Recipe for a BBC Original British Drama: one Benedict Cumberbatch voiceover, increasingly dramatic music, a montage of close-ups—oh, and don’t forget the Shakespearean monologue. How’s this?
Shakespeare has never been one for the elite—or, wait a minute, has he always been one for the elite? Bold and subtle, crass and delicate, sex jokes alongside Greek mythology: Shakespeare can be anything you want him to be. Peter James took that seriously, as Alan Rickman—yes, your beloved Snape—remembered when writing about playing Jacques in both his and Adrian Noble’s productions of As You Like It. James took a rather less serious approach to the play:
“I [Alan Rickman] have vivid memories of Audrey, Touchstone, and William singing ‘Shake it up Shakespeare baby’, while eleven hundred people rocked with laughter, and it never seemed even remotely an error of taste. That’s how tolerant the play can be. It was a production rooted in a corporate joy.”
A corporate joy. Isn’t that what the comedies are about? Isn’t that why thousands of Elizabethans skipped work and headed to The Globe every week? Shakespeare is playful and malleable, an endless shrine to the power of the pun, and what better time to revitalize Shakespeare than now, when pun culture is everywhere. If Shakespeare were alive today, I’m sure he’d have a meme or two to contribute.
In this Digital/Computer/New Media/Information/Nametag-overload Age, it’s no wonder that liberties are being taken with Shakespearean plays that have never been taken before. Baz Lurrman gave Romeo a gun, Amanda Bynes took her comedy game from dancing lobsters to Twelfth Night, and magician Teller (of Penn and Teller) has given The Tempest actual magic. Thanks to Buzzfeed you can find out Who Said It: Tupac or Shakespeare? or if you’re feeling really rambunctious you can watch this Shakespeare rap from TEDx (or this one). Even the BBC knows that Shakespeare has a far greater appeal when spoken in the low, posh London voice of a handsome English actor.
All over the internet Shakespeare is being turned into art, jokes, questionable art and sometimes questionable jokes…
The internet opens itself up to bricolage in a way that has never been possible before. People can merge references to Rihanna and Shakespeare and nobody bats an eyelid; art is being distorted even more so than through Dadaism or surrealism, ignoring labels of high and low art, forgetting the difference between hip-hop and iambic pentameter, and just letting the people do their thing. Why not give Shakespeare sunglasses and a party hat? Why not rewrite Romeo and Juliet as a pair of garden gnomes living at 2B and 2B respectively (yes, inter-play puns are now happening)?
Rickman talks about letting Jaques out of the box we put him in when we form preconceptions, and a similar thing is happening throughout Shakespeare today. He is being let out of his box (one that arguably grew tighter and more elite than originally intended) and allowed to roam freely through the internet, brushing up against all elements of our eclectic culture and performances are benefitting from it. People are learning how great Shakespearean literature can be when appealing to the masses and placing itself in the contemporary moment. The Digital Age is upon us, and not even Shakespeare is exempt.