Social Distancing with Shakespeare

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump, writes about why people are cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare.

First came the meme to wash hands for the duration of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech.

Soon society was shutting down. “I’m worried about Covid-19 causing theatres to go dark,” tweeted theater-maker @MediocreDave on March 9, 2020. “Not because I’ll lose income, but because we’ll inevitably be subjected to opportunistic Shakespeare scholars making smug but superficial analogies to the playhouse closures of the late Elizabethan plague years.” That’ll be the end of that, I thought.

The next day, Slate ran a piece from Ben Cohen, “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign: How the Plague Ravaged William Shakespeare’s World and Inspired his Work, from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth.” Two days later, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith was historicizing appropriations of Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene for Penguin Books. Another two days, and The Atlantic ran Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

The content of these essays—Shakespeare born in plague, shuttered theaters prompting his poetry, Romeo and Juliet derailed by quarantine, playwrights sustained by wealthy patrons, disease threatening rival acting troupes, great art created in isolation—is not as fascinating as the questions raised by their method. Why are people cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare? What do we gain from comparisons between social distancing in Shakespeare’s time and in ours? How might our experiences with social distancing help us better understand Shakespeare’s? How can these examples help us think about academic work in 2020?

On March 14, @rosannecash caused a collective groan by tweeting, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Twitter did its thing. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” wrote @sydneeisanelf. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he masturbated incessantly,” said @emilynussbaum.

With doors shuttered, some theaters offered plays and programming online, free to the public, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater, the Public Theater, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then came pop-up performances like Patrick Stewart’s #ASonnetADay and The Two Gentleman of Verona on Zoom. What is the value of art in times of social distancing? How is social distancing changing the way art is done? Based on the analogy to Shakespeare, what might the art that comes out of coronavirus look like?

Academics followed suit. On March 23, Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Emma Whipday launched A Bit Lit, featuring open-access, of-the-moment interviews with early-modern literary scholars. What is the role of humanistic thought and conversation in times of social distancing? What is the importance—if any—of studying Shakespeare when society is in such turmoil?

Social distancing with Shakespeare soon became A Thing. Kathryn Harkup in The Telegraph on March 15; Andrew Dickson in The Guardian on March 22; James Shapiro on CNN on March 30. The genre was common enough to call for satire. On April 1, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague” for The New Yorker: “Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.”

Emma Smith tackled that tension with a straight face in the New York Times, arguing that “[Shakespeare’s] fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy.” Is our experience with coronavirus tragic? What makes something tragic?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, Ian Wheeler cited Shakespeare to argue that, in America, “We need a better patronage system for artists.” In The New Yorker, James Shapiro lobbed Coriolanus-shaped bombs at the Trump administration: “The casual insults, the condescension, and the refusal to accept responsibility will be familiar to anyone who has lately tuned in to the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shakespeare and Trump_smThese various ShakesTakes sift into terms developed in Shakespeare and Trump, my recent book about the surprising—and bizarre—relationship between the provincial English playwright and the billionaire President of the United States. There are the ShakesMemes. There are the Politicitations. And there is the Shaxtivism.

Above all, the Shakespearean gloss on social distancing shows the power—and pitfalls—of Public Shakespeare, where scholars eschew peer-reviewed academic writing in favor of public engagement.

I come not to bury Public Shakespeare, nor to praise it. I want to ask what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and why it elicits simultaneous enthusiasm and nausea. What is behind the push in some scholars to filter current events through Shakespeare? What is behind the tendency in others to get annoyed when they do?

Why are Shakespeareans suddenly authorities on everything—from presidential politics to social distancing? At a time when Donald Trump nonchalantly disclaims, “I’m not a doctor,” then proceeds to use his power and platform to promote hydroxychloroquine, why are Shakespeare scholars going widely outside their areas of expertise surrounding a 400-year-old English playwright to comment on current events?

Four points:

  1. As an early-modern playwright who often represented medieval and ancient history, Shakespeare built into his texts the practice of engaging the present with the distant past.
  2. As artworks that often have scholarly sources, yet are performed for a broad audience of mixed social backgrounds, Shakespeare’s plays have public engagement built into them.
  3. The long tradition of modern-dress Shakespearean performance and adaptation provides a model for scholars looking to bring ideas that are old and artistic into conversation with current events.
  4. At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, Public Shakespeare gives scholars a platform to illustrate the practicality and utility of our field.

There is tremendous energy right now behind public-facing ShakesWork with an ethical if not activist edge. There is also legitimate skepticism of that endeavor. As @ClearShakes wrote on April 12, “Guys, sometimes there just isn’t a Shakespeare play that’s relevant to our situation.”

But recognizing Public Shakespeare as more closely related to Shakespearean performance than Shakespearean scholarship helps us understand why, like any show that takes creative risks, some cheer and some hiss.

 

Celebrating University Press Week!

November 6-11 is University Press Week. Since 2012, we have celebrated University Press Week each year to help tell the story of how university press publishing supports scholarship, culture, and both local and global communities.

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Today’s theme:  #TwitterStorm

Blogs about how social media has contributed to the success of a University Press initiative or helped spread the word of important scholarship.

Harvard University Press A look at the role social media has played in the publication of Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide.

Johns Hopkins University Press  Editorial Director Greg Britton extols the virtues of Twitter.

Athabasca University Press How we are engaging with scholars through Facebook Live and other social media channels to make the work of publishers more visible

Beacon Press How social media has helped spread the word and keep the conversation going about Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

 

 

Generational, Relational, and Transformational Explorations of Digital and Media Literacy

This week in North Philly Notes, Renee Hobbs, editor of Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative writes about how she and her contributors interpreted the significance and meaning of earlier authors who examined the relationship between communications media, technology, culture and education.   

As a young scholar, back in the early 1990s, I had the chance to visit the offices of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, where Elizabeth Thoman was publishing Media&Values, a media literacy magazine. Working on a lean budget, Liz’s non-profit organization was a busy place: there were always a couple of grad school interns from USC or UCLA and always a couple of very talented professional staff. Over its 15-year history, the magazine reached upwards of 10,000 readers each month and introduced people to key topics in media literacy, exploring issues including the changing role of journalism in society, television and film violence, gender stereotyping in media, and other topics.

What I remember most about my visit to Los Angeles was the Center for Media Literacy’s library: it was a treasure trove of media literacy books, VHS video tapes, sound cassettes, curriculum kits, photography and film production resources, everything a teacher might want if the aim was teaching about journalism, advertising, Hollywood film and popular culture. Simply put, it was a room full of media literacy “stuff” from all across the U.S. and Australia, England, Scotland and even Brazil. In that pre-Internet age, access to media literacy materials this diverse was mind-blowing: perusing the shelves, for the first time, I began to understand that media literacy was a global movement.

Exploring the Roots_smIt was also obvious to me that media literacy was, even then, an unwieldy, difficult concept that meant a lot of different things to different people depending on their disciplinary backgrounds and professional identities, their political and social commitments, their attitudes towards media, and their life experiences. That’s partly what made the concept of media literacy so fascinating to me.

Twenty years later, when Elizabeth Thoman was packing up the contents of the Center for Media Literacy archive, I was lucky enough to acquire the collection and even more thrilled to be able to share it with my doctoral students at Temple University and the University of Rhode Island.

I was proud when Temple University’s Michael RobbGrieco applied his intellectual curiosity and generous heart into an examination of the archives, looking closely at the content, patterns and ideas of Media&Values magazine. He wondered: How did the magazine represent the voices and perspectives of the various stakeholders in the formative years of the U.S. media literacy movement?

Mike’s dissertation got me thinking about the generational, relational, and transformational spread of ideas about media literacy. Over the course of three generations, Liz, Mike and I, each of us in our own time, had wrestled with a unique, particular set of intellectual forces and flow of ideas. We each had attempted to understand media literacy in relation to the ever-changing state of media and technology, cultural politics, and education. In exploring how best to teach and learn about media, we used and built upon the ideas of scholars and thinkers from a variety of fields, including philosophy, education, communication and media studies, psychology, sociology and the arts and humanities.

But each of us had encountered these ideas through the prism of our own lives. Our personal life stories uniquely shaped the way we interpreted the significance and meaning of earlier authors who examined the relationship between communications media, technology, culture, and education.

To explore how life narratives may shape people’s understanding, I wanted to push even further back in time. What were the deep roots of digital and media literacy? How could I find creative ways to help undergraduate and graduate students to understand the historical legacy of media literacy’s interdisciplinary position at the intersection of media studies and education?

That’s why I invited 16 distinguished authors to respond to the question: “Who is your metaphorical grandparent? What writer has most influenced your thinking about digital and media literacy? I was delighted when distinguished authors including Henry Jenkins, Douglas Kellner, Dana Polan, David Weinberger, Lance Strate, Donna Alvermann and others agreed to contribute essays to this volume.

In Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative, these authors introduce readers to a particular scholar who influenced their thinking. Through their own personal narratives recounting their exposure to ideas, readers are introduced to some of the great minds of the 20th century, including John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Marshall McLuhan, John Fiske, Roland Barthes and others.

Each chapter describes an individual whom the author considers to be a type of “grand­parent.” By weaving together two sets of personal stories—that of the contributing au­thor and that of the key ideas and life history of the historical figure under their scrutiny—major concepts of digital media and learning emerge.

The book shows how the theories and concepts that drive digital and media literacy educators have been shaped by people’s exposure to early 20th century scholars and thinkers who:

  • explored awareness of form, content and context in the meaning-making process;
  • examined the social nature of representation and interpretation;
  • unpacked the dialectic of empowerment and protection in relation to media influence;
  • considered the role of art as a means of social transformation; and
  • reflected on media’s contribution to personal and social identity.

For many readers, the book will recreate the experience I had when visiting the offices and library of the Center for Media Literacy so many years ago: a chance to marvel at and explore the writing and scholarship at the turn of the 20th century that continues to offer insights to contemporary scholars trying to understand the practices involved in accessing, analyzing, and reflecting on mass media, popular culture and digital media.

Today, with the rise of Internet and social media continuing to reshape our complex love-hate relationship with media and technology, it is my hope that by connecting the best ideas of the past to the challenges of the present and future, the next generation will be well-poised to carry on the important work of digital and media literacy education.

 

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