“This American Life” host Ira Glass went to Central Park to see King Lear with John Lithgow in the title role. He thought Lithgow was “amazing.” He also, a bit more controversially, thought the play was kind of crappy (leaving unanswered the question of how an actor can be amazing in such an unamazing role – how to know the dancer from the dance?). More precisely, he discovered that Shakespeare “sucks” because his stuff isn’t “relatable” and is “unemotional.” Glass, assuming he’s not being ironic, seems to think that these are bad things. Why?
I suspect Ira Glass thinks that Shakespeare’s supposed unrelatability and emotional stuntedness are historical accidents: that times have changed so much since the 1600s that “we” no longer have anything in common with Shakespeare’s characters, their ways of life, their emotional states of being. I dare say he’s right. Personally – and how can an ability to “relate” ever be anything but a personal matter? – I don’t find it easy to identify with any of Shakespeare’s characters either, or to “relate” to their troubles or triumphs. But history — the passage of time and changes in how we think and feel — is not to blame for that. I expect Shakespeare’s characters weren’t significantly more “relatable” when they were first written than now. Primarily, that is because they simply aren’t people – and certainly not people “like us,” in 1600 or now.
Identification or “relatability” was never the point. Most of us may not live in a monarchy anymore, but even if we did, how many of us would actually be kings or queens? Or even dukes or earls? Shakespeare, with a handful of exceptions, regularly set his plays in social spheres far removed from those of the vast majority of his audience members (and, it bears repeating time and again, from his own). How many spectators at the Globe, in the pit or the galleries, would have watched the first act of King Lear and nodded their heads in pained sympathy: been there, done that? And if social distinction isn’t enough, Shakespeare, as many critics have pointed out, seems more than keen to disrupt any hopes for narrative or psychological coherence and logic. The habit that Stephen Greenblatt described as “strategic opacity,” the removing of clear motivations or intentions from characters’ actions, even where such had existed in his sources, appears almost designed to create a distance between the people in the audience and the (imaginary) people in the play. More than most of his contemporaries, Shakespeare is at pains to signal to his audience that these figures are not like them – that their very removal from a life recognizable as the audience’s everyday existence makes them suitable vehicles for the examination of grand themes and big questions, for negotiating conflicts and debates cut off from the actual day-to-day concerns of a subject in 1600 or a citizen in 2014.
“Unemotional” is a slightly tougher nut to crack. It’s difficult for me to see how it could possibly describe Lear, or Gloucester, or Cordelia, or Edgar – or even Edmund (since wrath is surely an “emotion,” no?). Similarly, in the other play Glass cites, Twelfth Night, it seems to me that strong emotions find expression – be it Viola’s, or Malvolio’s, or Antonio’s, or even Sir Toby’s (since wrath is surely an emotion, no?). But I suspect that that is precisely the problem: emotions find expression, they’re not experienced with the (relatable, recognizable) rawness their depth would require. A real man in Lear’s situation would not, after all, compose an impromptu stream of breathtaking poetry, but merely howl, wordlessly. Right? Wouldn’t Lear be more “emotional” if he simply screamed, Stanley-Kowalski-like, “REGAN! GONERI-I-I-L!” into the gathering storm? Even though I’m not a king and have never met a king, I’m sure even a king, faced with this kind of hardship, would do something like that.
Thing is, even though what “emotions” are would have had a very different answer in 1600 than in 2014 (humours and all that; liver, stomach, and so on), the distance between Shakespeare’s characters’ expressions of emotions and how those same emotions may have been experienced by Elizabethan or Jacobean Londoners would probably have been similar to the one we – or Ira Glass – can observe now. To pick a notoriously absurd example, it is unlikely that many theatregoers in 1594 would have reacted to encountering a niece with her tongue cut out and her arms chopped off the way Marcus does in Titus Andronicus: with a long speech rich in florid metaphors. I expect a real person’s reaction to such a sight then would have been broadly comparable to a real person’s reaction now: shock, speechless horror, screaming, wailing.
So in both these senses, the complaint that Shakespeare’s characters aren’t like us isn’t a complaint about historical distance or difference at all, although it seems to me that Glass thinks it is. In fact, it’s a fairly accurate statement about how Shakespeare’s plays (or, for that matter, most early modern plays – or, for that matter, most plays written before the twentieth century) work. If anything, it’s a nice and even timely corrective to the mushy universalism that so often dominates the popular discourse around Shakespeare: that he speaks to all of us, that he grasped the core of human existence, that he invented us. What’s weird is that Glass’s observation comes in the shape of a complaint.
Then again, I’m being coy. Of course it makes sense for Glass to hold up the vague notion of “relatability” as a measure of a theatrical work’s quality. He is, after all, a documentarian, and his perspective on other kinds of representational art is probably influenced by the brand of representation on which he has built a career. As an American theatregoer, perhaps he expects to see real people when he goes to the theatre, just as he gets to see images of people pretending to be real people when he goes to the movies. Theatre is a broad church, and there’s room for realism in it, of course; there’s even room for documentarians. But by and large, for most of its history, theatre (Western or otherwise) has not been especially good at (or especially interested in) portraying real people. Shakespeare certainly wasn’t. His characters are both bigger and smaller than life – they exist alongside the everyday; they intersect with real life from time to time (and where those intersections fall may change from period to period, from performance to performance, from audience member to audience member). But an intersection is not the same as a relation, and the sympathy that the term “relatable” implies would be a massively limited response to these figures: if Lear simply makes you cry (or worse, makes you cry because you recognize yourself in him), you’re missing the point.
I don’t mean to say that realism and documentary work can’t ever go beyond the specific, the locally and personally delimited, in its implications or reach. But they can stick to the specific, and they need do no more. Tears of sympathy are a perfectly adequate response to a story about a real person, though social or political action may be a more desirable or admirable one. In any case, realism without “relatable” figures would be a rather odd thing: it can do more than present what it purports to be the real, but I would presume it needs to do at least that much.
Most theatre, though, and certainly Shakespeare’s theatre, has no such obligation and no such goal to deal with “the real.” It seems a little strange, then, to hold it to task for missing a target it never dreamed to aim at. But given the incessantly repeated, misguided mantra about Shakespeare’s universal appeal, about his supposed ability to speak to all of us, I suppose I can also understand Ira Glass’s disappointment at discovering that neither King Lear nor Twelfth Night are masterpieces of social and/or psychological realism.
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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