The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1149 Wednesday, 16 May 2001
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Tuesday, 15 May 2001 14:47:16 -0400
Subject: Theatre Journal reivew of Unspeakable ShaXXXSpeares
For anyone interested, the review below is in the current issue of
Theatre Journal 53.1 (2001) 176-177.
Queer Theory And American Kiddie Culture
Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares: Queer Theory And American Kiddie
By Richard Burt. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998; pp. xvii + 318.
$29.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.
The expansion of the Shakespeare film industry over the past fifteen
years has coincided with and fueled the burgeoning production of
academic books and articles on cinematic and televisual adaptations of
Shakespearean drama. As Richard Burt establishes in Unspeakable
Shaxxxspeares, however, film adaptations of Shakespeare's texts
represent only a fraction of the total universe of mediatizations of
Shakespeare. Enlarging the Shakespeare database to include
"post-hermeneutic" and "unspeakable" Shakespeares is one of Burt's
avowed goals. With the term "post-hermeneutic Shakespeare," Burt fills a
gap in the critical lexicon, supplying a catch-all category to encompass
citations, references (no matter how slight), and "replays" in virtually
any media--not only television and film but also Internet narratives and
comic books--"that are often so far from their 'originals' they no
longer count as interpretations of the plays at all" (xiv). Under this
episode of the television situation comedies The Brady Bunch and the
1988 movie The Naked Gun qualify for entry into the Shakespeare
database. From Gilligan's Island and Mrs. Doubtfire to the hardcore porn
video Taming of the Screw, nothing, it seems, is too popular, too
ephemeral, too dumb, or too pornographic to be analyzed with a density
of critical acumen traditionally reserved for "serious" film.
For those readers who harbor significant reservations about the rise of
cultural studies, Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares might appear, at first
glance, to represent their worst nightmare, a harbinger of the day when
Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero displaces Hamlet in the classroom. I
hasten to allay those fears: Burt is by no means an uncritical adherent
of the trend within American cultural studies that he labels, pace
Frederic Jameson, as "fandom."
As Burt emphasizes: "In conflating the critic and fan, cultural critics
fantasize that the academic can cross over and adopt the extra-academic,
popular position, indeed, can occupy all the positions, even though they
may be contradictory" (15). What typically legitimates the cultural
critic's cross-over into the position of fan is the assumption that
"cultural trash is by definition . . . politically subversive," an
assumption that Burt exposes as untenable.
The book is driven by a variety of objectives. In addition to promoting
an expansion of the Shakespeare archive, Burt investigates Shakespeare's
role as a "signifier of gayness" in American culture and probes the
"ambivalent postcolonial identification with British colonial culture"
(130) mediated through Shakespeare in American action films. It is his
scrutiny of the "academic fantasies underlying recent attempts to
reconstruct an anti-authoritarian model of the intellectual in terms of
fandom and popular culture" (14), however, that emerges as the most
urgent and genuinely radical line of inquiry. What makes this inquiry
all the more compelling is Burt's strategy of exposing the limitations
of American cultural studies by performing the role of cultural critic.
In chapter after chapter, Burt offers a series of incisive readings of
television episodes [End Page 176] and popular films, only to conclude
that the results of this analysis do not add up to the sum of its parts.
"Cultural trash" cannot bear the weight of the cultural critic. The
incongruity between the weight of critical attention lavished on a
popular genre and the meagerness of the output is especially glaring in
the chapter on Shakespeare pornography. No doubt many academics will be
surprised to learn that the pornography industry has habitually turned
to Shakespeare as source for scenarios, characters, and plots, which is
to say, pornography relies on Shakespeare to spice up the sex. Burt
devotes close to fifty pages to a detailed analysis of the various ways
in which pornographic videos rework elements of Romeo and Juliet,
Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. Yet when Burt sets up the "money shot . . .
of this chapter" (120), instead of fulfilling the academic fantasy of
discovering a cool new source of transgressive material to mine, he
explodes it, pointing out that his own analysis raises serious questions
about "whether the recycling of cultural trash . . . can properly be
regarded as a transgressive, democratizing move" (125).
Burt discovers more fertile terrain for cultural analysis in mainstream
American film of the 1980s and 1990s. A chapter on action films argues
that the genre's proclivity for citing Shakespeare bespeaks deep
contradictions in America's sense of its national identity in relation
to Britain. Shakespeare looms in the American national unconscious as an
"icon to be both destroyed and worshipped," an icon that attracts
contradictory feelings precisely because America cannot resolve its dual
identity as both a colonial offshoot of Britain and a colonizing power
on the contemporary world stage.
Burt traces a contrast between British films (Prospero's Books and The
Dresser) which "celebrate a virtuoso, English male voice that is
adequate to Shakespeare" (196) and American productions (Baz Luhrmann's
1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet and an episode of Gilligan's
Island) in which lip-synching, along with other forms of speeding up or
"overhearing and transcoding" Shakespeare, "figures a general lack of
synchronization," a clashing of cultural registers, which inheres "in
any mediatization of Shakespeare" (169).
Dissonance is a feature which Burt has built into his own book in a
performative gesture aimed at critiquing academic fantasies of
crossing-over into popular culture. Not content to refute the fantasy
within the text, Burt also stages its impossibility by having his book
published as a trade, rather than an academic, title. Any suggestion
that the book might be addressing an audience beyond the academy,
however, is certainly dispelled by the final chapter, which discusses
the role of the "Shakespeare Pedagogue" in an age where popular culture
is defined by post-textual, post-patriarchal youth culture ("kiddie
culture"). Burt documents a tendency for the Shakespeare pedagogue to be
"unambiguously portrayed in more recent films and television sitcoms as
a loser, obsolete, already behind his or her more innovative students"
(209), and posits that it is the mediatization of Shakespeare that
"threatens to make the Shakespeare teacher obsolete" (215). Efforts by
academics to escape "loserdom" by identifying with youth culture,
according to Burt, are futile and self-defeating. Burt admits that his
own forays into unspeakable Shakespeares have not yielded a new
pedagogical program; nonetheless, the questions he raises are crucial.
What does it mean, he asks, "to teach Shakespeare in forms so reduced
they may be characterized as unspoken and perhaps forever 'unspeakable'"
(243)? Can a case be made for incorporating post-hermeneutic
Shakespeares in canonical Shakespeare courses? Burt may leave those
questions hanging, but his study is invaluable insofar as it challenges
us to rethink our as-sumptions, whether affirmative or dismissive, about
the value of attending to unspeakable Shakespeares.
Margaret E. Owens
Fredericton, New Brunswick
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Webpage <http://ws.bowiestate.edu>