Friday, May 25, 2012

Yes, I know, I know, this dumb white chick hates Shakespeare

Emer O'Toole, hirsute Shakespearean critic.
Everyone can stop sending me this link.  I cannot change what dumb white chicks think!  (Can anyone?)  This particular one, Emer O'Toole (above; she's best known in the UK for hairy pit advocacy) is getting her Ph.D. at the University of London, and you'd almost think she'd been punched out by a machine somewhere, she parrots the official line of her numbskull academic mentors with so little deviation from the mean.

Yes, for the record, after seeing a production at the (ongoing) World Shakespeare Festival, Emer has decided that The Comedy of Errors is not "a good play," indeed it's actually "a cadaver" (and she seems to think that Shakespeare, not Plautus, came up with the plot).  What's more, somehow she imagines her errors regarding Comedy mean that Shakespeare isn't "universal," at all, as so many misguided people claim. Indeed, Emer huffs about that supposed canard, "Universal my toe."

Now I suppose this assertion may be technically true, as Emer and her lower digits clearly don't "get" the Bard at all.  Indeed, they declare that he's "full of classism, sexism, racism and defunct social mores," and cite the usual evidence for this philistine crapola, "The Evil Jew," and "The Shaming of the Vagina Bearer," as O'Toole re-names the two plays in which Shakespeare openly trades in the prejudices of his day.  (That he transcends these attitudes over and over again elsewhere in the canon doesn't seem to have occurred to Emer or any of her digits, upper or lower.)

What's more, the reason so many people cling to the illusion of Shakespearean "universality," Emer asserts, is that they've been brainwashed by "colonialism." "Taught in schools and performed under the proscenium arches built where the British conquered, universal Shakespeare was both a beacon of the greatness of European civilisation and a gateway into that greatness – to know the bard was to be civilised. True story," she declares. Hence in our misbegotten opinions regarding Shakespeare we've all been seduced by the desire to pretend that "our culture is just a tad superior after all."

Wow, I guess that's why I just love kippers for breakfast - because the British do, and I've been brainwashed by their occupation of large swaths of Africa and Asia almost two centuries ago!

Only wait a minute - I think kippers are disgusting! Golly, what happened to me, Emer?  How did only part of my brain get rinsed by colonialism?

And btw, how were the Russians and the Germans brainwashed?  I mean, I don't think the British invaded and occupied them.  And what about Giuseppe Verdi?  He was attempting to convince his fellow Italians that British culture was superior when he penned Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff?  (And let's not talk about Boris Pasternak!)

And . . . hmmm . . . how do you explain the fact that I only slowly appreciated Shakespeare's greatness?  That my bardolatry only kicked in after exposure to truly great productions - that, in fact, I was never really convinced of Shakespeare's greatness by being force-fed him in the classroom at all?

See this is why I'm so passionate about the constant performance of the Bard, even though most productions of Shakespeare are terrible, frankly.  Nevertheless, I believe the only way into the Shakespearean mystery is in the playhouse - and you usually unlock the door to his riches only by accident.  The resonances, the intelligence, the seemingly bottomless depth - these cannot be explained to you, they have to occur to you, you have to discover them for yourself; somehow your subconscious decodes the secret password in performance, and then you're in.  The process is, in fact, the opposite of the kind of pedagogy that has hypnotized Emer and her ilk.

And once you're in, you can never get out, nor can you pretend that other authors who are far more politically correct could ever compete with the Bard.  I simply could never convince myself that Shakespeare was less than a transcendent genius, because almost everyone else seems thin by comparison.  What's more, I don't care if he shared the prejudices of his day, or even had some of his own.  I mean seriously - is Emer O'Toole fucking kidding?  She yanks this author out of his own life and times - ignoring his separation from a wife he probably no longer loved, and who may even have had children he doubted were his own, and then pretends he didn't live in a country where being Jewish was literally illegal - and where playwrights were sometimes jailed, tortured, or even killed - and then proceeds to cluck and wag the finger, and essentially self-fellate her academic ego.  Ugh!

What's more - although this may be a little too complicated for Emer to grasp - people who love Shakespeare generally do not believe that wives should be submissive to their husbands, or that Jews should be forcibly converted.  Just as we don't wander around in doublet and hose.  In fact - stranger still! - our love of Shakespeare generally maps to the opposite of these attitudes.  But how can that be, if Emer's theories are correct?

But of course they're not correct. Shakespeare's "universality" does not lie in the defunct social mores he has outlived (and that bug Emer), nor does reverence for his legacy mean his fans yearn for those mores to return.  Indeed, it's rather obvious that it's the subversive aspects of Shakespeare that have kept the canon relevant, not the superficial stuff that made it popular - and that kept its author out of prison, and alive.  For let's be honest - if Emer had had to face the kind of penalties Shakespeare would have been subject to for making the kind of political statements she today professes, she never would have gone as far as the Bard, methinks.

And let's be honest about another contradiction embedded in Emer's critique of "cultural imperialism."  She imagines that Shakespeare is oppressive - but compared to what, exactly?  What other "world culture" is superior in terms of human rights to the British tradition (fraught as its history may be)?  Does Emer feel the Bard is more sexist than, say, Indian culture?  Or Chinese culture?  Or African culture?

I guess I'm confused here.  Is Emer looking for more plays about the forced circumcision of girls, or maybe the murder of female babies?   Sorry, but give me The Taming of the Shrew any day.


  1. I am not sure who annoys me more: those who claim that Shakespeare cannot possibly partake in any prejudices of or bigotry or those who decide that that means his works are unworthy of further consideration as dramatic literature, though I can at least forgive the latter position when it is taken by a precocious teenager.

    By the way, leave Ms. O'Toole's armpits out of it; she probably gets enough grief from her parents.

  2. But her armpits seem to be what has brought her to whatever prominence she has; when I googled her for images, this is what I got.

  3. Actually, that's not all. The hairy pit gambit attests to the fuzzy confusion of O'Toole's thinking. On the one hand, she seems aligned with feminist modes. On the other, she insists that we love Shakespeare because the illusion of his universality allows us to feel superior to other cultures.

    The irony is that in terms of feminism, Western culture IS superior to other cultures. Can O'Toole deny that? Is there a better place for women in the world than in the West? And Shakespeare is a wellspring of that very slow, but nonetheless steady, commitment to rights for women. O'Toole's position is thus fundamentally self-contradictory.

  4. Tom, don't you know that academic anti-imperialist discourse now claims that feminism (as well as other humanist values) is simply a pretext for imperialist intervention in the 21st century? Try discussing honor killings with these "anti-imperialists" some time.

    Yes, I do realize that part of the problem with that theory is that one sees very little actual imperialism on the part of countries that have absorbed enlightenment humanist values-- but let's not confuse matters.