Shakespeare not as lone genius but product of an art world

Howard Becker’s famous idea of an “art world” sounds like it could well apply to the success of William Shakespeare:

Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.

His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.

To sum up:

A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone.

Just because Shakespeare was not a lone genius does not diminish his work. Indeed, perhaps it is even more remarkable in this light: while there were plenty of other people who could have drawn upon the same resources and were engaged in similar activities to Shakespeare, they were not able to do the same thing.

Even though I teach about this topic from the sociology of culture fairly regularly, the idea of a lone genius is difficult for students to overcome. Not only do they want to give credit for success to a single person, they sometimes do not see “remixing” or approaching existing materials in new ways and with editing as examples of creativity. Yet, many of the social changes we see as monumental did not require the development of a completely new idea but rather a reapplication or reuse of existing concepts.

This reminds me: I should do a better job in the classroom of explaining how sociological work comes about. When you see a final product – article, book, other publication – it is easy to just see the author(s). But, there is often a significant backstory involving multiple people, institutions, and ongoing discussions within an academic field. For example, this blog post could be examined further for where the ideas came from. The typical acknowledgements section of a publication does not provide enough space to truly acknowledge the intellectual debts of the author(s) – and it is debatable whether readers would want to dig into this further.

Why your McMansion may need a Juliet Balcony

From the Reddit “McMansionDesign” thread comes this interpretation of an interior Juliet Balcony:

For when you want to lord it over your domestic kingdom and watch your lowly familial subject go about with their useless lives and hobbies.

Snarkiness aside, I could imagine two uses for such a balcony beyond the Big Brother implications:

1. It looks like this balcony is simply a cut in the wall from a hallway. That looks like a pretty dull hallway except for the overlook. Dark hallways are rather drab so why not liven things up with a balcony as you walk by?

2. Perhaps there are people who would really want to entertain from such a balcony. Isn’t that the point of a two-story great room with an open concept? Perhaps a music performer could play from there. Perhaps it could be the site for a celebratory speech. Or, how about some impassioned Shakespeare reading?

Quick Review: Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is currently running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier in Chicago. Here are a few thoughts after watching the show this past weekend:

1. For me, the primary appeal of the play was in the modern retelling of the story. Several parts stood out. First, before the play started, there were a number of characters from the crowd out and about on the stage doing everything from running a hot dog stand, trying to get people to sign a petition, to holding pro-Caesar signs, to trying out a skateboard. This helped foreshadow the important role of the crowd in the play but also added some levity. Second, the comparisons to the United States of today are intriguing. The play was set in Washington, Marc Antony was cast as a prizefighter, and the battle scenes in the end looked like urban warfare you might see on the nightly news. Actually, the themes of power, honor, and the line between being a popular leader and a tyrant would resonant in many nations today. I don’t envy artists who have to freshen up plays and other cultural works that many people are familiar with but

2. The second act, which mainly consists of running conflict between Antony and Octavius versus Brutus and Cassius, was more like a war movie than a play. The scenes effectively looked like American military encampments, fighting in the streets looked like Modern Warfare (complete with a burned out and flipped over car on the stage as well as a defaced Caesar poster where he was made to look like the devil), and there was a real edge to the action. It is hard to pick up this kind of tension from simply reading the play (though this may be simply my recollection from first reading this in high school) and this kind of quick moving action can be hard to reproduce on the stage.

3. The favorable review in the Chicago Tribune suggested Brutus should have been played with a more tortured approach:

Brutus here is played by a very capable British actor named John Light, a handsome, hyperarticulate, brooding fellow whose speeches are filled with smarts and context. Light is making his American debut in an Americanized concept with a pretty pathetic American accent. That, one can forgive him. He could be doing a political Piers Morgan (a redundancy?). But it’s harder to see past the deeper problem: Light seems to miss one of the most fundamental aspects of Brutus: a good and decent man who loves his country. Light’s Brutus is certainly tortured by what is and is not expedient, fair enough, but tortured ain’t the whole picture of Mr. B.

Light doesn’t let you feel in your gut that requisite inherent decency and thus when J.C asks that famous question, one’s mind goes to, “Really? What makes him different from all the others? Where did we see that?”

However, I wonder if this doesn’t also feed into the modern interpretation of this play. Do our conflicted heroes of today really reflect on their emotions? Or do we expect them to grimly move forward and finish the job? I’m thinking of James Bond here and his more resolute nature. Tortured modern heroes may not have the time to be tortured; there are often more immediate concerns and the next action scene awaits.

4. There was a lot of blood in the killing of Caesar. Enough blood that most of the intermission involved several stagehands disinfecting the stage, scrubbing the blood out of the floor, and wiping things clean. (Note: there were no splash zone seats but it felt really really close in the third row.)

5. The setting for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is hard to beat. Even on a cold February day, Navy Pier was an enjoyable place to be with a decent crowd all throughout, places to eat, and good views of the city. (Note: parking in the off-season is noticeably cheaper and plentiful.) Here is a picture of the view out of the southwest corner of the theater (apologies for the glare):


In my opinion, this theater is one of the best things Navy Pier has going for it so I hope it does well and even expands its offerings.