I discovered a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to get to know the plays of Shakespeare better. The BBC produced four volumes in 2020 with great actors voicing the parts of the various plays. They divided the canon up into: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories and Roman Plays. The British have been studying and performing Shakespeare religiously for hundreds of years, and there is something oddly satisfying about this contemporary audio collection produced during a pandemic. For an important chunk of Shakespeare’s career, the theater in London had to close due to the plague.
The plays make for good listening in today’s world. Each play is only a couple of hours. Many audiobooks can be upwards of twenty hours. Being able to consume an entire play in one go works well for today’s high paced multi layered culture. You could listen to a Joe Rogan podcast or one and a half plays. I recommend both. Rogan is undoubtedly one of the great literary figures of our day. We just don’t have the language and the context of understanding to voice his importance. I believe he is a truly important US American voice, along the lines of Emerson, Twain, Hemingway, Lenny Bruce. One thing about Rogan that you can’t deny is that he is multi-genre, multidimensional and a multimillionaire. Rogan’s work shows us a depth of character and content that we are simply not used to, so it is hard for people to accept or believe.
Listening to Shakespeare is a satisfying experience for anyone familiar with the plays. If you are new to the Bard, you might want to read some synopses online to help you to follow the story, but the best way to figure it out is by listening to the same play a few times. Even though it is English, there is a degree of challenge in understanding the language of Shakespeare’s day. Lots of the inside cultural jokes will be lost on us. Still, there are moments when the language shifts into verse and the beauty of English blooms into being in pure streams of sound like some magical fountain in the wilderness.
It’s worth listening just for those moments, alone. Shakespeare is also central to English identity, and English culture is fundamental to US culture, so by listening you are also studying something that has had a huge impact on how we live. Many of the values, including the problematic ones, we still debate about today are portrayed in a way that gives us the opportunity to analyze things about the culture. This is one of the great values of comedy especially. It provides a way of finding the flaws in our cultural logic without promoting fear and despair.
One of the smartest theories of comedy I have heard is Andrew Schulz talking about how comedy hits on this unconscious level, he calls it reptilian, that is not something that we would or should be ok with, but we are. The joke, he says, aims at something that we know is true in our gut but that is unacceptable in official culture. In his conversation with Jordan Peterson, he elaborates further suggesting that it is by attacking the institutions that are repressing those ideas that comedy shows the absurdity of most conventions and frees up that repressed unconscious energy in the form of laughter. Comedy searches for the edge and plays with the limits of the acceptable.
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing we have a comedy that has some very serious topics. There is a common way of misunderstanding the title as meaning something similar to making mountains out of mole hills. It suggests that there has been an exaggeration, some tendency to hyperbolize the problem when in fact it is based on nothing. When you listen to the play, though, you realize that the much ado is actually very monstrous.
It is a comedic illustration of how we rush to judgment in a culture based on shame and purity. The premise of the play is that there is to be a marriage between two respected members of society, a man and woman of value. Before the ceremony, however, someone intervenes and tricks the groom to be into believing that his fiancé has been unfaithful and has been having sex with another man. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, there are plays within the play at work.
In this case, Don Julio stages a fake scene of romance to convince the duke that he is being duped. This leads Claudio to show up to the wedding ceremony, but with the false intentions of exposing Hero, his would be bride. The fragility of a woman’s reputation is given full display in the hysterical reaction the men have to the thought that Hero has been sexually active. Their response to this false accusation of impropriety with a death sentence. She must be killed for this offense. The extreme misogyny of the response is only made more horrific by the fact that she is innocent and has been framed.
These are all of the ingredients of a tragedy. We have an Iago figure who is creating chaos by provoking jealousy with false narratives. The death sentence is given. What prevents this story from ending in a bloodbath is the intervention of a priest who suggests that they have some patience and wait to make sure that the truth is known before such a harsh sentence is executed. Instead, he suggests that they pretend that she has been killed to see how people respond.
In Hamlet, the play within the play is used by Hamlet to reveal the guilt of his uncle. In Much Ado About Nothing a kind of fictional performance is used to reveal the innocence of the accused. The direction of the play moves from corruption and dishonesty to justice and truthfulness.
There are many more ideas to analyze and conclusions to draw about this fun and philosophical play. One of the great things that Shakespeare does is to show us how fictions can be used to get at the truth or they can be used to change reality. The tendency of the character in Shakespeare is to be deceived, to not understand something critical about reality. In the tragedies, these misconceptions fuel action that leads to violent ends. In the comedies, the characters exercise enough patience to allow the truth to eventually come to light before any irrevocable actions have been taken.
How can we use these plays to help us to think about media in the contemporary moment? Is there some connection between how fictions are used in Shakespeare and current cultural trends, including the prevalence of editorial journalism (fake news) and the rise of stand-up comedy as defenders of the freedom of speech?