[9 January 2013]
A relatively obscure but nonetheless significant consequence of both the recent recession and long-term trends in the world of higher education is the dire state of academic publishing, especially in the humanities. Put simply, universities and colleges have generally slashed budgets for their publishing presses, resulting in increasingly smaller catalogues—this at a time when search committees and tenure review boards are insisting that successful candidates have ever more prodigious publication records in terms of peer-reviewed articles and monographs. As anyone who has spent time in graduate school or on the academic job market in the last decade or so is aware, long gone are the days when an assistant professor could secure tenure on the basis of a handful of articles; these days, that kind of publishing record might not be enough to earn a second glance from a committee looking for a visiting instructor.
It’s easy, of course, to bemoan the state of things, a lot tougher to do something about it. Cambridge Scholars Publishing (CSP) is doing something about it. Apparently working without support from any academic institution, CSP is, according to its website, publishing “500 new academic titles a year” along with editions of literary works. This is simply astounding, and it’s important to note that while the economics underlying this productivity may be mysterious, CSP is not a vanity press (i.e., the kind of publisher that charges fees to authors). Moreover, the sheer breadth and diversity of CSP’s catalogues is very impressive.
Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century is a recent installment in the category of literary studies. Its editors are Gabrielle Malcolm (who, it should be noted, is a writer for PopMatters) and Kelli Marshall. At first glance, the title seems to gesture toward incongruence: looking for fusty, dusty, old Shakespeare—bane of the existence of so many secondary school and university students—in the 21st century? Surely this is an exercise in archaism dressed up as cutting-edge scholarly interest.
Not so, Locating Shakespeare insists. In a smart and sure-handed introduction, Malcolm and Marshall note that Shakespeare—as kind of cultural force that is both grounded in and transcends the collection of works he authored or co-authored—is everywhere, even where he (it?) might be least expected:
“[T]he representation of Shakespeare in new media forms is now a well-established trend providing alternative strands, identities, and locations of ‘Shakespeare’ (e.g., metanarratives, gender-reworkings, inter-cultural adapting, online streaming), and the growth is as widespread and fast as technology, performance, social networking, and cinema will allow.”
This migration of Shakespeare into myriad forms and media, and the new notions of Shakespeare’s significance born of that migration, shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Shakespeare has been many things to many eras and cultural contexts: talented and hard-working playwright for the popular early modern London theater market; epitome of Romantic genius for various coteries of 19th century writers; emblem of British cultural superiority for the empire’s several-centuries long colonial project; center of the canon of English literature in contemporary academia; inventor of the psychological essence of human beings according to Harold Bloom’s rather ambitious (and some would say unhinged) declarations.
While Shakespeare’s work will, presumably, continue to enjoy a robust presence in the more traditional milieus of classrooms and theaters, the focus of this collection is on where Shakespeare is going, so to speak, as opposed to where he has been: children’s literature, Indian film, television, interactive and experimental theater, comic books and manga to name just some. For more conservative-minded observers, these transformations of Shakespeare will surely serve as evidence of a general cultural decline, a profaning of sacred literary relics.
This seems a mistake for at least two reasons: first, in their own era, plays by Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights held an ambivalent status and were subject, at least by some, to a snobbish disdain that looks curiously like the disdain that some present-day observers direct toward so-called popular culture. Second, Shakespeare’s own career—oriented toward writing for a diverse audience in a popular medium—evidences everywhere, particularly in analyses of his source materials, an omnivorous interest in the cultural products of all kinds: classical literature, miscellanies of popular poetry, emblem books, history chronicles, racy Italian fiction and drama, and on. In a sense, then, nothing could be more Shakespearean than the unpredictable, energetic proliferation of forms that this collection tracks.
Perhaps given the nature of the subject matter, the essays contained in Locating Shakespeare tend toward the observational. That is, they tend to describe, sometimes in first-person fashion, the experience of participating in, watching, encountering the new kinds of Shakespeare, though usually with a good dose of analysis concerning both the cultural significance of a given text and the writer’s reflections upon it. In, for example, “Reinventing Shakespeare through Comic, Graphic Novels, and Manga” Shannon Mortimore-Smith writes,
“Like many, I falsely believed that to endorse student engagement in graphic adaptations meant I was in some way raising a white flag to the rigor and ardor required of all readers who hazard to engage […] Shakespeare’s works… Reading Shakespeare through comics, graphic novels, and manga challenged not only my preconceptions about what it means to be a teacher of Shakespeare’s plays, but my practice as a teacher of English and of adolescent readers.”
The essays contained in Locating Shakespeare are eclectic and, for that reason, potential readers are likely to find some more intriguing than others—but that’s the case with virtually any collection. Terminology also tends toward the academic so general readers should be prepared for it. For all readers though who are at least as interested in what Shakespeare is becoming as opposed to what it has been, this makes for thought-provoking and illuminating reading; moreover, it’s a solid installment in the catalogue of what looks to be an important, and perhaps groundbreaking, academic press.