Today, the word “classic” is used to give a piece of work a special value. High culture commonly pertain to art practices that have been used for centuries, giving it a cultural and historical credit. Some usual examples of these forms are operas, ballets, and orchestras.
Shakespeare’s works started how most works start: in literary form. In particular, he wrote plays meant to be performed on stage. His first works, the Henry VI trilogy, were written during the 1980’s and were published in the early 1590’s. Philip Henslowe listed 1 Henry VI to be performed by Strange’s Men at The Rose in 1952. When the Globe opened 1599, Shakespeare’s works gained more recognition, performing plays for the mass for the modest fee of one-penny (about 10% of a worker’s daily wage) and opening to a more massive audience.
After Shakespeare’s death, John Hemminge and Henry Condell compiled his works. It is interesting to take note that at this point in time, Shakespeare was already being represented as a kind of high classical figure. From performing to the mass to being treated as noble figure of literature, Shakespeare’s name’s commodification had already begun from that moment. Once one attaches the name “Shakespeare” to an output, the output suddenly gains importance.
In the years and centuries to come, the ceaseless transformations of Shakespeare’s works continued to grow and develop in lands beyond England. More importantly, the image of Shakespeare himself has also metamorphosed from being a well-known playwright in England to an idolized figure of classical literature in the world. The name “Shakespeare” is no longer ordinary. People have already placed the ideologies of the elite in relation to his name.
In the development of the educational system, Shakespeare’s works were incorporated in curriculums, incorporating into the future generations, even to the point of Bardolatry. Robert Marx mentioned this when the ATA and National Association of Scholars, conservative academic organizations, clamored about how Shakespeare was decreasingly being discussed in the classrooms – making it seem as if the humanities and literature were all about Shakespeare and a small number of writers only. According to Robert Max, this was “hardly a way to endorse literary studies.” Despite some rejections, Shakespeare continues to become part of the educational system.
Shakespeare has now permeated the cultural spheres of the English. Shakespeare is no longer just a literary icon. He has now become a national and cultural treasure. According to the results of an international survey, William Shakespeare had become UK’s “greatest cultural icon” (BBC News, 2014). That is another transformation. Whole museums could be made from works attributed to him and his works. Famous artists, groups, and agencies have at least made one adaptation of his work. In today’s terms, he would have been called a National Artist.
In the advent of colonialism and spread of English-based education in the world, the cultural idolatry of Shakespeare has also increased in coverage. With more and more studies of Shakespeare’s works, continuous discussions in classrooms, and Shakespeare gathering more reputation, Shakespeare has become a standard. From the dissection of his sonnets’ structure to the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare became this marking point of how well done is a piece of literature. Students are instructed to make Shakespearean sonnets. They were told to perform plays properly enunciating the iambic pentameter. They were continuously told of how Shakespeare was a genius, and this belief was passed down unto the new generation even if they have not read and analyzed for themselves the Shakespearean works that would prove that he really was a genius. People take this proclamation as common sense now.
In the 21st century, with the rise of the technology, the boundless reaches of the Internet, and the formation of digital natives, Shakespeare is, once again, transforming. With the help of neoliberal ideologies of individualism or simply because of the dynamic nature of culture, the new generation looks unto Shakespeare differently. In fact, the youth rebel against him for a simple reason: he is treated as a representation of the “old culture”. The word “Shakespeare” is now, although arguably not the only one, an embodiment of the old strict ideologies and cultures of the past world.
And the new generation’s reaction to it is “No, thanks.”
More and more students have expressed their sentiments against the discussions of Shakespeare in class. Although there are some who still listens about him in class and offer an amount of appreciation, many have described him as “boring” and even “useless”. In a poll of Debate.org of whether Shakespeare should still be taught in classrooms or not, 48% said yes while 52% said no. There are even teachers who conveyed that perhaps Shakespeare should just stop being a part of the curriculum because the students are simply not interested in him. The Times Higher Educational Supplement even stated that perhaps it was too much for 14-year-olds and that instead of making them interested, it actually makes them hate it (Atherton, 2005). But it did not happen. Shakespeare is still part of the class.
And so, the youth began to communicate their sentiments, whether positive or not, in other forms. With the Internet on their side and the limitless possibilities of today’s technology, this generation has done something profound: they explicitly made fun of Shakespeare. From memes to music videos to hashtags, the “high culture” that Shakespeare represents was pulled down to what society calls “low culture”. Low art refers to daily forms of art that is usually associated with the mass, such as fan fiction art and music videos. Low culture is attributed to pop culture, and pop culture is considered youth culture.
This was a major shift in the Shakespeare timeline because for the first time since Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare actually came back to its original audience: the mass. Shakespeare was forcibly disconnected, although obviously not entirely, to high culture.
The irony is that in all of the attempts to bring Shakespeare down, it simply made him more popular. In today’s terms, he was “so uncool that he became cool”. He is depicted as a hipster. Various memes were attributed to this. If these depictions continue on, it would not be surprising if people started calling Shakespeare a hipster. Notice here the shift of ideology connected to his name.
From high art to low art, that is what is happening today in the 21st century. In this sense, the author proposes that rather than calling all these pop incarnations of Shakespeare “Shakespearean” (because in a sense they are still works attributed to Shakespeare), which is deeply connected to high elite art, it would be more fitting to call these works as “shakespearean”. It can be argued that these pop incarnations are simply another transformation of Shakespeare, but the change is simply too massive to disregard. Subjects and studies are devoted to studying, creating, and developing these art forms.
Take note that this does not mean that the term “shakespearean” loses its connection to Shakespeare. It is simply an acknowledgement that the idea of “pop Shakespeare” actually exists, and together with this, the term “Shakespeare” is also changing. Writing “shakespearean” with a small “s” is simply an expression of that change. Today, Shakespeare can be a hipster, a rapper, a drag queen, or even an anime character– all manifestations of pop culture. The depictions are virtually endless.
In future generations to come, it is undeniably likely that the term “Shakespeare” will change. Even with the continuous change of systems, beliefs, and cultures, it is already a fact that Shakespeare has already become part of this world’s history, the present days, and the histories to come.
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