Shakespeare Translated: Derivatives on Film and TV.
In a 1995 review of his then-recently published book on small-screen adaptations of Shakespeare, Watching Shakespeare on Television, Sidney Gottleib wrote of Coursen: "It is clear throughout [the book] that H. R. Coursen loves the stage and the page but has at best a qualified and somewhat grudging respect for the screen" (469). More than a decade later, in addition to "dumb[ed] down" (Coursen 1) TV Shakespeares, the veteran Air Force pilot, novelist, poet, Shakespeare scholar, and self-described "aging New Critic" (8) takes aim at multiple bogeys in the midst of this broadly-researched history of film and television "translations" of four of Shakespeare's most mass-mediated plays. Such targets include "the jargonization of Shakespeare" (1), American "narcissism" (4), commerce (23), and, unmistakably, Dubya and company. In Shakespeare Translated, Coursen embarks on nothing less than a full-scale assault on the corrupting powers of capital waged through what he considers the over-commercialized and, thus, debased icon of Shakespeare.
Though I know Coursen would have my hide for committing the great taboo of New Criticism--the intentional fallacy--I think it's safe to assume that the author, writing in the spring of 2004, sensed the impending doom of serving under Pharaoh's yoke for another term as a feeling of political and social frustration permeates the text. Coursen unburdens his prophetic soul at the end of his Introduction and reflects gloomily, "I predict that Shakespeare will become more and more the servant of commerce, if not condemned outright as heretical and banned from production, that is, unless accommodated to reinforcement of the powers-that-be" (23). The powers-that-be, Coursen later suggests, are only partially culpable for "Amurca's" deterioration; the other problem according to him is willful cultural and critical illiteracy. He remarks that Americans can no longer process verbal irony and cites the irreparable discord "between word and action, between an espousal of 'freedom' and its suppression, between a President who associates himself with a 'culture of life,' but whose adopted state brims to overflowing along its death row and who exports 'shock and awe' to people who, he says, 'hate us for our freedoms'" (7). In Shakespeare Translated, Coursen expresses his bewilderment at a culture that cannot close-read itself.
Similarly, Coursen gleans from his study of big- and small-screen quotations of Shakespeare that in post-postmodern, hypercapitalist American mass media, Shakespeare can be consumed, but the plays cannot be "read," at least not in any way that observes the nuances of the texts. Coursen seems to be confronting the reader with two "counterfeit presentments," of Shakespeare: like Hamlet's violent confrontation with Gertrude to argue Old Hamlet's virtue against the debased Claudius, Coursen forces his book in front of our eyes so that we can marvel at the theoretical distance between the sharp and sophisticated cultural critic, revealed to us by Marxist scholars, who "consistently deconstructs simpleminded attitudes" and the blunt servant of the late 20th and early 21st century glazed-eyed, ever-buying masses. Because commercial success determines which media projects are produced, Coursen concludes that "Shakespeare is permitted to show us very little these days, except how to sell products. Shakespeare as subversive, as 'oppositional,' has disappeared" (11). Instead of providing an index into ontological hypocrisy in the form of "idolatry" as early modern Protestant texts tended to do, twenty-first century media Shakespeares embody that very hypocrisy; they commit the Protestant sin of idolatry, what David Hawkes has called "the autonomy of representation" (Hawkes 4-5). Screen Shakespeares are Shakespeare in name only. Post-postmodern translations of Shakespeare are like the Denmark Corporation of Almereyda's Hamlet: vast intangible bodies that, in the words of Hawkes, "do not sell material products so much as 'brands,' which is to say, images" (5).
Coursen's book illustrates that Shakespeare is both produced and consumed in a narcissistic fashion, which the critic finds deeply troubling. Like Coursen's example of David Brooks's quip that politicians "say things people in the audience already agree with so they can applaud their own ideas" (6), Coursen concludes that television and film consumers watch Shakespearean translations not to see "Shakespeare" but to see themselves. Despite the self-love that Coursen identifies as a key theme in Shakespeare translations, the critic is able to tease out interesting things that screen Shakespeares say about us. The book offers an expansive study of media adaptations and quotations of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. The chapters are arranged by play, with Romeo and Juliet and Othello constituting the top-heavy first half of the book (70 pages) and Othello and Lear (38 pages) rounding out the rest of the text. Coursen's subjects range from the obscure (China Girl and Strange Illusion) to the overexposed (O and Hamlet ).
Coursen is at his best when he is interpreting texts that usually fly below the radar of scholars of Shakespearean film adaptation. Five immensely gratifying pages are spent discussing an episode of C-SPAN that aired in 1994 entitled "The Trial of Hamlet" in which Supreme Court justices discussed incriminating and exculpatory evidence amassed in Shakespeare's play as an exercise of the value and competence of the American justice system, complete with experts. Though this trial is certainly narcissistic by Coursen's standards, it is one of the few bright spots in which non-Shakespeareans attempt to close-read a Shakespearean text. The trial lacks any sense of historicism, but it highlights new ways of reading madness in Hamlet that would be useful in stage or screen productions that include "bipolar disorder" and "suicidal anadonia, loss of pleasure" (84). Equally fascinating is the attention Coursen pays to teen offshoots of Romeo and Juliet, which include The Gilmore Girls (2001) and the television series of Clueless (1996), based on the film. These shows illustrate the privileging of the idol of both Shakespeare and the play over the person or thing him- or itself as Coursen acknowledges that "the play by 1998 is a synecdoche for romance" (30). The inclusion of such material as the C-SPAN proceedings and The Gilmore Girls in Shakespeare Translated are but two examples of the vast amount of material compiled in Coursen's densely packed 153 pages, and I offer them to illustrate the extraordinary research measures Coursen must have used to snatch up such gems.
Coursen's Shakespeare Translated is simultaneously educational, admonishing, witty, and downright funny (see his joke about a 1998 NBC version of The Tempest on page 20). The text is clearly written, especially given Coursen's aversion to overly theoretical, incoherent Shakespeare criticism, and his explicit theme of narcissism and implicit warnings against idolatry and illiteracy illustrate the political and social relevance of Shakespeare Translated. My only point of contention with Coursen's book is with his insistence on pushing singular readings of the playtexts of Macbeth and Othello and then judging how the adaptations he examines conform to these readings. Though it is not treated at length, Coursen asserts that, "Macbeth is a 'chain of being play,'" (14) without considering that it is also a play about the North Berwick witch trials or Anglo-Scotch dynasty. Similarly, in his Othello chapter, Coursen pushes his hostis humani generis reading of the play in which he argues more than once that "[a]t the end of the play, [Othello] assumes command one last time and executes an enemy of the state who happens to be himself" (133). Unsurprisingly, neither Parker's 1995 Othello nor Nelson's 2001 O nor PBS's 2002 Othello conforms to Coursen's reading of the play.
Gottleib, Sidney. Rev. of Watching Shakespeare on Television, by H. R. Coursen. Shakespeare Quarterly. 46:4 (Winter 1995) 469-71.
Hawkes, David. Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature, 1580-1680. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
Jared Johnson, Stony Brook University