I keep finding myself surprised by the appearance of things in Shakespeare’s plays that have a ton of relevance to contemporary culture. For example, in All’s Well that Ends Well there is a scene where they prank a soldier. Prank culture has a big place on the Internet, too. Nelk Boys, the Logan Bros, Chad and JT: these are the children of Jackass, the offspring of Punk’d, but they have a four hundred- and twenty-year-old ancestor in Shakespeare’s play.
One of the great things about studying Shakespeare is the mental effort it takes to figure out what is happening as you are led through multiple plots that interweave and are only known through dialogue. We must decipher the stories and their relevance through what characters say to each other. In the case of All’s Well, we hear the soldiers plot out the prank ahead of time. They want to test their friend’s loyalty, so they plan to have him ambushed and held hostage so that he thinks he has been captured by the enemy, but it will be his fellow soldiers in disguise.
Helena also pulls a kind of trick on Bertram. She switches places with the woman he is trying to have sex with, and she gets him to impregnate her. This is a prank with much more serious consequences, and it is the moral question of the play. Through this dynamic, Shakespeare creates an opportunity to ask a lot of interesting questions. There are debates to be had about the morality of the character’s actions.
One of the problems in our culture today is the changing line between culture and life. Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed in a theater. Nobody gets pregnant or is held hostage. One of the great things about self-made celebrities on the Internet is that they have a ton of creative freedom, because they did it their way. The downside to that freedom is a lack of support or connection to a sustainable business model. Once a movement starts making a lot of money and the players involved depend upon that income it becomes hard to make certain changes. There is a momentum to success that is hard to control.
There is also an escalation of the stakes. People study what performs well on YouTube, for example, and then you get someone like Mr. Beast who constantly feeds the algorithm exactly the kind of stuff it wants. Mr. Beast is performing stunts, not pranks, and this is a more sustainable model. Mr. Beast has an interesting combination of fantasy and reality at work in his videos and he does outlandish and absurdly expensive things, but they also take a lot of discipline and endurance.
Partly, this desire for reality that is shown in pranks and stunts is due to the ungrounded aspect of Internet culture. Because it is a potentially global stage, the internet attracts evermore extreme types of content where the stakes are real. We see people hanging with one hand from the edge of skyscrapers, walking a slack line across an impossibly huge canyon, snowboarding down basically vertical mountains of snow, and so many other death-defying acts. The fear of death is universally compelling.
So is sex appeal. If sex sells, it’s because people demand it. The attention economy is flooded with prurient content. The sexual trick in All’s Well works because Bertram is so damned horny. Helena knows it will work, too. She instructs the woman he is trying to screw how to get him to give her his ring, and he does it the dummy.
Helena manipulates Bertram into marrying her and getting her pregnant through political power and sexual deception. Bertram is a character who represents something you see a lot of today. He is a guy who desires freedom because his life is ironically very unfree. Bertram’s retreat into bro culture shows just how defeated he is.
It is super interesting to witness and participate in the cultural revolution we are experiencing. I believe that this is an early renaissance of internet culture and some of the characters we are watching are going to innovate and produce work that will be worth of studying far into the future.
My hope is that we will course correct away from higher and higher stakes and veer away from the potential for devastating consequences and instead we will raise the bar by focusing on developing talent and style. Instead of being impressed by someone who is so willing to risk their life, we could be celebrating things that are extremely hard to do, but that are good for life. Mr. Beast learned by studying the YouTube algorithm and now younger YouTubers are learning by watching him, so who oversees this thing? Creative control is the scary thing. Going to the edge of a building is obvious, compelling, and ultimately stupid. Going beyond the known and accepted ideas is scarier and has more potential to break new ground.
We have so many insanely terrifying and challenging problems we could work on tackling. Mr. Beast has a philanthropic component to his content that has the greatest hope to lead this pack of wild creators towards something more sustainable. By using the media to do philanthropic things in the world, he sets a precedent for achieving success by helping other people. The easy and obvious thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to risk our lives, but the harder and ultimately more rewarding thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to commit to challenging ourselves creatively instead of with danger.