Shakespeare (Post)modernized: The State of the Bard in an Age of Progressive Politicization

Five years ago, Arizona State University denied tenure to the head of the graduate theater program because of his commitment to teaching acting through the classics, most prominently through the plays of William Shakespeare. The professor under controversy, Professor Jared Sakren, hailed from Juilliard. ASU had recruited him primarily to build a graduate acting department. An equation for success turned into a recipe for disaster. The feminists in the department had purposed to "kill off the classics." Sakren was told to stop teaching the "sexist" works of Shakespeare or to revise the ending to such plays as The Taming of the Shrew in order to appease women (Alexander). Accompanying these recommendations, Sakren was also asked to reduce the academic rigor of his program. His office was searched and rumors were spread about him. Sakren refused to follow the recommendations of the committee and was summarily fired. The controversy of his termination spread beyond the department and up to the university president's office. Several university law professors questioned constitutional violations against Sakren. The story ran in papers across the state, and the populous at large revisited the topic of the widespread rejection of Western literature and thought by secular academia in favor of feminism and multiculturalism.

The incident highlights the explosive politics of contemporary approaches to literature. Even a simple examination of two student-written articles on the Sakren case illustrates the deep divide between academically minded people. While a University of Arizona undergraduate described Sakren as "determined to fight back against this current of political correctness trend of stamping out timeless classical literature because it is authored by dead, white, European males" (Alexander) a University of Southern California undergraduate describes Sakren as one with "narrow visions…[who] fails to acknowledge and teach…differences in experience and voices" (Gualvez). The one side fears the loss of Western literature along with all its merits. The other side fears the dominance of white, male history at the cost of minority voices. One side sees the battle as one of historicity and inherent literary merit. The other side sees it as a battle of discrimination. One side looks backward at the traditions of the past. The other side looks forward to the progression of the future. Both fear the silencing of significant literary voices in the wake of the other's victory.

Shakespeare need not be abandoned by the postmodern world. Indeed, the postmodern world does and should continue to embrace his works. Though his plays in pure form do not always agree ideologically with popular political consensus among academics, the plays especially as film renditions prove conducive to a myriad of discussions including gender and ethnicity, and a wide spectrum of interpretations relevant to the postmodern era. On the one hand, this is possible because his texts, by nature, are intertextual and performative, and thus more amendable to revision. More important to postmodern Shakespeare is the addition of film as a mode of remediation. Film provides an abler format to portray a Shakespeare who is palatable to mass audiences. This paper will describe the post-modern elements in the 2000 film version of Hamlet and the 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and discuss in particular the ability of these filmic interpretations to passively acknowledge political issues, thus answering some of the concerns of the progressives while not neglecting traditional literature and meaning.

The 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes garnered wide-spread attention and blockbuster crowds. The other film, Hamlet, is less known. Three months prior to the debut of Kenneth Branagh's epic production, Michael Almereyda's version of Hamlet premiered in a limited number of theaters. As a low-budget, independent film, it received little attention and mixed reviews. The film featured high profile actors including Ethan Hawke in the title role, Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Liev Shraiber as Laertes, Bill Murray as Polonius, and Julia Stiles as Ophelia. The Prince of Denmark, in this rendition, is the punk, college-age son of the CEO of Denmark Corporation. The opening scene finds Hamlet attending a press conference at Hotel Elsinor, where he lives with his mother and uncle in the middle of a modern and sterile New York City. Both films are replete with complex intertextuality, remediation and postmodern topography, which render an unorthodox version of probably the two most played, and certainly the most filmed of Shakespeare's works.

Shakespeare's texts are inherently intertextual. In other words, the text is not a closed system. In writing the plays, William Shakespeare relied on a slew of classical sources for inspiration, and combined original and borrowed materials until the two were often indistinguishable (Martin 188,191). The folios, anthologies, performances and writings of the plays over the past centuries have built an enormous body of information that link into the modern conception of Shakespeare. For example, the 1997 Nortan Shakespeare allows for the side-by-side reading of versions of plays and footnotes, creating an intricate web of connectivity between and outside of the text (Reinfandt 74). Finally, film visually allowed intertextuality previously impossible and inconceivable on stage. In postmodern performances, Robert Shaughnessy writes, the play is situated "amidst a ludic proliferation of images, quotations, and associations" (47). In this way, film is hypertextualized. It visually allows the viewer to skim the entire screen for objects imbued with cultural or individual, subjective significance, and draw connections and meaning from these visuals.

Almereyda's Hamlet is rift with intertextual links of common, historical and regional significance. Hamlet's bedroom walls are covered with an assortment of portraits including Martin Luther ("go not to Wittenberg" Hamlet 1.2.119), Malcom X and Che Guevara. The performance takes place over Halloween. A child dressed as a ghost passes Hamlet shortly before he talks to his mother and kills Polonius, cardboard cutouts of ghosts and witches decorate the grocery store windows near Ophelia's office and children dressed as witches and ghosts pass Hamlet as he walks up to Ophelia's funeral. These images suggest numerous things, most prominently death and haunting concurrent with Hamlet's ghost experience. During Hamlet's first talk with the apparition, the director coupled a television monitor in the corner of the film showing explosions and fire while Hamlet's father says "My hour is almost come,/ When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames/ Must render myself" and, in the same speech, further uses the phrases "fires, burnt and purg'd away, eternal blazon" (Hamlet 1.5.1-21). Commercial names and symbols are everywhere. A short list includes Panasonic, the NY Yankees, U.S.A. Today, CNN, Pepsi, Macintosh and NYC Taxi. These are all visuals encountered by a real New Yorker daily. The director incorporates TV monitors in nearly every scene, and creatively incorporates footage of James Dean and Lorence Olivier's Hamlet during Hamlet's inner musings. This links the viewer to popular and Shakespearean film history. A television in Claudius' limo plays a get-rich-quick advertisement and news coverage of President Clinton, linking the character to current politics relative to modern America. Finally, rather than giving a play to "catch the conscience of the king," (Hamlet 3.2.634), Hamlet creates a film called "The Mousetrap," which is a montage of high art (Giotto), popular art (1940's television show) and low art (pornography). This mixing of high and low art is one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism (Makaryk, 612).

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet mixes the cultured language of Shakespeare with ghettos, guns and gangs. Though lacking in the commercial signifiers of Hamlet, the film contains many culturally recognizable features. The gangs drive cars, Romeo and Juliet spend time in a chlorinated swimming pool and news anchors narrate the story. Catholic statuary, garish colors and crosses dominate the scenes, and heavy rock music lace all the portions between dialogue creating a music video feel. Once again, the line blurs between high art (literature) and pop art (rock music).

In both films, the sensory experience competes with the actual Shakespearean content. Indeed, the directors heavily edited the original texts to serve the needs of the films. This contrasts with previous modernist interpretations that sought to use the stage or film to emphasize the dialogue. As Shaughnessy notes, "Increasingly, Shakespeare's texts might be said to be quoted rather than spoken; the act of interpretation is foregrounded. Rather than being located 'in' performance (as in the modernist paradigm), the 'text' of the postmodern Shakespeare is suspended alongside it in wry quotation marks" (47). The performances emphasize the non-spoken interactions between characters and the passion, whether violent or loving, they feel for each other. In the opening scene of Hamlet, though Gertrude technically does not have any significant lines, gives both her new husband and Hamlet looks which convey her feelings for both and establish her as an affectionate mother and passionate wife. In the same scene, Ophelia says nothing but signifies through a hand-drawn picture her interest in talking to Hamlet. The body language of her brother and father alert the viewer that they disapprove of her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia and Gertrude are also incorporated nonverbally throughout the film through Hamlet's camera. This frequent use of a camera requires an important discussion of remediation in both films.

Two scholars, Jay David Botler and Richard Grusin, developed the ideas of remediation along with two other concepts: immediacy and hypermediacy. They discuss immediacy and hypermediacy as two logics of remediation in between which human beings vacillate. The first logic is the desire for immediacy. This is the desire to have though media an authentic and experience as possible. In this experience, the media does not demand attention but leaves a person in the presence of the thing represented (Bolter and Grusin 6). Virtual reality, film and photography are all immediate experiences. In contrast, hypermediacy integrates the media and takes pleasure in the meditation. Examples of hypermediation include Cathedral art, collages, computer games, web pages and rock music performances. Remediation is the incorporation of new technology into the media experience. New technology usually promises immediacy, which is why people are attracted to it, yet usually requires people to begin by being aware of the new media (Bolter and Grusin 19).

Technology and remediation characterize the postmodern era. Both films follow suit. Hamlet and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet use media to simultaneously modernize and brings relevance to the production, while alienating traditional viewers because of the gross filmic violation of the original staging conceptions of the playwright. In the case of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, while ideas of love, fidelity, justice, revenge and honor may be universal themes, the mediation of these themes change. A television anchor delivers the prologue to the play on a small television monitor within the viewer's actual television monitor. Most viewers are familiar enough with Romeo and Juliet to know that 15th century Italy never featured televisions. But, neither did it have guns. Thus, the film requires viewers to suspend what they know to be true about the play, and substitute what they know to be true about their own, modern reality in relation to the play.

In Hamlet, modern media is everywhere. It remediates events both to Hamlet and to the viewer. Hamlet uses his own film to revisit his father and mother, Ophelia and even himself in the past. The initial "to be or not to be" speech begins with Hamlet watching footage of himself with a gun in his mouth. The full speech takes place in a Blockbuster video. Hamlet, ironically, walks up and down the "Action" section aisles contemplating like as he looks at the rows of films as if they were life, and concludes his fear of the "undiscovered county" makes him a coward to take his own life and "lose the name of action" (Hamlet 3.1.80-88). This contrasts with Branagh's energetic Hamlet, who seems in need of Ritalin.

In addition to using film media as a sort of "metafilm," the director also used various modern communication devices to create space between people. Surveillance cameras, fax machines, computers and telephones limit the face-to-fact interaction between the characters. Polonius speaks to the King through a surveillance camera. Hamlet notifies his uncle of his return through the fax machine and Laertes levels his challenge to Hamlet through a fax. Hamlet changes the fateful letter carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ordering his death not by "writing it fair" but by typing it on a laptop. Hamlet ends both his lengthy conversation with his mother following Polonius' death and with Ophelia, "get thee to a nunnery," over the telephone.

The topography of both films isolates the individual in a man-made yet limiting environment. Both films require the characters to journey along the physical terrain of their world. Both films are set in urban areas, which are natural as far as their normalcy to the postmodern viewer but are abnormally harsh. The urban topography subverts the human pain against the unfeeling concrete. Yet nature is not an escape either. Each film contains only one substantial scene of nature. For a short period of time, Romeo lives in a trailer home in isolation, visited only by the FedEx delivery boy, a character that is key to the misplaced message that dictates the lover's tragic fate. Hamlet visits Ophelia grave, which is a place of pain and death. Even the plants are dying for the winter. Verona Beach is a garish, unpleasant place that is unkind to the lovers. Hamlet's New York City with its cold, silver and glass sterility offers little warmth. The red light of Ophelia's dark room, her red clothes and the fall leaves around her grave provide the only shards of warmth in the film.

Because postmodernism tries to subvert modernist traditions and hierarchies, it is mistakenly associated with political concerns of feminists, Marxists and so on, and the political activism that characterizes those movements. However, postmodernism appears to lack this action (Makaryk 612). Post modernism is more interested in deconstruction, in identifying failure and in looking at the potential of otherness. While Hamlet and Ophelia are certainly "casualties not only of character but of an all-too-familiar corporate power-lust" (Marshall 82), they are not iconoclasts of corporate America. Their problem is more intricate than that. They are pressed in by competing and complex factors. Hamlet is grieving for a dead father and watching an adulterous mother. Unlike Branagh's Hamlet who feigns madness, this Hamlet seems to truly slip in and out of sanity, and his contemplation of suicide is sharp and realistic for all its strange remediation. Ophelia is caught between pleasing her father, her brother and her lover. They are emotionally vulnerable, alone and out-of-control. Both try to escape into the "technologies of image making" (Marshall 82). Ophelia takes still pictures and Hamlet makes moving pictures.

In two ways, the film makes serious revisions that ASU's Sakren may have rejected. First, this postmodern version of Hamlet enlarges the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia. The director develops her role far beyond previous filmic interpretations. Kate Winslet in Branagh's Hamlet is a highly sexed victim of familial pressures. Her obvious lack of virginity, both emotional and physical, makes her less appealing as an innocent, victimized young woman. Helena Bonham Carter in Zeffirelli's version barely gets enough screen time to establish a role. However, Ophelia in her expanded role in the postmodern version develops strong visual bonds with all the characters. Even between Ophelia and her father, who is traditionally played as a fool, the viewer sees genuine love. Though Ophelia's dependence on the men in her life is not a feminist ideal, her status resonates with an audience seeking an authentic experience. The film, as a postmodern film, does not satisfy the politics of the feminist but does give traditionally background female characters more screen time and presence. It is a passive protest for women's rights. The film also departs from the traditional, militaristic end of the play. Instead, the play draws from a previous portion and ends with a fatalistic pronouncement of a disengaged news anchor. This is the tragedy of postmodern Shakespeare.

Postmodern performance of Shakespeare, particularity in film, is characterized by a subjective experience within the play not an objective experience from the play. Under postmodernism, Shakespeare undergoes theorizing, deconstruction, displacement or death of the author, textual criticism, and cultural and political relativism but fails to produce solid answers. Postmodern Shakepseare does not offer new meanings but new and more possibilities for contemplating meaning. This fails both the traditionalist who relishes in reviving universal meaning, and the progressive who relishes propagating their political diatribe. Traditionalists can give a sigh of relief that Shakespeare thrives in the postmodern age by way of a growing number of Shakespeare troupes and festivals, the reconstruction of the Globe Theater, websites, stage productions and film (Worthen 2). But, this same Shakespeare is revised and amended to fulfill in some cases the desire of progressives for Western literature to acknowledge previously ignored groups. Postmodern Shakespeare, though not disappearing, is morphing in directions both groups oppose. The merit of the Bard's works have not yet been exchanged for political dogma of the left, but neither do they completely inherent the discipline and classic modernity of their origin.

Works Cited

Alexander, Rachel. "Is Shakespeare sexist." Arizona Daily Wildcat 2 Feb. 1998.

Bennett, Susan. "Godard and Lear: Trashing the Can(n)on." Theatre Survey. 39:1 (1998): 7-19.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.

Gualvez, Cass. "To be or not to be…traditional." Daily Trojan 22 Jan. 1999.

Marshall, Alexandra. "The prince is dead. Long live the prince." American Prospect. 11:15 (2000): 82-3.

Martin, Isabel. "Postmodernizing Shakespeare: A Palimpsest Poem." Historicizing/Contemporizing Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of Rudolf Böhm. Eds. Bode, Christopher, Klooss, Wolfgang. Tier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher, 2000. 185- 199.

Makaryk, Irene. R. Encyclopedia of contemporary literary theory : approaches, scholars, terms. Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 1993.

Neilson, William Allan and Charles Jarvix Hill, ed. The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1942.

Reinfandt, Christoph. "Reading Shakespeare Historically: 'Postmodern' Attitudes and the History Plays." Historicizing/Contemporizing Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of Rudolf Böhm. Eds. Bode, Christopher, Klooss, Wolfgang. Tier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher, 2000. p 73-89.

Shaughnessy, Robert. "The Last Post: Henry V, War Culture and the Postmodern Shakespeare." Theatre Survey. 39:1 (1998): 41-61.

Worthen, W.B. "Shakespeare and Postmodern Production: An Introduction." Theatre Survey. 39:1 (1998): 1-5.