MIT Communications Forum – Remixing Shakespeare

I attended the recent MIT Communications Forum on Remixing Shakespeare and prepared the following summary. An edited version will eventually appear on the MIT Comms Forum Web site.  Here is a link to the offical version which appears on the Commuication Forum site.  I’d appreciate any thoughts or feedback on the version below.

The idea of reusing, recasting and remixing content is nothing new; but somehow when those ideas are applied to Shakespeare they raise questions and issues that need to be considered and addressed. This MIT Communications Forum – Remixing Shakespeare – provided an opportunity to consider how Shakespeare has been remixed – it the past and in the present – and the role that digital technology is having in changing the way think about and use his work.

The session was introduced by Professor Henry Jenkins, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. It was moderated by Professor Mary C. Fuller, of the MIT literature department. Dr. Fuller works on the history of early modern voyages, exploration, and colonization. Her teaching interests range from the great works of Renaissance poetry (Paradise Lost, the Faerie Queene) to the intellectual and practical aftermaths of Europe’s encounter with America in the 15th century and beyond. She is the author of Voyages in Print: English Travel to America: 1576-1624.

The panel participants were Professor Diana Henderson and Professor Peter Donaldson, both of the MIT Literature Department (as Jenkins described it, this was an “all home team event”). Henderson is the author of Collaborations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare Between Time and Media, a Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen and Passions Made Public. She is also editing the third-generation of the benchmark anthology in our field: Alternative Shakespeare’s; and is also an active participant in MIT’s partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Donaldson is also a professor of literature and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the director of the Shakespeare electronic archive. Since 1992 the Shakespeare Archive has developed new ways to use computers to study the text, stage and film records of Shakespearean images and production.

The session started with Henderson addressing the pre-contemporary roots and origins of remixing Shakespeare. Henderson found the language and materials promoting the evening’s event to be interesting – if a little misleading. The Web site, in particular, she noted – with its references to a “Macbeth Mashup” – might have given people a false impression of the sessions since she had no plans to discuss Macbeth.

In her mind, all of the talk about remixing Shakespeare is not as new as people may think. While the application of digital technology is new, from the artist’s perspective, borrowing and mixing across medium has been happening for a very long time. Few artists limit themselves to just one domain and Shakespeare certainly didn’t. He wrote lyric poems, narrative poems and works for the stage – as did his contemporaries. There was a remarkable amount of crossover and convergence among the different art forms of the time.

Beyond the mixing and merging that was going on, the very nature of many of the arts – in particular the visual arts – was undergoing change during Shakespeare’s day. As the theater moved indoors it became an increasingly visual art form – even more so than a verbal one – irregardless of who might be writing the words. At the beginning of the 20th century, with the coming of film, this mixing and merging can be seen to have continued with many actors moving back and forth between the stage and the screen and bringing elements of each to the other.

The crossover from the artist’s perspective has a long history and isn’t particularly new; what is new – and what has hit a new phase – is the conglomeration of the business model. The manipulation of an artist’s work is starting to cause consternation for people who are interested in the individual artist and the creative impulse. Some of this, in terms of remixing, is being played out in the issues of copyright and the ownership of a creative work. But this issue too has a long history as well – even in Shakespeare’s day, describing the ownership of a work could be difficult.

Theater, from its beginning, was a collaborative art form. Shakespeare was working at a point in time when people would come in and even rewrite one’s work. This was the case with Littleton’s addition of the Hecate speech to Macbeth after Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stafford (where he quickly died). (Henderson pointed out that she didn’t believe there was any cause and effect between these two facts.) This type of thing was not out of place and not exceptional – even for Shakespeare, who at that time was not exceptional in his relationship to the stage. He was not yet viewed as the genius figure that he became 200 years later.

One of things Henderson has been interested in lately is the way in which we, while we talk a lot about historicism, have not quite historisized ourselves to the extent that we can make a space for Shakespeare remixed in the sense of rewriting as being an acceptable and an appropriate thing to do. During the Restoration, when Shakespeare had been dead for about 50 years (long enough to become monumentalized to some extent), people felt they needed to keep him in the repertory but it usually involve extensive rewriting. The most famous example of this is the notorious rewriting by Tate of the happy ending to Lear in which the king gets the throne, Edwin and Cordelia have a nice romantic relationship, and it has a happy ending.

Most of the time when people cite this they seem to say, “Oh my God, what were they thinking?” But ending needs to be put into its own historical moment. The text – the rewritten text – speaks to a generation that has just lived through (and is perhaps living through again) a case of usurpation of the throne or the killing of the king. In this context, it doesn’t seem as silly for them to have been worried about showing a play focused on an abdication which leads to the disintegration of the kingdom.

In terms of considering remixing Shakespeare, we can make one move and put these changes into their context and they begin to make sense. But how can we explain the fact that for the next 150 years people continued to perform Tate’s Lear instead of Shakespeare’s? It wasn’t as though they weren’t aware of the original version since it continued to be available in print, or that they continued to worry about the fate of the King. Yet it wasn’t until 1837 that Charles Macudy put the original ending back on stage. These facts provide context for comments by the Romantics that they would rather read Lear that see it on stage.

The Restoration also saw the addition of song and dance to Shakespeare’s work – which may seem incongruous to us today – Macbeth the Musical – things that sound preposterous; but how far is that from Othello as an opera? [At this point Henderson played a video clip of a production of Verdi’s Othello.] Few people mocked this remix – even though the words and story had to be revised to accommodate the medium of opera – it is just close enough to us in time, and a masterpiece in its own right, that people accept the shift to song. But accommodations needed to be made; for example, there needed to be a role for a soprano so Desdemona’s part became more prominent. Key parts of the play are also manifest in new ways in the new medium. Throughout the filmed version of the opera people can be seen looking in, looking through, consciously observing and spying – which ties to those themes in the text of the play.

But is this still Shakespeare? If it isn’t the actual language can it still be Shakespeare? Is it still Shakespeare if you modify so many dimensions of the story? Most of us would say yes; even though we aren’t likely to be as charitable with some of the earlier remixes. Can it still be Shakespeare if you don’t have sound or words – just title cards? The ability to remix Shakespeare across time, medium and culture is one of the reasons he has remained so relevant and important. [At this point Henderson played a clip of a silent version of Othello.]

The exaggerated acting style of Neil Jennings in the clip is very pronounced and the plot line has been altered for the film version. The power and authenticity of him in the role, however, can’t be appreciated with a single clip out of context. It was no accident that he won the first two Academy Awards for Best Actor. This version though also needs to be considered in its historical context – and not simply in the moment it was made (which is evident in its rich examples of German expressionist film making); but also in the 100 years of telling, retelling and adapting the Othello story that had proceeded it.

Another sense of remix that appears in the both of the clips is the use of black face. To talk about remix only in terms of the form is inadequate. The socio-political dimension of remixing also has to be considered. The use of black face in the 19th century – a time of slavery – was very different than its use in Shakespeare’s day.

There is also the celebrity remix – a still of “Liz [Elizabeth Taylor] and Dick [Richard Burton]” in the Taming of the Shrew is on the screen. The film in this case was produced, in part, to help promote the careers of the two of the more romantically amusing stars of their day – which is yet another use of remixing; and one that combines elements of the on-screen and off-screen worlds.

Another example of mixing is the use of different genres to tell support a story. The four centuries since Shakespeare’s day has allowed reflection and consideration that has allowed the various remixing we see today. [Henderson shows a clip of Campbell Scott’s Hamlet – which uses horror film sensibilities and conventions to tell and support the story even though it doesn’t use the all of the words or staging of the original.] Some may feel that something is lost when Shakespeare is moved to the screen because the language needs to be adapted – but as was the case with this clip, the medium of film opens up new story-telling opportunities. All of this points to the malleability of Shakespeare – and the ability of the artists to provide input and context – whether they know it or not. It is easy to look at a performance and see and discuss how it is informed and influenced by previous performances – even if the performers are not aware of the connections.

The final clip that Henderson showed – which included no lines from the original Shakespeare – is very consciously playing with Shakespeare. In this case by Paul Mussorgsky. Casaveties is playing a version of a Prospero figure – and Raul Julia is playing Talibanos, cynical disaffected New Yorker who is now a local shepherd. The clip she played is Julia’s own musical moment. The clip features a dancing Julia playing “New York, New York” (as Liza Minelli sings) to his flock.

Henderson cites this as one of the best examples of the blur between diogenec and non-diogenec sound that there is. While it isn’t Shakespeare per se, it does an excellent job of catching the spirit of Caliban wanting to once again become the master of the world. It does it in a way that makes the film fun to watch – and while there are no lines from Shakespeare, there can be a lot of virtue in impurity.

It was with that thought that Henderson left the stage.

Donaldson took the stage stating that the Julia clip was perhaps the best moment of Shakespeare on screen. He was also surprised by the publicity for the event and that his work might have anything to do with remixing.

His first question was whether there was remixing in Shakespeare’s work itself. Not simply in an occasional sense but in a disciplined and sustained way.

By this Donaldson meant the conscious adoption of multiple source materials – for example the use of Shakespearian texts with the conventions of modern Broadway. Shakespeare himself did this type of thing on occasion, but it isn’t clear how conscious it was in his case or if it was simply the case of his absorbing and reusing content and context that he came across organically. It seems unlikely that he was consciously mixing things in a tiered or layered way. The closest thing Donaldson was able to find was the use of the mask elements in the Tempest.

It might be helpful, according to Donaldson, to use some literary terms to consider remixing. One thing to think about is not that remixing is metaphor (it isn’t); but that metaphor holds two things in relationship: the thing you are talking about and the thing that holds its meaning; for example, “my love is a rose.” Then you could have an extended form that might be called a conceit: “my love is a rose – she has lots of petals and smells good and has thorns and maybe fades.” The third term worth adding is allegory – for example, Romancing the Rose – where over the course of a whole work there is a tension between two defined things. In the case of Dante the allegory might be the state of souls after death and the other is God’s justice. If you keep those things in mind while you’re reading it will come out differently depending on which level you are thinking about.

These terms can be helpful to bear in mind with thinking about contemporary remixes because so many of them are remixes in a very strict sense. When a remix appears and succeeds online it is because the two elements are being consciously used together and work together. Donaldson’s son helped expose him to the remixing aspects of hip-hop culture which helped to inform his consideration of the concept in a general sense. He was astonished by the works of art being created by two turntables; works that kept the layers discreet but at the same time connected and working together. An example he cited was “Lord, Won’t you Buy me a Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin combined with a hip-hop drum beat. In his view this was a comment on celebrity culture that succeeded in creating a work of art by combining and remixing two existing works.

He thinks that it is doubtful that Shakespeare ever did anything so consciously himself; but Donaldson has found examples of it in the films he has studied.

His goal in his comments were three:

  • The first was to discuss whether or not Shakespeare himself remixed (which was addressed in his initial comments)
  • The second was to provide examples of Shakespeare remixed from contemporary films – particularly the Almorada Hamlet
  • The third was to show examples of popularly created remixed that might be found on YouTube – many of which are literal versions of the original work

In the Almoroda, Hamlet – played by Ethan Hawke – is a videographer. The films starts with him walking through Times Square and entering the Hotel Elsinor, where he sits down at his video editing equipment to view some of his work – this serves as a prologue to the film.

The film offers a literal interpretation of Hamlet on several levels. Hawke based his Hamlet in part on the life of Kurt Cobain so it has resonances with that alienated youth culture. The film includes the lines of Hamlet; but the video images he (Hawke) chooses to illustrate those lines are more important than the lines themselves. The found video used throughout the film serve as a visual means for both the character and the film maker to visually reinterpret Shakespeare.

The use of video – as the main tool for Hawke to capture and experience the world – allows him to meditate on his life; but it also cuts him off from the world around him and illustrates his grief in a way that other versions do not. The video is also used to create a media narrative – a personal narrative and personal medium; but it doesn’t allow one to fully engage in the world and leads to a tragic close; but tragedy has its compensations. In this version, Hawke is working on a film of Mousetrap – so instead of a play within a play we see a film within a film. In many ways though that is less interesting than the informal content the character creates during the course of the film. One thing that many commentators missed in looking at the film was the tool that Hawke was using to create his video. It was child’s Pixelvision camera from the 1980s. This media choice marked the character as standing apart, as being introspective and as being alternative.

The next clip featured Buddhist monk Tic Nat Han speaking on television while Hawke watched distractedly – viewing his own videos, writing and thinking. Han is talking about the idea of “to be and interbe” and that fact that “to be” means not being alone but to be connected with everything around you.

“To be or not to be” is conveyed through a complicated interaction between the Han video and Hamlet. It includes the videos he is watching and the videos he is making in what Donaldson calls a “multi-tasking meditation.” He is viewing videos of the things he is thinking about and this is increasingly becoming a serious means of processing and meditating and meditating ideas like “to be or not to be.”

Part of his meditation – on being alone or being connected – involves his viewing of a video of himself and Ophelia. So while he is contemplating loneliness, he is also contemplating connection and relationship and tries to bring them together.

The degrees of remixing occurring in this film are so involved and layered that to appreciate and understand them all requires that one to stop the film and really study the images. This, of course, is made possible with the introduction of DVD and other digital video technologies (which demonstrates again how the context of a medium have allowed new interpretations and remixed of Shakespeare’s work).

Another example of very thoughtful remixing in film is Hoffman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” where opera is used as the soundtrack and comes in and out of the film;s narrative. In this version, the fantasy world of the fairies comes not from the enchanted forest but rather from the “magical” use of recorded sound. The opera in this case serves as an insistent, almost aggressive counterpoint to Shakespeare’s work. As with the Hamlet mentioned above, there is also a deeper level of remixing that draws parallels between Kevin Kline’s character and Enrico Caruso – who is singing on the soundtrack.

We make a mistake if we view these films simply as popular works. They are learned works which, if nothing else, are able to draw on a much larger and longer tradition to convey deeper meanings. These remixes can only be recognized and interpreted with conscious effort and study.

In the case of You Tube, many of the remixes are very literal remixes; and most of them are pretty bad. Very few approach the level of some of the remixes of the Matrix with Japanese anime, for example. There is, if fact, a “Shakespeare Reloaded” that draws on imagery from the movie. There are also many Star Wars remixes – including what Donaldson calls an “honorific” Star Wars element (which might only include light sabers in sword fights, or which use Star Wars naming conventions).

The most popular remixes on You Tube seem to be Romeo and Juliet – often redone as a love poem for Valentine’s Day. These often include sappy music and an explicit dedication to a specific person. Remixes of portions of Shakespeare in love are also common. Brazil, for some reason, seems to the the source of many of these videos.

Another remix that Donaldson found on YouTube was clip from a 1960s television program that featured the Beatles introducing Peter Sellers in the guise of Lawrence Olivier in the role of Richard III reciting the lyrics to “A Hard Day’s Night.” This clip was included as almost a plea for authorship. There is so much talk about the dissolution of the role of the author or creator and yet in this clip there are four distinct voices that combine to create the work.

In looking at the videos – even the most amateur of them – Donaldson is struck by a strong sense of craftsmanship – of something having been created by a particular person to be a specific kind of a work.

What many of these videos demonstrate is a cultural and temporal compression – a free borrowing and mixing and remixing of content and context that results in relevant images that are almost immediately available to be used themselves. He ended by suggesting that there is something different about the culture of remixing – not that it didn’t have historical precedents; and that it holds tremendous educational possibilities in the growing store of video that now exists.

Q and A

Henderson pointed out that there has been another long-standing class of remix that has existed since the restoration and these have been the burlesque versions.

Q – If Shakespeare is a point on a continuum that includes the sources he drew on as well as the subsequent remixes, why do we insist on calling them remixes of Shakespeare rather than Verdi or Tate or the names of any of the other reinterpreters?

DH – We do refer to Verdi’s Othello as being his; at a very basic level, if the remix stands on its own and we like it it is called by the remixer’s name. When we don’t think as highly of it we tend to view it as bastardized Shakespeare. It’s partly a collective judgment of the quality of the work.

Q – I have tickets next month to see the Worchester Group’s remix of hamlet; I guess her last one was Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus mixed with Olga’s House of Pain. Can you talk about extreme remixes in the theater itself?

DH – I think of Peter Sellers as the antithetical avant garde to the Worchester Group, in that he announces his socio-political engagements. When you think about theater broadly, when you say Romeo and Juliet I think of West Side Story and the whole mainstream as well.

In some ways, people seek out theater and opera that offer a heightened and non-normative speech. In order to use Shakespeare’s original language it needs to presented in some alternative or non-normative way.

The exception might be those attempts to recreate the Elizabethan stage experience; but those are more simulacra – almost like going to Disney Land to see a non-authentic attempt to ignore the fact that you are in a different time and place and socio-political situation.

Mary Fuller – It’s like going to Stafford on Avon, it just feels so fake.

DH – the town is just like one big “Greeting from Stafford on Avon” mug.

PD – When attempts are made to recast based on gender – but not in an attempt to an historical recreation the results can be very interesting. There have been fascinating remixes in that sense – all women casts, all bearded men productions, etc.

DH – the most extreme versions of this – which we haven’t touched on – are the globalized versions that are real remixes that strive to sustain two things at once: the original story and the cultural context of the performance. There are many that question whether or not this works. Another example is the South African production of Macbeth that combines the play with Zulu theater. What is most interesting in these cases are those points where the cultures don’t mix and the fractures are most evident.

Q – I wonder if you could expand on translation and transition of Shakespeare to other cultures and on your thoughts of preserving Shakespeare’s language in contemporary culture.

DA – I don’t think this is category analysis where we can say one approach to applying language is better than another. One has to look at each case because it isn’t all bad or good. Most of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays were in contemporary dress or in some vague form of “past” dress. We live in a different age in terms of our view of history and it doesn’t always work for us to see things in some vague sense of the past.
PD – We live within these professional shifting sands. Fifteen years ago people would have assumed that it couldn’t be Shakespeare if the language wasn’t there; and now we take almost the opposite view.

DA – Today the most successful and popular remixes shift so much: time, culture, language – everything. This may also say something about language-centric analysis.

PD – There is also something that applies here to the question of Shakespeare in foreign languages. One of the issues that is important is whether real dual culture literacy is needed to appreciate these versions. I’ve written about Throne of blood, a Japanese film and I think the only non-English film I have written on; but I don’t know if what I wrote is right. Kurosawa always insisted on a dual inspiration – even insisting that Ran had nothing to do with King Lear. Of course he had to take that back. I think that one does need to have a true bi-cultural competence to truly understand this.

DA – When one talks about these bi-cultural versions, one has to ask the questions, “are the better for whom?” The more one is tuned in to a certain loop of knowledge the more enjoyable it is going to be. We just try to bring out what is interesting.

Q – Can we at least compare remixed versions?

PD – I think that we can look at these different films and see in them different thinking and different degrees of success based on the artist’s visions. In a lot of ways stylistic breakthroughs may turn out to be as important as they might have been originally thought.

Q – Have you had any thought of Shakespeare the video game? Where one is able to BE Shakespeare, control the plot, be immersed in the experience. I played the Lord or the Rings games with my daughter and had a more immersive experience than I ever did reading them.

PD – There is a game that got a MacArthur grant that should be out in a year or so.

DA – We tried creating one here when the royal Shakespeare company was here since we don’t have a performance space and we worked for a while on a Tempest Game. We began working on a prototype – you can’t recreate the narrative so we started thinking about an immersive environment and began to consider Prosperos Island. To create the level of play worthy of the subject mater would result in more of a high-art game rather than the normative game experience that the marketplace wants right now.

PD – There’s another way that video games function in Shakespeare films and that is how Julie Tamor does it in Titus. In which she has constructed her cinematic space as though it were a surround game with a young visitor from the 20th century making choices within that world as if they were playing with simulated figures.

DA – One thing that I would point out is that in a Shakespeare game people don’t necessarily want control; people who like the drama don’t like the idea of there being a single controlling narrative voice or guiding hand – even though they know there is a playwright behind the work. I’d argue that from the beginning Shakespeare wasn’t the only body behind the works – without the actors available to him at the time he wouldn’t have been able to create the works that he did. You also need a history of parts that you can draw on to create the parts and characters that make up the Shakespeare play. One thing that we haven’t touched on today is the role of liveness and that part that plays in the dimension of theatricality that works so well in Shakespeare. While Shakespeare works well on the screen we have certainly lost at least one of the key dimensions of his work.

A more appropriate approach might be to create a group interaction game and to have people in a role-playing environment.

One of the things that Henderson found very useful in the forum was the return of the live voice – even if on film – to the roles and plays of Shakespeare. She spends so much time working in the text that it was refreshing for her to think about and see performance of the roles. The Ethan Hawke Hamlet she found to be especially strong. The “To be and Interbe” was brilliant to her – as it is difficult to make “To be or not to be” accessible and relevant to an increasingly jaded audience. There is almost an anxiety as to how the artist is going to make the lines and roles fresh and relevant.

In some ways, that was the key message of the evenings discussion – how remixing Shakespeare continues to make his work fresh, relevant and accessible to a changing audience over time.

[tags]Shakespeare, MIT Communications Forum, Diana Henderson, Peter Donaldson, remixing[/tags]


One thought on “MIT Communications Forum – Remixing Shakespeare

  1. One thought and an idea from this post. I was thinking that Shakespeare borrowed ideas from previous plays and history, is that not correct?

    This idea of remixing plays and literature, remixing is something bloggers do all the time, we take facts and ideas and inject our own perspective on them building something new.

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