ComPost Live: Is Shakespeare still relevant?

Apr 24, 2012

On the day after the Bard's birthday, Alex Petri wonders if William Shakespeare's comedies of error hold up in the era of smart phones. Read her column and see what readers had to say.

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If the universe is made out of strings, does that mean God is a cat?

Hello and welcome to today's chat!

Our official topic is -- is Shakespeare still relevant? For the sake of liveliness, I will argue as stringently (that's not the right word, but I have string on the brain now (or should I say "brane?") (I think that's a multiverse joke?) (help this sentence is spiraling out of control) ) as possible that he isn't. He doesn't even speak our language! And none of the plots line up! 

Agree? Disagree? Beg to differ? Something else redundant?

Alexandra, how do you feel about Lindsay Lohan portraying Elizabeth Taylor in upcoming Lifetime movie about Liz and Richard Burton? I’m kinda disturbed about this but not sure who is best to play Liz. Then again, if someone makes a film about WaPo reporters in the manner of “All the President’s Men”, who should play YOU? Maybe Scarlett Johansson or Amanda Seyfried.

I think the key phrase in that sentence is "Lifetime movie."

I would not say no to either of those! They are fetching and Scandinavian, and I am  one of those two things at any given time.

First I need to find some sort of massive scandal to break. I regret to note that I am on the waitlist for the O. Henry pun-off this year (near the top, but still on the waitlist) but maybe there's breaking news there!

Alexandra, kudos on your recent blog posts / deep thoughts with Shakespeare, talking pineapples, unanswerable questions, and Ron Paul video games. While current political stories have collapsed into candidates' trivia, dog fights, toys (etch-a-sketch), and insults, you raised the “Bardâ€Ã‚ of discussion here. I wonder how Shakespeare might’ve tackled the talking pineapple scenario (and what are the *official* correct answers to the unanswerable test questions)? I'd guess Hamlet would stand in a field holding up a pineapple and debate whether or not to turn it into fruit salad ...and still not make up his mind.

My pineapple salad days, when I was yellowish in judgment...

Ken Jennings generated the answers A and C. I differ; I think the test probably thinks the moose is wisest for introducing the key fact that pineapples lack sleeves, even though all that does in actual life is mark the moose as someone you wouldn't want to take on camping trips.

In light of Romney's recent Cookiegate remarks in PA, I wonder if convenience stores across the country are selling a lot more cookies. Alexandra, maybe next time it's your turn to bring in snacks for the office YOU can bring in convenience store treats and label them "Romney Cookies."  Some of the political reporters might give you kudos online and crosslinks to your blog. TV appearances to follow.

I like this plan!

For anyone who missed cookiegate, here it is!

Side note: If you are running for president, and someone offers you cookies, maybe don't insult the cookies. 

But on the other hand, the cookies have exactly the same color scheme as the Generic Grocery ones, so you can see how he might have gotten confused. 

My favorite part of the story is the line, from John Walsh of the bakery, "this guy has no idea how beloved this institution is that provided these cookies."

If Shakespeare were not still relevant, we would not have movies like '"Ten Things I Hate About You," "West Side Story," etc.

Or books like "Romiette and Julio," which I haven't read but which deserves points for originality of title. 

Ten Things I Hate About You has definite merits. And sure, West Side Story, blah blah classic of musical theater blah blah Sondheim lyrics blah blah Bernstein at the top of his game blah blah -- BUT the book. Watch the show and tell me the book isn't actually, physically, painfully bad. And the ballet gangs. 

I once heard a comic observe that actually this was proof that the Jets and Sharks were by far the toughest gangs around, because if you actually look cool and walk like a normal person, it is easy to make people think you are a dominant street gang, but if you are busy pirouetting around, everyone will try to beat you up. So actually the fact that they survived at all while executing three-point turns, or whatever those are, is an indication that they could take the Crips down at a moment's notice. 

But that just means he got ahold of good plots. And there's evidence that suggests he often just cribbed the plot from another show. Here's an irate article from 1924 about it!

This morning I saw a headline about Newt Gingrich hinting that he might leave the presidential race. And in other news, water is wet!

In other news, this is still the greatest headline that will ever come out of this election. 

Give us the excess of it!

Something something surfeit and then die something something--

Dang it, so much for the memorized Shakespeare I was going to whip out and impress everyone with. This reminds me of Bertie Wooster's rendering of the Charge of the Light Brigade: "Tum tiddle umpty-pum

Tum tiddle umpty-pum
Tum tiddle umpty-pum

`and this brought you to the snapperoo or pay-off, which was Someone had blundered."

I didn't know there was one. No wonder I've never had one.

Ha! +10

Tomorrow's the 38th anniversary of Portugal's Carnation Revolution, which overthrew some 45 years of fascist-style dictatorship, and led to Portugal becoming a charter member of the European Common Market and economically coming out of the Dark Ages (at least for its ill-educated, impoverished peasants). Notwithstanding Portugal's current economic woes, let's all celebrate with some bacalhau (salt cod) for dinner, or at least a glass of port wine! Plus the Portuguese gave us Coimbra (Europe's second-oldest university after Oxford) and poet Luis Camoes (still remembered as composer of The Lusiads) -- unless you think HE'S irrelevant in the era of texting, too.

The more I read of your comment, the more convinced I was that with all that to celebrate, there must be an excellent party going on somewhere, and we need to find out where it is. Poets! Cod! Wine! That sounds like a grand Tuesday.

If you can't stop his mouth with a cookie, what shall you choose? In faith, lady, you have a merry heart!

It keeps on the windy side of care.

Unlike Seamus, who keeps on the windy side of car.

Heck yeah, I use Shakespeare all the time to solve arguments over grammer and whether or not its ok to make up words while writing.

Shakespeare has never brought me nothing but trouble. 

The other week (last week) I made a reference to crying havoc and letting slip the dogs, and a reader sent me an irate letter demanding to know what it meant when I said that "dogs are something you let slip." Slip? Off what? she asked. Cliffs? 

After this I have had to restrain my impulses to Bard quoting somewhat.

What did Alexandra play in the band? The trum-petri.

The accordion, actually, but I like yours better. 

And not so much the band as "the comfort and privacy of my home, until the neighbors complained."

When are you going to do another "Choose Your Own Adventure" chat? It was awesome.

I was just thinking about that! 

Is there popular support for this idea? I'm game!

...that we should all support Mitt Romney because, at one time or another, we've agreed on everything?

I was reading a short story about holes in time recently, and I am probably getting this all wrong and causing any scientists reading this to wince and spill beakers of liquid nitrogen all over themselves, but basically points on earth don't remain fixed in space, but you can draw a smooth time-line through them and tie together all the spots where this particular point is going to be --

you know what, the more I talk, the more erroneous this gets. The point I was trying to make was that if you drew a line through the points Mitt Romney occupied, it wouldn't look like that. 

Wow, that was a lot of set-up for not much.

Which was, incidentally, a rejected title for that Shakespeare play. 

Which makes Will a perfect Reality TV writer. So definitely relevant, since most of Reality TV is scripted from a synopsis of Throne of Blood, which is basically ripped from the Macbeth headlines.

I think the Bard would definitely be in TV now, if only for the potential for large-scale storytelling that it finally seems to be realizing. Although if he's behind that LSD trip plot on Mad Men, I have some serious words for him. 

Although I do wonder. So much of Shakespeare is the urge to keep everyone interested -- groundlings, balcony, everybody -- and by-definition-exclusive media like pay cable don't strike me as an exact match for that impulse.

If you believe, as I do, that the guy who wrote the plays was the man from Stratford and not some Earl trying to keep his scribbling a secret, Shakespeare's plays are relevant precisely because they were popular entertainments written by a guy trying to make a living in the highly competitive world of Elizabethan theater. Shakespeare had to sit down with worn copies of Holinshed's Chronicles and other miscellany, plundering them for plots so he could get feverishly get something on for two Saturdays from now, all while supervising the sewing of costumes, carpentry work at The Globe, finding a replacement for an actor who died of influenza or went off on a drunken spree to York. Then, and only then, did have time to sit down and write, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death." Of course, he did have competition. As the wonderful duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann put it: "This chap Anon is writing some perfectly lovely stuff. But no one seems to know who his agent is."

I love this. 

One of the mistakes I think a lot of people make nowadays in theater, novels, you name it, these days, is to think that the mark of Great Art is to be indifferent to whether or not anyone wants to see it. And Shakespeare, as you portray him, gives the lie to that whole argument. Difficulty isn't necessarily a mark of greatness. Sometimes the fact that people don't want to read your novel isn't a sign that it's a great novel; it's a sign that it's a mediocre novel. Of course the fact that a great many people want to read your novel isn't always a sign that it's a great novel either. But the same goes for theater. The best kind, as in Shakespeare's time, still addresses everyone. People shell out to see shows because the shows speak to them on some level, even if the level is only, "Hey, Spiderman! I remember those films!" 

Alex, you're channeling the song "Comedy Tonight" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." based on the plays of a much older playwright -- the Roman Plautus.

Oh yeah! Plautus! I always get him confused with Terence. He was the guy with all the smart servants and foolish masters, right?

*safe statements about most classical comic playwrights

If made into a movie, and true to the play, would be NC-17. I always described it as "Hamlet, on a meth binge." In other news, maybe these guys were looking for protection from Newts?

My favorite part of Titus Andronicus is the part where Titus greets someone by asking, "Who molests my contemplation?" 

I keep trying to work this into conversation. With variable success, I'm afraid.

The pineapple test question makes me think of my time in high school, way back in the late '80s. The state of MD decided it needed to institute a writing test that you had to pass in order to graduate. Now, in general I was a very good standardized test taker. Never had a problem with them, generally scored in the 90th perctile. We all took the test and I failed it! Whoa, must not have been paying attention, I'll have to really focus next time. Took it a second time, & failed it! Father furious! We ordered a copy of my response and found out that other than the fact that I'd written my "letter" to a friend and not a teacher, there was not one mistake. It was definitely a mistake, but all of the puncutation was correct, the format of the letter was correcte, everything was spelled correctly, the sentences were complete and comprehensible (probably unlike this post :) ). We gave the thing to my English teacher and asked what we were missing. She had no idea why it was not a passing test. We began to put up a fuss, when the state abruptly decided that the test would not be needed to graduate after all. I still got passing grades on the two AP tests I took, and scored in the 90th percentile on the SAT's and the GRE's, but I have always been suspicious of standardized testing ever since.

That does sound suspicious!

I was always the person who really seemed to be enjoying herself during the standardized test, for which I apologize to everyone around me, belatedly. In fairness, it was mostly because my test regimen consisted of watching Monty Python's Meaning of Life the night before, and as a consequence I always had "Every Sperm Is Sacred" stuck in my head during the "What part of this sentence doesn't belong?" section and was trying not to laugh. 

I remember in the olden days of WashPost Chatting, when there was a producer present to remind everyone that, if they were composing their comments in Word, to please turn off the smart-quote function. Otherwise, you get a bunch of random "euro", "tilded A's" and "trademark" symbols in your questions which makes them darn near unreadable. Which is what we have in many of today's questions. People, please.

I'm here, producing. Please do this, people!

They were passing out those "not a bumper sticker" car magnets at Will's birthday party at the Folger this weekend. Any dude who has car magnets with his face on them (and a totally odd reimagining of his name - SHAX, Folger, really?) is relevant. Plus lots of damp Washingtonians came to his b-day party. It totally was not for the free cake, free tea from WETA, or all the bookmarks in the goody bag listing on-line educational resources. I was nervous Monday as less than 40 people showed up for the birthday lecture which was confusing and not very well argued and had something to do with The Winter's Tale and adult baptism, but the party on Sunday reassured me completely. And a little more seriously, Shakespeare's depictions of young women who think that the world would be perfect if only one thing could be fixed in their lives (Dad see that big sisters are evil, guy see that we are meant for each other, etc.), are way more realistic than the young women depicted in Girls on HBO, so I really do vote for relevant.

The number of events that Damp Washingtonians will show up to is considerable. Earth day, Rally For Sanity -- maybe it's just been that the rain it rainethed every day. (Hey ho!) (I love the phrase "Damp Washingtonians," by the way!) 

My favorite part about Girls is that. as my friend Amary put it, "the people who really would like this show don't have TVs." As a consequence, the only people watching it are reviewers who are trying to say Something Special And Different about it, which generates a lot of surprising and unsurprising angles for vitriol. "You might be a hipster if... You Found Girls Disappointing For A Special And Different Reason." 

If the commentariat had been around when Sex and the City premiered, it would definitely not have fared well.

But I would pay serious money to watch Shakespeare's Girls. Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Ophelia, and Juliet, living in New York City, wearing opaque tights? I'd watch the heck out of that. Actually. I might go off and try to write a pilot now. Dibs?

Disney animated film The Lion King is really Hamlet!


Except with less concern about whether Mufasa is actually in Hell or in Purgatory...

The anniversary of the founding of Rome was last week.

But I thought Rome wasn't built in a day!

WE don't have a movie like West Side STory--our great grandparents did!

Also a good call. 

Also, the dubbing of the singing in that is at times painful to watch. 

that I'm not the only reader who's in love with you.

Mitt? This is so sudden!

You are sweet to say so! Love sought is good but given unsought better!

Where else could the studenti pilfer to pen their necessary essays, if not the internet? Ergo, he is relevanter than ever.

My favorite discovery when trying to argue against the Bard was all the questions about Hamlet on Yahoo! Answers. Here's two particular gems. 

He is also 30 years old. There are at least two references to it in the text (30 years since old Hamlet defeated old Fortinbras which was the night young Hamlet was born, plus another that I forget) and one implication (he remembers playing with Yorrick who has been buried for 23 years). Seriously, the guy can't seem to graduate, though I suspect it has nothing to do with keeping the deferment going on his student loans.

He is literally a thirty year-old man with mother issues still probably living in the castle equivalent of the basement. And he gives line readings to actors, in case you needed more reasons to dislike the guy. 

... is so 70's. It is Plato who is all the rage right now. Plato is selling therapy and even (NYT Magazine) sports advice. Maybe in another 30 years Shakespeare will come back.

Really? Don't get me wrong, I love Plato (carnally, which is ironic) but for a philosopher, the guy could be surprisingly inconclusive. Maybe I just think that because my favorite dialogue is Theaetetus*, where instead of deciding the nature of knowledge, they spend a lot of time talking about how homely Theaetetus is, how sad it is that he died in battle, and rejecting hypotheses including a really funny one about knowledge consisting of the ability to catch flying bits of knowledge instead of flying bits of ignorance. It's so weirdly and interestingly framed. 

*I feel like using the phrase "my favorite dialogue is Theaetetus" is sort of a party foul. Apologies.

All of his stuff if full of cliches.

"Hush little bright line, don't you cry. You'll be a cliche by and by," says Fred Allen, and I think it's fair to say that most of Shakespeare's cliches weren't cliches when he came up with them. So it if full of them now, but it wasn't then. 

I thought you self-produced, AP.

Only in MS Paint!

What is the Choose Your Own Adventure chat? (i loved those books as a kid so I'm sure I'm game for this.) And how do you turn off smart quotes?

You take the quotes out for dinner, in the course of which you tell them that you thought Oscar Wilde was the guy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...

I feel like what people forget is how much of his works are just bad. The man was prolific but I'd still only give him half a dozen tragedies, a few comedies and maybe two histories.

Now that's a good point. 

I defy anyone who has ever seen Cymbeline (so I defy you, uh, 6 or so very tired and angry people) to call that a good play. The friend who brought me said that it was like Shakespeare was writing bad fanfiction to give happy endings to his own work, which I thought summed it up nicely.

Pericles actually has some charms. 

Timon of Athens I saw in an avant-garde production at the Shakespeare Theater when I was fairly small, and until I read it years later I was under the impression that scantily clad male dancers played a significant role in the plot. Turns out not. Not at all, in fact. 

And what, you didn't like King John? 

Hey, that's the name of the theater troupe in LA where Lisa Kudrow trained. Also several members of SNL, and that actress who plays "Flo" on those insurance commercials! Why do I know these things?

I'm glad you do! Ah, Flo. Man. Every good chat seems to come back to her eventually.

And, like most British things (e.g. the Beatles, MG Roadsters, Nehru jackets) is wildly overrated. Furthermore, isn't there some kind of storytelling/writing "rule" that there are only 7 basic stories? And Shakespeare wrote like 38 plays, which means he re-told those basic stories like at least 5 times each. Not sure what this says about his relevancy, but, I'm voting to add a third category -- overrated.

I think it's hard to call the author of Winter's Tale anything but overrated, but it's equally hard to call the guy who wrote Hamlet (Harold Bloom calls him the only character bigger than Shakespeare, which I think might overstate it slightly) and Macbeth and, heck, Midsummer Night's Dream, overrated. 

But then again I like the Beatles and Nehru jackets.

It is the 50th aniiversary of the movie, "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the 55th of the book. The movie was made in 1962 but took place in the 1920's. I actually find it sad that nearly a century later, we are *still* dealing with many of the issues both the book and movie talked about. I am sure everyone has seen the movie but spoilers ahead. The movie discussed racial profiling and even though he was clearly innocent and the young woman was lying, the jury still convicted him. We still see some of that today. Again, that is very sad.

She's definitely still relevant. Or, if I wanted to be a jerk, "Truman Capote is definitely still relevant."

But you're right. The issues from the play have, sadly, not gone away. What stuns me (as Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out) is that the book is still on banned lists. It's one of the most nuanced, thoughtful and beautiful treatments of still a very real problem, and I can't understand banning it. 

The closest thing we have to Shakespeare in Hollywood is Woody Allen, who generates a lot of prose, but little poetry. I fear Will was a product of his time, a perfect storm of poetry and playwrighting not to be seen again.

I think his mind might have expanded in other directions. Poetry was the other dimension back in the day, but now it might make him a good director, or something. 

Also, I've been trying to work this in, but failing, so "There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. "

Relatedly, I really want to start a gym or a yoga studio with this as a motto. 

Borrowing leads to more borrowing. It's like potato chips. If it's good, it's better than what we could come up with. Even his rejected stuff is worth borrowing. Shakespeare loses nothing by it. It's a brave new world or at least it better be. Feel better?


Name that game.


uh, rugby?

To be relevant, Shakespeare would need a LOT more explosions.

There was a cannon fired during Henry VIII...

Alex: People should immediately go and read the prologue to Henry V, Part 1 in which a Chorus tells the audience that they should just imagine they see the fields of Agincourt and horses "printing their proud hooves i' the receiving earth." He's basically telling them, yeah, I know, we're in a theater in the middle of crowded, filthy London, but your imagination and the actors can take you out of that..

Well said, old mole!

Speaking of transporting, I need to transport myself to lunch, not using my imagination!

But have a great week and feel free but unobligated to follow me on Twitter! And keep reading the Compost!

I understand that the Lord stole the "Cain and the woman from East of Eden" subplot from some Mesopotamian hunter-gatherers.

In This Chat
Alexandra Petri
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost, a lighter take on the news and issues of the day, and she contributes to the Post editorial page. Her work has appeared in venues such as The Huffington Post, The Week,,, Collegehumor, and The Harvard Crimson. She has appeared on Jeopardy!, Showbiz Tonight and Canadian radio, and she has performed at Boston's Comedy Studio and Comedy Connection. She would love to be on your TV show, radio show, Daily Show, HBO special, or to be an honored guest (or regular guest) at your Bar Mitzvah. She is the author of two books (unpublished, but contact her!), two screenplays, three plays, one musical, and one memoir (Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.)
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