Blog Post

Shakespeare and Misgiving

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I ) and New Scientist ( I ) 

What follows is old news. I’ve been preoccupied, probably for longer than justified, with two of last year’s strangest instances in Shakespeare’s afterlife (a word I use advisedly). Taken independently, I find both instances disorienting and opaque. Taken together, they resolve into an unsettling clarity.

Shakespeare’s 450th year was also the year Ira Glass started tweeting. The collision of these events in the text of Glass’s irascible response to a summer performance of King Lear in Central Park needs no summation beyond the iterative: without irony, “Shakespeare sucks.” It’s a nice phrase, really, tarring the name in an extension of the name’s own crowded sibilance. Poetics of dumb things to say – dumb enough that I’m almost embarrassed to bring it up again, having followed the extensively blogged “controversy” (Jimmy Fallon’s word, after Glass, blog-heavy, tipped into late-night television appearances) with an attention that I tried and failed at the time to explain to colleagues and students and that I’ll explain now only as an anxiety that this was a thing that clearly shouldn’t matter, but mattered. I want to venture that Ira Glass was turned off by Lear in the sense of being unaware of being on to something, and in a way that draws awareness to what he was unaware of, which is that his tweet was too late, a poison tongue without a living victim, elegizing what it sought to victimize.

By one account, after all, the year of celebration of Shakespeare’s birth was also the year he died. In Only Lovers Left Alive, released January of that year, Jim Jarmusch imagines another Shakespeare who sucks, but in the manner of a tick or mosquito, and he isn’t Shakespeare but Christopher Marlowe, the immortal (ha) author of Shakespeare’s plays. To be sure, the idea of the author of Tamburlaine surviving his bar fight and proceeding, as a vampire, to pen Hamlet and Lear and the rest is the most credible to date of the many extant anti-Stratfordian scenarios (by far). But never mind. Replacing Shakespeare with Marlowe in a film otherwise without investment in the question of the historical Shakespeare’s biography or authority is a substitution not of authors but of signs, a message folded in a joke that the conditions of aesthetic modernity, Shakespeare being one, may warrant rereading.

To suppose with Emerson that Shakespeare “wrote the text of modern life” is not necessarily to suppose knowledge of what that text is, or what that life is, or what marks it as modern, or what that marking requires of us. At the end of Only Lovers, Marlowe, played by John Hurt, drinks some bad blood and dies in a room behind a café in Tangier. He is more or less a minor character, onscreen for fewer than twenty minutes altogether. So much for him, as Claudius says, too easily, of Fortinbras. Still his death organizes the themes of the film, which are otherwise diffuse and atmospheric, into a kind of argument, pointing to what Glass can’t put his finger on, dismisses, therefore, as “not relatable.” Forget for now that the usage of “relatable” is a neologism for which Glass was roundly scolded in The New Yorker. Jarmusch’s Shakespeare is no less alien to and alienated from the modern life of which he allegedly wrote the text. He is a sort of ur- as well as heir to Burroughs, living out a junky’s exile, or a Bob Dylan, his real name refashioned as an alias, his alias an identity he will fail to outlive. More Stones than Beatles, more Warhol than Rockwell, more doubt than certainty.

It could be said more Marlowe than Shakespeare. The current of Jarmusch’s characterization runs entirely counter to the mainstream idea of Shakespeare that emerged in contour with the emergencies of the twentieth century, the idea that so entirely failed in Glass’s view. One episode of Doctor Who describes Shakespeare as “The most human human there’s ever been.” His is the only uncontested place in most American high school and college curricula – indeed, among the protocols for New York City public schools, the word “Shakespeare” is the only individual name that counts as its own academic subject, and he is the only author explicitly mandated for instruction in high school English classes by the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states. When Nigel Smith undertook to challenge Shakespeare’s predominance in his 2008 polemic Is Milton Better than Shakespeare?, he knew the reflexive response to his title would be incredulous laughter. The evocation of that laughter is essential to his argument, counterpoint and counterpart to the total seriousness of Harold Bloom’s own audacious title: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999). Shakespeare’s reinvention in Only Lovers as explicitly inhuman is either a confirmation that he is “not relatable” or a radical reassessment of the range and reach of human relations.

Only Lovers is expansive in its consideration of what relates to what. Among its many visual citations and allusions is a photograph of Nicholas Ray, an early mentor to Jarmusch, hanging on a wall alongside Buster Keaton, Mahler, Robert Johnson, and a dozen others eclectically arranged. Famously, in directing Rebel without a Cause, Ray borrowed a title and little else from Robert M. Lindner’s case study of criminal psychopathy. Jarmusch borrows Ray’s strategy of borrowing in Only Lovers, which is titled for, but not really adapted from, Dave Wallis’s 1964 pulp novel about post-apocalyptic teenagers. Or more accurately, and more elaborately, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers is titled for Ray’s own Only Lovers, a planned adaptation of Wallis’s Only Lovers, which was to have starred the Rolling Stones. That combination of talent didn’t survive even the most preliminary negotiations, but it holds a place among the most remarked upon unmade films in Hollywood history.

If Only Lovers ends with the death of Shakespeare, we might remember that Rebel ends with the death of Plato – transmigrated to Sal Mineo’s performance of a dissolute teenager responding with desperation to the constraints of bourgeois life, the unmooring of the American family, and the sense that modernity is in the process of destroying itself. The latter Cold War disquiet is only barely sublimated in a film preoccupied with cliffs and ravines ethical and actual, and in which millennial expectations are translated with jarring nonchalance to a secular and suburban context. In the planetarium, the edifice at the heart of the film, after an authoritative voice predicts the “demise” of the Earth in the “blackness of space from which we came,” James Dean’s Jim Stark consoles a cowering Plato: “Hey. It’s all over. The world ended.” Plato wonders later whether “the end of the world will come at nighttime.” Jim’s reply is both inarticulate and prophetic. “Uh-uh,” he mutters. “At dawn.”

We can easily imagine that the reason Ray’s version of Only Lovers went nowhere was because there was no need for it: he’d already made the definitive film about emotionally orphaned teenagers with apocalyptic sensibilities. In discourse with the film that doesn’t exist, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers knits itself to the film that does, eliding and elaborating a network of loose allusive intersections. The rhetorical trope at work is transumption, an echo of an echo: Jarmusch echoes and extends Ray’s misgivings that the forms of the past, mistaken for immutable, are instead contingent and unstable, and that they are always in some phase of disintegration. I’ll risk a broad stroke to say that Plato’s death, on the steps of the planetarium, is a metonym for the death of ideas in a culture without convictions, as Shakespeare’s death, in Jarmusch’s telling, announces the death of aesthetics, which is the death of the human, which is a hoax.

At the bedside are two vampires named Adam and Eve who have tried desperately and in earnest, like James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel, to accommodate themselves to the forms of domesticity, marriage, and romantic love that will, they trust, then hope, then misgive, keep them from the violence beyond temporary homes in tumbledown mansions. Chased from those imaginary gardens with real toads, or, in Only Lovers, toadstools, vampires and rebels take their solitary way, seeking frantically for Plato in one instance, for Shakespeare in the other, just in time for dawn and the death of the world they thought they knew.

Jarmusch asserts his protagonists derive not from Genesis, at least not directly, but from Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which is a reading of and answer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is a reading of and answer to Genesis. The Miltonic perspective intrudes as a kernel of misgiving about the Shakespearean perspective, which forms the horizon of aesthetic possibilities, “the text of modern life.” This is the Milton for whom paradises are always resolving as prisons and heavens are always dissolving into hells, a formula adopted and adapted from Marlowe in an epic that began in Milton’s earliest plotting as a Marlovian metaphysical tragedy. That unwritten tragedy, titled “Adam Unparadised,” was to have begun with Satan on Mount Niphates, having traversed Chaos, finding himself still surrounded by the conditions of his punishment: “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell," he complains, echoing Marlowe’s Mephistopheles to Faustus, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Jarmusch’s own unparadised Adam stalks hospitals at night, costumed as a doctor whose name tag collapses the distance between these orbiting texts: Dr. Faust.

In Marlowe’s handling, as established in the first lines of Doctor Faustus, the tragedy of Faustus’s own making is not an effect of hubris or greed but misgiving in humanistic study. It is not identical in all ways to Ira Glass’s anti-Shakespearean misgiving, and in some ways it may be opposite, but the origin is the same: they just don’t see the point. Glass tweets: “No stakes.” They’re not alone. The failure to find a point to the enterprise we call the humanities is itself a point of pronounced alarm in the scholarly and pedagogical contexts that frame our place in Shakespeare’s fifth century. Most of us who work in those contexts would say that the present ongoing divestment of literature, philosophy, languages, and the arts is a deal with the devil. But which devil are we dealing with? Is it the Mephistophelean devil mortgaging liberal education for a seductive but eventually bankrupting careerism? Or is it the devil of Milton’s late-career revision tempting not our ambition but our narcissism, winning our sympathy by seeming so much like ourselves? At least we can relate to him.

Yet the devil we know may be worse than the devil we don’t. As Leon Wieseltier wrote recently in The New York Times, “[A] complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty.” I will discuss in a later post how Jarmusch, in killing Shakespeare, also turns to Shakespeare in seeking a way of reading past complacency. I began by saying Glass’s tweet was too late, but now I'll say, with Romeo, “I fear too early, for my mind misgives."

Ian Bickford's picture
Dean of Bard Academy at Simon's Rock and the Bard Early Colleges
Ian Bickford is Dean of Bard Academy at Simon's Rock and the Bard Early Colleges. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Stanford, and the CUNY Graduate Center, he specializes in Early Modern literature, especially Milton, with recent work on Milton's legacy in America.