Shakespeare may have shuffled off his mortal coil 400 years ago, but actors, scholars, dancers, videogaming tech nerds, restaurateurs, and the average consumer are no less sick of him. The frenzy of dweeby and/or bourgeois festivities currently underway that celebrate our most beloved playwright have warmed the cockles of my former-grad student heart, and have spurred countless high school field trips composed of perhaps less-enthused audience members. These Global celebrations are not only reproductions of the plays. In fact, many appeal to sensory modalities not often associated with going to the theater. In Chicago, for instance, you can taste each of Shakespeare's plays in what's been titled the "Culinary Complete Works," where 38 different restaurants each create a dish ostensibly inspired by a particular play [you may want to skip the Titus Andronicus]. You can chug a Shakespeare inspired beer, hear the warbling ensembles of Verdi's Falstaff, squint your eyes at Henri Fuseli's early 1800s illustrations of the Bard and His Plays, or take a trip to Northwestern University to move your body around a computer animated stage in an interactive video game that, for some reason, is supposed to help the player better appreciate the staging of Shakespeare. So far, no smelling Shakespeare - though, keep in mind, Chicago festivities run for the entire year, so we might yet find ourselves in a Willy Wonka-ish scratch-and-sniff Complete Works [fingers crossed].
Despite the silliness, there are big cultural questions underlying all of this. On a basic level, we might ask why Shakespeare, still, 400 years later. And, isn't it also a little odd that we're all celebrating the date of Shakespeare's death as opposed to, say, anything created by the many struggling and often ignored living artists?
So, why Shakespeare? Of course, you might say, he's our "genius," the dude who invented the human condition (whatever that means), and basically prettifies every word, phrase, or idea he touches. The whole cult of Shakespeare's "genius" (notice my scare quotes) hasn't always existed. It was invented in the era that, not surprisingly, was super obsessed with the idea of the single author visionary. Early 19th century Romanticism granted Shakespeare a quasi-deific aura to such an extent that Bardolatry was born. In some circles, the worship of Shakespeare was cultish, Shakespeare being a secular saint to replace, or compete, with religious icons (if you think I'm exaggerating, see James Shapiro's Contested Will).
Major problems arise from this single-authorship "genius" model. For one thing, it removes Shakespeare from his context of playhouses, rival playwrights, collaborators, and general milieu and puts him in the realm of universals. Following from this individualism-is-the-bomb mentality, one might say Shakespeare so much transcended his time he simply entered the ethereal realm of existing For All Time [thank you Ben Jonson]. For another, it also maligns adaptations of Shakespeare and others, contrasting these productions with Shakespeare's supposedly original work, and thus primly lamenting any edits, cuts, or artistic license a contemporary artist might choose to take. Plato and mimesis, that sort of thing.
Yet, as anyone with a smartphone can Wikipedia, Shakespeare was not some one-hundred-percent-original artist. The Bard lifted a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Also, as scholars have illuminated, there is no "master" text. The newest Norton Shakespeare goes so far as to edit all the variants of each play - the smaller editions printed in Shakespeare's lifetime, called Quartos, and the bigger edition printed after his death, called the Folio - to show that there is no key text, or perfected format of the play. Shakespeare himself edited his plays, cut out lines, and called in fellow playwrights to write scenes or songs. He took old stories - tales from antiquity, old wives tales, ghosts stories, centuries-old revenge plots - and revamped them with the bawdy humor, topical allusions, and trappings of his own time. Shakespeare was, as it turns out, the consummate adapter.
With this in mind, we might look at any one of the many Shakespeare adaptations and realize it is as much a creation as a recreation. In fact, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's current production - the Q brother's dazzling and manic Othello: The Remix - starts their totally rapped adaptation of Othello by bringing up issues of artistic license. As audience members seat themselves, the fifth member of the troupe - the D.J. - spins what club-goers are pretty used to: modern hip hop spliced with tunes from the past. Poignantly, the final song spun before the four-person show begins combines the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" with modern rap. Then, the emotional tour de force begins, and the four players repeat, in unison, "Good storytellers borrow, but great ones steal": a confident and assertive start to one of the most freshly imagined (re)makes of Shakespeare I've seen on the stage. This canny knowingness - breaking the fourth wall - continues throughout the swiftly moving, sharply funny, and startlingly emotional performance. As a result, comedy and tragedy break in when least expected: you laugh at the staginess of Desdemona's final, postmortem moan, but, in the same breath, are eviscerated by the rage of Iago's twisted, Eminem-like rhymes, and by the weird mix of pride and self-disgust in Othello's final, multisyllabic rhymes before his suicide.
The Q brothers thus offer a terrific epitaph in general for our not-so-recently deceased bard: "Good storytellers borrow, but great ones steal." Shakespeare really stays alive, just like the remixed Bee Gees, in being cut apart, reexamined, and freshly felt, not preserved like some biological specimen in formaldehyde. In our creepy celebrations of Shakespeare's death, we might create something new, real, and raw from lines that are so dated they've taken on a weird life of their own ["To be or not to be"]. We leave our own time to face a distant, unknowable past - that undiscovered country of history, the dead with their weird outfits and "thou's," who seem so separated from us that they must not be really real, like us - and we return to our own moment, perhaps realizing that we, too, are not For All Time, but instead are in time. 400 years later, and there aren't any geniuses to save us, just people exploring the big questions together.