I originally posted this piece on Medium, which I recently discovered. I want to ask a favour of you. I have never asked anyone to follow my blog, & I now have over 700 followers, so I don’t feel guilty asking something of people now.
I may (most likely will) be returning to England in a few months & I’ll find myself in a limbo state, in my hometown, until I return to studying an MA. In that time I want to try & make a little beer money from writing. Medium offers something called a Partner Program. It is all free, but you can make a bit of money from the volume of people who read your articles. You can see where I am going with this. Right now I just want to build a readership while I am in Korea (as I have no bank account) but by the time I return to England & sort out my accounts, I’d like to be trying to publish regularly on literature, culture, ideas in generally, my usual effort at insight into what sways me etc & make enough to get drunk at least, say… once a day (& beer is very cheap in England).
So if you’ll head over to my Medium, you can sign in with Facebook, Google or Twitter (don’t even need to sign in really) & follow me, clap for me & just show some bare support. It isn’t much to ask & you all follow me here, I am not asking for the heavens to be moved neither will I in anyway get rich quick from this, just beer money, maybe a bus ride. Here is the link to my Medium profile. Enjoy the personal essay below, it is also over at Medium too, give it a clap, comment, rant, disagree, whatever is fine. Thanks.
A memory of an emphatic friend
Funny how memory works. I was going about life, something unrelated to the following & it just announced itself, direct, immediate as an incoming update on your phone.
While studying at university, I used to have small gatherings, most nights, like-minded people coming together in my flat to drink, eat, get stoned, listen to records, usually a game of chess ongoing & talked until late. Very cliché-boho, but earnest, we just wanted to be good at stuff & so socializing in this way meant we were continuously active.
One night, emphatic with drink, a friend posed a question: Why is Shakespeare better than a soap opera on TV? This would have a profound effect on me & by extension offer a justification for the importance of study in literature & the humanities. (It’s a sad reality that, at times, I have been called to justify words on a page. I will use this anecdote in such discussions.)
Most present simply laughed and replied, “because it’s Shakespeare”. The quality of Shakespeare was self-evident, no justification was needed. My friend expressed his dissatisfaction with this. He was hankering for air-tight justification — why was the bard undeniably better & by extension, necessarily more important?
Our first volley of “just because” deflected, we began to look at the similarities & differences.
Language was analyzed. Shakespeare was inventive,”everyone knows that!” He gave us memorable lines, he fleshed out his characters with his great ear for speech; he makes us believe his worlds. We think of iambic pentameter as affected speech, but in the drama it is a unit of measure most resembling the cadence of speech; it becomes stylistic edifice too, a device for arranging the difference of noble & common. Essentially though, like a soap opera, it is still dialogue, language traded between people.
Was it the language itself? Shakespeare’s language, the range of words at his disposal was arguably less diverse than the English of a current soap opera. The potential diversity of a current soap opera after centuries of evolution in the English language, enables the writers of soap operas to build characters around a single idiolect, to diversify through age specific idioms. Shakespeare could arguably do this to some degree, but perhaps not with such clear demarcations, or perhaps too narrowly, as the differentiation of sovereign, noble & common is a limitation of Shakespeare’s time. But the gregarious pockets of contemporary culture, encourage diversity of character.
Someone mentioned themes, the action that results from them. Shakespeare writes about love, death, betrayal, conflict, comedy. These are unavoidable themes for all writers and they are especially cogent to the soap opera. Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism outlines (some may argue conclusively) that the range of themes available to a write are limited; if anything, the soap opera would enable more diversity in themes, there are less taboos, or more ways to explore a taboo if they exist. We have had decades to converse on free expression, the idea was practically alien to Elizabethan/Jacobean England; Shakespeare wrote plays to order in some instances, to the preference of his patron James I, angering, was a risk to Shakespeare’s status & career. No such limit exists for the team of soap opera writers.
Someone mentioned memorable characters. This too didn’t cut the mustard as my friend pointed out, tabloids had actually printed stories, which had led to public influence over the outcome of the character, not the actor’s, fate. The case of Deidre Barlow in 1998 (a fictional character of the soap opera Coronation Street) comes to mind. Deidre is sent to prison for mortgage fraud, which she is framed for by her lover Jon Lindsay, a con-man; who charms Deidre with his claims to being an airline pilot. The millions of viewers were so outraged, fiction spilled into reality. The newspaper tabloids ran front page: FREE DEIDRE BARLOW!
Then Prime Minister Tony Blair investigated, as did Home Secretary Jack Straw, even the Conservatives, notably, William Hague expressed their concern and willingness to help.
Everyone, even people who hate Britain’s soap operas know quite a few of their characters, probably more than they know any of Shakespeare’s.
Could it be the plots? “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.” explains Jacques in As you Like it. Soap opera, on going as it is, sometimes for decades, with generations building, plots looping back to previous years makes a stage of the world, especially when fiction spills into reality. Shakespeare could only make the assertion, be somewhat philosophical about it, but soap opera does it.
At this point we were hanging on for dear hope. So many times the emphatic “NO!” from our friend, resetting our search for the answer. Would we really have to submit to soap operas actually being better than Shakespeare? It was inconceivable. It was staring us right in the face, hiding in plain sight. We wanted answers.
It was well past midnight, we we’re all emphatically drunk, everyone, was involved in solving my friends riddle who was strumming blues chord on a guitar even though he’s left handed, he’s that sort of man.
Some months later with this same friend on a train from Lille to Strasbourg to cover some miles so we could get to Germany quicker, as my pal was eager to visit his girlfriend, who lived in a small town called Oftersheim, close to Mannheim. We played a similar game of guess. This time, the game was to guess what the other person is thinking. The same logic applied, the thing to be guessed was hiding in plain-sight; there was no trick, only a matter of stripping away the layers. I was too irascible to be clear headed enough for such things, I just wanted to know and from that knowing move on to something else. In hindsight, my friend was light years ahead in terms of his control over the occasions of time. I failed to see that; in the discovery there was a whole host of possibilities for understanding and learning. As you peel away the layers of what was not, there was time for a moment of reflection, of realization that though this wasn’t the answer, it was part of what it isn’t and therefore worth remarking. I got wound up as tight as a string playing that game on the train. I accused him of thinking something too obscure.
The answer to our guessing game on the train was the passport of a French girl we had met on the ferry, who’d had a distressing time for a reason we did not know, but was clear to us from her body language. We invited her to sit with us, gave her coffee and cigarettes and spoke with her a little. On arriving in Calais, because of our kindness, she had her mother drop us off at a local camp sight, with a warning about sleeping on the beach, due to Algerian immigrants.
Everyone was pretty much done. We felt as though we’d ripped Shakespeare inside out, we’d got down his Collected Works and riffled through it, through books of essays and various critical volumes. Still we were none the wiser, yet we were fingering through the “plain sight”. My pal stayed resolute, not brazen, nor arrogant, but a perfect picture of a drunken Zen master.
“Are you ready for me to tell you?”
Every one of us, eager but exhausted to know exclaimed “YES!”
“It is care, the care of 500 years of scholarly attention, the multitude of books, the inspiration, the symbol that he is to the cultural heritage of a nation — it is simply care.”
It was so brilliant, so obvious. Of course, a reason, which all our reasons were without doubt wrapped up in, but not it exactly. No one would ever go to any great effort to write scholarly texts, to be influenced by, to make spin-offs of a soap opera. It is passive entertainment. People may be interested, but ask them what happened last week, they’d probably struggle to give an overview. But there Shakespeare enthusiasts who can quote, debate, enthuse with their admiration and knowledge of Shakespeare. Even my own father who never reads, can recite passages of Shakespeare learned at school over 50 years ago.
This can be active in our justification of any good literature, even in our passive Internet age. When we write reviews of someone’s chapbook, or comment on someone’s blog, we do so in this same vein of care. It is a concatenation of that tradition of literature, which we choose to give expression to no matter the status of the writer. This is how we keep our literature alive. This is why reading, humanities, literature, matters: it is the conversation of what makes us uniquely human, it is concern for storytelling & the marginalia & conversations this has produced.