Is Reality TV the New Shakespeare?

Is Reality TV the New Shakespeare?
The convergence of pop art and Shakespeare
Ron Seyb

November 24 2012

Skidmore College’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is further evidence that this area has more Shakespeare than that Gangnam guy has YouTube hits.  There is The Saratoga Shakespeare Company’s “Shakespeare in the Park” stagings, Hubbard Hall’s Shakespeare productions, and, if one wishes to drive a bit, there is the exquisite Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel overlooking the Hudson River.  Shakespeare is inarguably a resource in this area, one that gives us a comparative advantage over our blood enemies in Manhattan.  It is, however, an advantage that until recently I thought was as germane to my happiness as the advantage that organic Swiss chard has over processed Swiss chard.

I married into Shakespeare.  While I still maintain that the provision of my marriage contract that stipulated, “Shall accompany spouse to any Shakespeare production, whether on stage, in film, or in an abandoned meat packing hall, that said spouse desires” was buried in a secret codicil similar to those that propelled Europe into war in 1914 because of the reduction of the world’s Archduke stock by one, I now concede that I knew what I was signing, just as The Monkees probably knew whet they were agreeing to when they signed with Don Kirshner.

Shakespeare is, however, now alright with me.  Do I look forward to seeing an uncut production of Hamlet set in Istanbul circa 1878 that features extended interludes of interpretative dance by performers in peasant garb?  Of course not.  But I can now see the value of Shakespeare, though I have acquired this new appreciation of that Elizabethan hippie’s works for what many might think are the wrong reasons.

Efforts to make Shakespeare “relevant”—a term that gives away the game since any effort to make something relevant is predicated on the belief that it is not relevant—fall into two categories:  The abject failures and the puerile failures.  I prefer the latter, and not just because they are more in sync with my disposition.  Claims that, for example, Keeping up with the Kardashians is “like” King Lear because it concerns a feckless father who gives up his estate prematurely to ungrateful daughters strike me as flawed only because they do not go far enough.  The flaccid language of simile elides the truth that Keeping Up with the Kardashians is King Lear.  Now, this is not to say that the Kardashian family—which apparently exercises more control over the content of its show than the Romanovs exercised over Russia before Lenin arrived at the Finland Station—set out to mount a production of Lear.  It is merely to maintain that Shakespeare’s plays have so permeated American culture that even those who seem best armored to repel their influence cannot deflect their thrusts.  I recognize this because I would wager that few have been more armored than I until recently, yet now I see evidence of Shakespeare’s influence as readily as a first year psychology student sees evidence of mental illness and that annoying baby chick saw evidence of his mother.  It now takes me only a few moments to identify the Shakespearean analog to almost every reality television series.  Jersey Shore?  Come on, challenge me.  It is so clearly Much Ado about Nothing.   Ronnie and Sammi are more Beatrice and Benedick than Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh could manage even after spending a week blood doping in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Bachelor Pad?  A bit tougher but a little thought will lead one immediately to As You Like It, which places its characters in an isolated forest, where all manner of strange, magical hijinks involving horticulture commence.  Survivor?  Perhaps a little more difficult because it may be an amalgam of Twelfth Night and The Tempest, though I think that it is more the latter since the contestants are so readily divided into Prosperos and Calibans, with many more of the latter since books on that show are as scarce as good dialogue was in Titanic.

I did not make the matches above by playing some diverting parlor game.  I made them as part of a well-considered survival strategy.  Much of my happiness depends on my ability to reconcile things that on their surface seem to be opposites:  Politics and ethics, the divine and The Hangover Part II, vegan diets and satiation, taxidermy and Thumper, opera and Kei$ha.  If I cannot watch The Rachel Zoe Project without thinking that it offers transcendence beyond the enjoyment I receive whenever Rachel exclaims, “It was literally a fashion disaster,” then how can I ever find contentment?  Rachel and all of her reality television colleagues are such stuff as my dreams are made on.  What kind of dreams these are I leave to others to judge.



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