Remixing Shakespeare

author: Diana E. Henderson, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Peter Donaldson, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
moderator: Mary Fuller, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: February 2007,   views: 1993

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All hail Sir William Mix-a-Lot, da mash meister Shakespeare! These panelists sing his praises as an inspiration for crossover and convergence art, and discourse on the endless reworking of his oeuvre.

Says Diana Henderson, “When I hear people talking about digital and multimedia, I’m always forced to say yes, but that’s nothing new.” 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, King Lear’s ending received an extensive rewrite, Henderson recounts, where “Edgar and Cordelia have a nice romantic relationship and a happy ending.” We may mock this today, but “in its historical moment,” notes Henderson, when a generation was threatened by the usurpation of the throne, “it was not so silly.” Song and dance was added to serious dramas – a comic thought today -- but this paved the way for Verdi’s much celebrated opera version of Othello. While “it’s hard not to laugh” at some extreme Shakespeare revision, we need to develop a broader, historical perspective, Henderson urges. By way of showing how malleable the various ways of thinking about Shakespeare can be, Henderson plays clips from a stylized silent movie of Othello, and from a 1982 Paul Mazursky version of The Tempest, with a Liza Minnelli “New York, New York” soundtrack. They tap into assumptions about high and low culture, and different sociopolitical moments, she says. “It’s the reason some of us take a whole lifetime looking at Shakespeare, not just because of a particular play text but because of four centuries of how a remix allows you to reflect on the culture at large.”

While Peter Donaldson isn’t sure Shakespeare achieved the kind of miracles of remix in his own time that DJ Z-trip does live with two turntables, Donaldson does appreciate contemporary remixes of the plays. He delves deep into Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Hamlet, where Ethan Hawke ponders the big questions with the help of a kid’s Pixelvision camcorder. “He makes videos to try to understand his experience,” says Donaldson, which “cuts him off in a most severe way from the rest of the world around, capturing grief in a way that many Hamlets do not.” The most artistically significant Shakespeare films feature “elaborate remixing,” where the director is “moving around in a learned way within the tradition.” Donaldson has also dipped a toe in the wide, but not necessarily deep waters of YouTube, where Matrix and Star Wars elements somehow figure in Shakespeare mash-ups (e.g., Banquo and Macbeth fighting with light sabers). However, he hits pay dirt with a clip of Peter Sellers channeling Laurence Olivier in Richard III, and reciting the lyrics of The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night.”

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