18 August 2010

Not just of an age, but for all time -- and all people

I'm responding today to a post over at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's blog, about something that was brought up at the International Shakespeare Conference last week. The crux of the debate -- as I gather from that blog post, not having been in attendance, myself -- is over the accessibility of Shakespeare. This whole post comes with a caveat that I haven't read the papers in question here, and I didn't hear the presentations; the extent of my knowledge is what I've gleaned from the blog posts about them -- which in itself relates to the issue.

The two sides of the debate come down as pro- and anti-proliferation of Shakespearean scholarship through new media -- Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. One side has taken up against the "deprofessionalism of the field of Shakespeare studies," concerned that every time some yahoo makes an un-informed tweet, he unconsciously maligns those of us who have spent years informing ourselves, writing papers, and thoughtfully discussing Shakespeare's works -- as though the respect our field earns and deserves is determined by some kind of average, and input from the low end of the scale is bringing down the median. On the other side are the pro-proliferation group, the bloggers, the Tweeters, the scholars who have taken their act onto the Internet superhighway. This side advocates using new tools to reach more people, to facilitate discussion, and to make connections.

The blogger whose post led me to the debate posed the question, in regard to Shakespeare BT's blog: "What do you think a blog like this should accomplish? How should the public be able to interact with Shakespeare?"

Honestly, the ideas behind this debate sort of bewilder me. Just that phrase, "how should the public be able to" sets my teeth a bit on edge -- the idea that it's up to the scholastic community to determine how the public should be allowed to experience Shakespeare is bizarre. There's no "should" about it -- they can interact with Shakespeare however they want. (I'm even hating using the pronoun "they" here -- I'm part of "they," I'm not just a scholar, I'm an audience member, too, and I was an uninformed enthusiast for years before I took a single class on the topic). Shakespeare doesn't belong to robed denizens of ivory towers -- he belongs to everyone. He isn't something to be hoarded, held close, only let out in carefully controlled dribbles -- he should be shared, joyously, as much and as often as possible.

This next statement is going to sound so ridiculously cheesy, and I sort of can't believe I'm putting it out there into the ether, but -- Shakespeare is like love. You don't have any less of it just because someone else has more.

It's also worth pointing out that when Shakespeare was writing his plays, he wasn't writing for the PhDs. Most of his audience consisted of Joe Averages, the groundlings, the workers on holiday, the apprentices skiving off from their chores. The man himself didn't have a degree to his name; he wasn't one of the University Wits. He wrote for people of all kinds, all social statuses, all levels of education and intellect. How can we justify rarefying Shakespeare more than he rarefied himself? You don't need a degree to enjoy Shakespeare or to have an opinion on him.

And so I fully embrace the proliferation of Shakespeare studies (as you may be able to tell from this blog or from my Twittering). The Internet is the new medium of public discourse, and Shakespeare needs to be on it. Are there people on the Internet spouting off extremely uninformed opinions and asserting incorrect factoids? Absolutely. A quick delve into Yahoo!Answers is enough to make almost anyone despair of hope for the future of the human race. But I don't think I personally, or the organization I work for, or the field of Shakespeare studies as a whole loses anything by their comments. If anything, every one of them is an opportunity for us to reach out and educate. No one loses by that.

At the ASC, we don't believe Shakespeare is beyond the reach of anyone. We firmly believe that all people can and should have Shakespeare in their lives. We are all about taking down the velvet ropes and making Shakespeare fun and exciting for absolutely anyone.

A good example: I spent my Saturday afternoon helping Sarah with our workshop for the Federal Executive Institute's Leadership Conference. In one of our activities, as part of examining body posture and what message it sends, we asked the participants to look at four of their peers and determine who of those four, based on physical cues, looked most receptive -- who would be most likely to listen to us talk about our plans for the ASC and perhaps invest in us. One of our participants decided to judge on clothing, and he asked why we would think someone dressed in a T-Shirt, shorts, and sneakers would be interested in Shakespeare. Sarah responded that he was exactly the sort of person we want interested in Shakespeare.

The Internet angle, though, is something we've discussed a lot recently, as the ASC has been launching itself onto Twitter and into the blogosphere. Where is the line between acceptable informality and degradation of quality? How do we want to present our organization? Just because we have this opportunity doesn't mean we should treat it lightly -- but there's no reason to flee from it and try to keep the field of Shakespeare studies rutted in the past just because we're not quite certain what the future will look like yet.

I'm interested to hear from others on this debate. I know my personal opinion may be shaped in large part by the fact that I am a young Shakespeare scholar. I came of age during the advent of the Internet; I barely remember life before instant messaging. So, for me, this matter seems incredibly obvious. Why wouldn't we take advantage of new ways to reach the rest of the populace? And I think this attitude is what I see in most of my peers, the new generation of scholars, freshly-minted, who likewise grew up using the Internet as a font of knowledge and as not just a way but the way to disseminate ideas.

So -- What do you think? What side of the debate do you fall on? Though, honestly, just asking that question here is somewhat leading -- if you're reading this blog, that's a bit of a tell as to where you stand on the matter. But share your thoughts! I'd love to hear them.


  1. What kind of ethical stance do you assume in commenting on an academic paper that you neither heard nor read? Ironically, this may be one of O’Dair’s many points: democratization makes people (in this case, you) believe that their (or your) opinions, even those motivated by a blog, written by a self-admitted underling, on a talk the primary blogger likely heard once, have merit. Get the paper if you want to talk about it. She is not that hard to find. Google “Sharon O’Dair.”

  2. Jordan -- Well, as I said in my post, I was responding to the blog, not to the paper. I kept names out of it for that very reason, and I made sure it was clear that I wasn't speaking to the paper itself. I don't particularly see anything unethical about that. If I was going to write an in-depth paper of my own for publication or a conference, there would be a lot more research involved, but since blogs are, by their very nature, less formal, it didn't seem necessary to hunt down the original source. I was just joining the debate, picking up the thread from another blogger -- which is pretty much how the Internet works.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for helping me to prove a point. Where are you from and what's your background? I'd love to know more about where your stance originates. Everyone's view is interesting.

  3. Cass -
    I completely agree that Shakespeare does and should belong to everyone. However, I feel that "accessibility" has developed a negative connotation. I'm currently working on several Shakespearean productions, which I would term as accessible. However, they don't convey the deeper meanings of the text and really don't make you feel anything. This is only one example of the development, but it raises the question - how do we (yes, we) ensure that Shakespeare is accessible to all without robbing people of that emotional experience? In other words, how do we challenge an audience and maintain the accessibility at the same time?

  4. Thanks to Cass for her post and to the respondents who replied. Interesting opinions are I think often put forward by the 'uninformed'. They may well be able to think more freely and to take ideas in new directions. These uninformed thoughts can provide useful springboards for others more informed and less informed alike. As a teacher I firmly believe that everyone's opinion has merit. An opinion is after all just that, an opinion, informed by the unique perspective of the person who holds it. It may not be my opinion, it may be informed by a what I consider a misunderstanding of facts, but it is still of value. At least that's my opinion! ^liz

  5. I too am confused by the original assumptions and artificial dichotomies which appear to be the basis of the debate.
    I would defend (robustly)proper scholarly research of text and other historical shakespearean domains, but hey, the text is neither sacred nor holy - it's writing!!

  6. Thanks, everyone! These are all great points.

    I guess what it all sort of comes down to is: Would we rather people talk about Shakespeare and be uninformed and wrong, or would we rather they not talk about Shakespeare at all? And it's a tricky issue -- for one thing, what's "wrong"? I'm of the opinion that there's no one way to be "right" about Shakespeare, there are many ways, but there are also plenty of ways to be wrong -- but who are we to decide what those are? Well, we're scholars. We're the people who *are* informed. We do speak from some measure of authority on the subject. But everyone is entitled to an opinion -- even (dare I suggest it?) students and underlings.

    I think the answer, though -- or at least the best answer we're going to get -- is that we gain nothing by disdaining the opinions of the underinformed. If we set them up as a separate class from ourselves, the informed, the scholars, we do everyone a disservice, and we're going to miss out on the golden opportunity to join the dialogue and to win over some converts to the realm of critical thinking and detailed research.

    So that's why I love that we're out here, on blogs and on Twitter and on Facebook. I think we have the chance to raise standards and raise the level of dialogue. The most we can do is put our scholarship out there, rather than insulating ourselves from the popular discourse. People will always be Wrong On The Internet. But we can be right there, too. And maybe if we are, more people will start to be.

  7. We just dove into the debate over at The Shakespeare Standard.