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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: March ::
Towards a New Dunciad
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0864  Thursday, 28 March 2002

From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Wednesday, 20 Mar 2002 21:25:46 -0500
Subject:        Towards a New Dunciad

"[T]he economic crisis of the academic profession, especially in the
humanities, has had a powerful methodological effect.  If there are
fewer and fewer places for graduate students to occupy in the
profession, if there are more and more graduate students pursuing fewer
and fewer places, a premium has to be placed on the sheer production of
discourse.  A general, unspoken fear comes over everyone that discourse
is being used up, that the things that are worth saying have been said.
And what this does is to place a premium on methodology that will loosen
the constraints upon discourse."

--Frederick Crews, Professor Emeritus of English, University of
California at Berkeley.

It's time to question the legitimacy of the pseudo-discipline known as
Shakespeare on Film.

1.  With few exceptions, the film and TV versions of Shakespeare's plays
do not qualify as works of cinematic or videographic art:  in fact, most
are mediocre or dreadful.  Yet certain practitioners of this
"discipline" treat each production, however trifling, as an object
worthy of aesthetic analysis.  This leads to the phenomenon of scholarly
essays devoting minute, loving, exegetical attention to the "camera
movements" and "frame compositions" of the latest Hollywood
vulgarization or the incremental piece of BBC hackwork.  Shakespeare on
Film must be a godsend for scholars who have nothing interesting to say
about the plays: what a relief to focus on bad TV and movie versions
instead!  Yet how in good conscience can they treat this material as
though it were high art?

Moreover, most of these practitioners are professors of English
literature.  They have no advanced degrees in Film Studies and no
personal expertise in cinematography, videography, production design,
editing, acting or directing.  Their lack of sophistication in these
matters is evident in every line they write.  How do they justify using
their literary doctorates to pose as experts in a field where they are
nothing more than hapless amateurs?

2.  Some practitioners study these films, not as artworks but as
artifacts: evidence of the cultural reception and popular understanding
of Shakespeare.  If such studies are not to devolve into triviality or
journalism, they must focus on more significant matters than the boring
fads and fashions that other listmembers have justly derided.
Unfortunately, most Shakespearean films offer little or nothing of
enduring socio-cultural interest.  This is true even of the supposedly
richest sources.  Once the cultural historian has noted, e.g., that
Olivier's Henry V was intended as a spiritual rallying point for
war-torn Britain, and that Olivier excised the darker and more troubling
aspects of the play in furtherance of that end, there is really nothing
more for him to say about the film.  His only recourse is to repeat the
same obvious points, over and over.

3.  Some disciplinarians study these films as embodied interpretations
or "applied criticism" of the plays, treating the directorial and acting
choices as a guide to Shakespeare's meaning.  Yet why should bad movies
be good criticism?  How much literary enlightenment can be derived from
a poor or middling production?  And why should scholars afford
presumptive deference to the "criticism" of Keanu Reeves, Alicia
Silverstone, Billy Crystal, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire
Danes, Al Pacino, Oliver Parker, Jack Gold, Baz Luhrman, Michael Hoffman
and other classical mediocrities and no-talents?  My assertion that most
of these films are pedestrian or worse can hardly be controversial:  the
law of artistic averages guarantees it (and no one could plausibly claim
that most of them are masterpieces).  Yet scholars who wouldn't hesitate
to attack Bradley, Dover-Wilson, Jenkins, Bloom and other published
Shakespearean interpreters seemingly eschew discrimination when it comes
to filmmakers, resorting to slavish, uncritical description or outright
celebration.  This presents the embarrassing spectacle of learned men
and women behaving like film groupies.  Do they truly lose all taste and
judgment when they shut their books and turn on their VCRs?  Or do they
fear that honest assessments of quality would expose their pursuit for
the frivolous waste of time that it is?

4.  Shakespeare on Film is based on the premise that any connection,
however attenuated, to the works of William Shakespeare renders any
movie, however trivial, a proper subject for academic study.  This
premise is transparently absurd, but it does allow scholars starved for
material to fasten on such ephemera as O, Joe Macbeth and Ten Things I
Hate About You.  The extension of this premise to the rest of the
Western canon has already given us other authors "on Film," and no doubt
many more will eventually sprout, like a field of poison mushrooms.
Next up:  Poe on Film (monographs analyzing the "narrative strategies"
and "framing aesthetic" of all those Vincent Price thrillers); Melville
on Film ("Ahab-raham Lincoln: The Iconic Significance of Gregory Peck's
Performance"); and Dostoevsky on Film ("Shatner's Alyosha:  Where No Man
Had Gone Before").  Why stop there, however?  Let's have Trollope on
Film, Thackeray on Film, Fitzgerald on Film, Hemingway on Film....And
now that some colleges are allowing pulp-writers onto the syllabus,
let's place ourselves at two removes from literature and have Stephen
King on Film.  Let pseudo-disciplines thrive!  To it, decadence,
pell-mell, for scholars lack subjects.

--Charles Weinstein

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