Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Narcissistic Look at Shakespeare

The Philistines are here. They are taking over. Their contempt for the canon of Western literature knows no bounds. They are even dismissing Shakespeare.

For what, you ask?

For not being “relatable.”


No less than Ira Glass, famed NPR talk show host, a man who Rebecca Mead calls “the Bard of Public Radio” has dismissed Shakespeare because, alas and alack, he, Glass cannot relate to the greatest writer in the English language.

Mead explains:

If Twitter is a place in which a user may be rewarded for exposing his most stupid self, Ira Glass put the medium to good use this week, when, after watching John Lithgow appear as King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, he tweeted his response: “Shakespeare sucks.” Glass admired Lithgow’s performance but thought the play flawed. “No stakes, not relatable,” he wrote. Later, he tweeted that the productions of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” in which he had seen Mark Rylance perform last winter had affected him similarly: “fantastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”

In a better time no one would have dared admit that he could not relate to Shakespeare or that Shakespeare had nothing much to say to him. Had he done so everyone would have understood that he was a semi-literate clod who was incapable of dealing with great art. Everyone would have known that he could not even recognize greatness when it was staring him in the face.

Countless readers over many centuries have recognized the greatness of Shakespeare. They have allowed him to speak to them.

If you, kindly young soul that you are, come along and say that you disagree, your opinion, dare I say, isn’t worth spit.

No such scruples for Ira Glass. He is happy to dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that it is not “relatable.” Mead exposes the inherent silliness of the notion that an artist must address the quotidian concerns of his audience, lest his work be dismissed as not relatable.

She summarizes:

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Of course, we do better to open ourselves to the artwork, to assume that it has something to say to us, that it concerns us… even if we do not understand exactly how. Art does not offer up the meaning of life. It does not tell you how to decorate your apartment, where to send your children to school or whether to accept a date with this or that person.

It might simply be dramatizing an important moral dilemma. You task is to let it speak to you, to enjoy its beauty and to draw whatever conclusions you may. If you fail to relate to it; if you fail to listen to it; you have a problem.

In that case art has shown you to be a solipsist, incapable of thinking beyond your narrow existence.

Mead states it well in her conclusion:

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.


Anonymous said...

I think Glass is anti-Shakespeare not because Shakespeare in unrelatable but because he's all too relatable of ideas and views that Glass loathes.

But he hasn't the guts to admit it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Very good point!! Thank you.

Stuart Schneiderman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dennis said...

Maybe Bloom was right when he wrote about "The Closing of the American Mind." Glass being a product of the American education system may very well lack the ability to see outside the very limited purview one is exposed in these institutions.
It is sad that we are creating a whole generation unable to see outside the "Box" that is the sum total of their lives. One should be open to everything that life provides for it is how we grow in knowledge and ability.
I remember as a young 18 year old stationed in Washington DC and visiting the National Gallery of Art and the joy I felt at what I was exposed . Cannot say I had the same feeling years later when I visited the Hirshhorn Museum, but it had its ability to relate to me.
Anyone who has a sense of the totality of life cannot but relate to Shakespeare. As has been mentioned one has to not like the ideas expressed.
What a terrible world it would be if one could not relate to "The Impossible Dream" and what it says about facing the challenges of life because one's whole experience is video games.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with you... Bloom was undoubtedly right. It's not only the educational system-- though that is the biggest culprit-- but it's a culture that allows someone as important and influential as Ira Glass to make idiotic statements about Shakespeare. Kudos to Rebecca Mead for exposing it.

Anonymous said...

Not relatable?!

Every person in Shakespeare's plays is not just a role, but a personae! A role we all play at one time or another... A man who cannot "relate to Shakespeare" is no Man at all and has never known the passions of a Man.

To not recognize and feel the humanity of his characters as your own is to not be human. It is inhuman and beyond that, inhumane and bloodless. It is to be a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.

Glass tells the tale filled with sound and fury signifying nothing! Not The Bard!


Anonymous said...

Art does not offer up the meaning of life. It does not tell you how to decorate your apartment, where to send your children to school or whether to accept a date with this or that person.

Perhaps not, but if you make an inartful choice in such things, at least Shakespeare is there to console you. If you're a Man.