Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shakespeare, "Inspiration," and Social Influence

Here's an interesting little video, a mash-up of forty cinematic "inspirational" speeches in two minutes, cut together to be a single, clichéd inspirational monologue:

Especially interesting to note is that it starts with Braveheart, perhaps the most iconic of modern cinematic inspirational speeches, but that it cuts late in the clip to Branagh's performance of Henry V, which, aside from being basically the same speech, is also the grand-daddy of every single one of the monologues the clip cites. Obviously, we could make the point here that a great deal of Shakespeare's cultural legacy today is the kind of schlocky/hacky "inspirational" writing that we see in all of these clips, from The Muppet Movie to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Lord of the Rings to Charlie Brown to ... well, we get the point. Certainly, this implicit critique of "Schlockspeare"--that it is an apolitical shift away from some of the meanings that could be applied to Shakespearean texts--is the kneejerk reaction some scholars of Shakespeare in popular culture would have after seeing this.

A couple of problems with that interpretation of this legacy, though. For starters, there's the assumption embedded in that claim that Shakespeare (even cinematic Shakespeare) is a better cultural object than the schlocky films (or even film moments) that make up his legacy: Henry V is inherently more meaningful--or, at least
more meaning can be applied to it--than can be applied to, say, Street Fighter or Bring It On. After all, if we don't make that assumption, and instead assume that Shakespeare was doing the same thing then as these other cultural objects are now (only he did it first!), then we have to re-examine in a fundamental manner questions of cultural value that still make Shakespearean scholars nervous, even though it's something of a dead horse in other disciplines. In other words, we would need either to elevate popular culture or to lower Shakespeare to it.

After all, one of the standard lines of argument about what the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V does is that it actually critiques precisely the kind of inspiration it offers. That Shakespeare is somehow commenting on how Henry is exploiting specific structures of feeling associated with an emerging nationalism and an older brand of masculinity in order to inspire his motley crew to battle:

It's a theme Shakespeare returns to frequently, most famously Marc Anthony's rallying of the plebs in Julius Caesar. But again, I feel that the assumption is often that Shakespeare is smart enough to make this argument, even as he exploits these very structures to great effect on his own audience in the theatre. And, of course, the other assumption is that these speeches in these other films are derivative of Shakespeare, but reduce it to a schlock that doesn't have the same kind of self-awareness.

But, check out the following clip from Animal House (also excerpted in the above clip):

The John Belushi clip is truncated slightly, but I think the comparison still holds. In both scenes we see a perceived leader assert his leadership by voicing an artificial and inappropriate appeal to history, by re-asserting rhetorical clichés that would already be familiar to his audience, and by subsuming rational argumentation to a more affective logic grounded primarily in masculine values. They're doing pretty much the same thing in their very commentary on how such "inspirational" rhetoric causes social influence with vast consequences (the result of both speeches is literal battle, after all). In this sense, can we really continue this artificial difference between Shakespeare and his cultural descendants?

Well, sort of. After all, while I think we should probably agree that there really isn't a great deal of difference in terms of the "meaning" carried in these cultural objects, the cultural value each carries is still very different in spite of the fact that they all have similar formal effects. In other words, Shakespeare and Animal House have different cultural effects on a larger scale. Part of the purpose of my dissertation is to point out that, despite much cultural critique that deconstructs ideas of high or low cultural value, Shakespearean critics are still on to something by suggesting the different values inherent in Shakespeare, although not for the reasons they would believe (they're merely repeating the same assumptions that the rest of society already holds to a large extent).

The thing is, we can actually tap into this difference by looking again at the mash-up that opened this post: not all of these are war movies, after all. A good portion of them are educational inspirational speeches. In particular, Dead Poets Society stands out in this respect, as the film itself uses Shakespeare to make the inspirational message. I find it really interesting (and a possible avenue for future research) to see how the "inspirational" speech genre of cinematic rhetoric (created, in some sense, by Shakespeare himself) is a constitutive element of the "inspirational teacher" cinematic genre. This genre weirdly turns the screw on this mode of rhetoric by actually eliminating its own self-awareness (something that a film like Animal House obviously doesn't do), and in particular it eliminates this self-awareness by using Shakespeare in a pedagogical context to do the inspiring. No longer is Shakespeare in these films commenting on how easily audiences are led astray on the basis of a bogus affect, but instead is used to advance the argument that Shakespeare himself is just a genius that can inspire us through time, that it is the teacher's role to tap into that genius in order to inspire his (and it usually is "his") students in the same way. And then, what of something like the "inspirational teacher movie" speech that Steve Coogan's character gives in Hamlet 2? It seems to turn the screw yet again, by restoring a different kind of generic self-awareness and parody to how Shakespeare's cultural value is perceived....

Beyond all of that, we have to consider the distribution of these kinds of strategies of valuation: the fact that in a way, the mash-up is the perfect vehicle for these ideas, since so many of these films are really most identifiable through these inspirational moments in the first place. It's not that these monologues are merely there to inspire us emotionally (or even to inspire us intellectually to question the ways in which we are inspired), but rather to inspire us in another way that has to do with yet another kind of value: these monologues are the big selling points of these movies, and they are often front and center in cinematic marketing practices as a way of inspiring us as consumers to pay for these products (and don't think that this wasn't the case back when Shakespeare was doing it; he was the most successful playwright of his time due to savvy self-promotion). Ultimately, the key to "inspiration" in these films (especially in those films that use Shakespeare consciously within a classroom setting) is an attempt to teach (and I use that word deliberately) audiences how to respond to this convergence between cultural value and exchange value....

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