Never hated the guy, mind you- downright enjoyed a few of his plays (The Tempest, Coriolanus, Hamlet). Still, I never really could bring myself to relish the bard’s works with the same zealous enthusiasm of the drama geeks and English majors.
With that in mind, you might spare me perhaps a little of the horrified gasping when I ask:
Is it time to stop reading Shakespeare?
And I ask that with all sincerity. I’ve made no secret about my general dislike of the theater and the culture surrounding it, but I’m not here to talk about those guys.
You know the type. Melodramatic airheads who’ll actually only refer to this as “the Scottish play”…
I’m talking about the actual works of William Shakespeare here.
Why still read ’em?
After all, with every passing year, we drift further and further away from those stories. In spite the film industry churning out one or two adaptations or modernizations of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s only so many ways to re-imagine Romeo and Juliet.
Act 2, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has the titular character declare that “there is no good or evil, but thinking makes it so.” Years later, this same sentiment would be echoed by Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost, vowing “The mind is its own place, and itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Moral ambiguity, in case you haven’t caught the drift, is the subject of today’s post. Our culture is becoming increasingly saturated with concepts and figures embodying this general rejection of our traditional measures of what right and wrong is. Jump back twenty years, and the definition of a bad guy would be fairly straightforward. A bad guy breaks the law. A bad guy hurts people. A bad guy lies. A bad guy uses people.
Today, all those things would describe five minutes of screen time with Breaking Bad’s Walter White…
Or Sin City’sJohn Hartigan…
Or The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes…
Or even any of these guys…
And lest anyone think that women are excluded from this mentality…
Now this isn’t the first time we’ve had a run of morally questionable heroes/antiheroes dominating popular culture. If I were to describe tough, unflappable, characters struggling against each other for their own ends and agendas, often in contradiction of the law- you’d probably assume I was talking about characters from some film noir piece.
And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Throw a mass of people in an economic depression with no end in sight, mix in distrust of the powers that be, add cynicism in regards to any progress or change, and when else can you expect but a tacit respect for the handful of people who do manage to carve themselves out a living. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, “right and wrong” doesn’t quite seem so relevant as “effective or not.” When you feel helpless and voiceless, chances are anyone whose managed to be independent and powerful is going to be attractive- be he/she a suave criminal, a cunning businessman, a shrewd politician (à la Game of Thrones), or even just an all-around tough guy (see Sons of Anarchy).
And we’re not just talking about TV shows here.
Who are the good guys and bad guys in Inception?
Think about it- exactly which characters were representing the side of justice, truth, and freedom? Or Killing Them Softly? The Godfather Series? The Big Lebowski?
Our heroes today aren’t crusaders, they’re survivors. They’re those who manage to carve out a slice for themselves in spite of law, society, and conventional morality. “Good and evil” simply aren’t relevant.
And y’know what? I’m not hear to pass judgement on any of that.
There’s strong arguments to be made on all sides for whether or not this is a good or a bad thing or, to put it into morally ambiguous terms, a productive or a destructive thing. There’s even a strong case to be made for the “morally ambiguous” characters on TV and in the movies still never straying too far from anything truly socially unacceptable. Alternatively, you could (and I would) potentially argue that the moral system we had before all this wasn’t actually all that moral to begin with.
And what about the issue of cultural plurality in our ever-shrinking world? When what is right according to my moral code wrong according to yours, how do we proceed? Do we try to find some sort of umbrella system to keep us from fighting each other? Maybe we should declare moral anarchy and simply duke it all out based on the strength of our convictions. Certainly Nietzsche would approve of that.
All that’s to say that the issue’s complicated.
I don’t know, Michael Cera gif, I don’t know…
Speaking for myself, it is nice to see some kind of conviction, even if I don’t agree with the cause at hand. There’s a case to be made for apathy being the pinnacle of all evil. In a world where the greatest battles the average person (or rather, Westerner) faces are over such petty, empty things as getting a dinner order right or having to wait in line, seeing any kind of drive makes for a nice change. As with so much in this past year, it might not be great, but it’s a start.
GORDON: Ladies, gentlemen, voices I hear in my head during the dark, long hours of the night, we’re going to deviate from our past record of discussing television to talk about creating a new literary genre.
EVAN: Which is a daunting task, to say the least. I mean, genres have gotten ridiculously specific as of late. There’s a “gay horror” genre now. It’s not something to spook homophobes, it’s literally horror fiction for homosexuals.
GORDON: There are so many terrible, ignorant jokes I wanna make right now, but I’m not going to. But I agree- we can’t just slap two genres together. Poe is credited with inventing the deective novel- is there a particular profession that hasn’t really been explored much?
EVAN: Hm . . . Everything dramatic and even slightly connected to death is out. That includes forensic scientists, doctors or any sort, lawyers, etc. And the thing is, a genre that revolves around a profession requires an exciting one.
GORDON: Would it count if we revived the explorer/exploration novel?
EVAN: Not if the title of this post is “Evan and Gordon Talk: New Lit. Genre.”
GORDON: Touché. Here’s an idea: a “Nietzschean” novel.
EVAN: Go on-
GORDON: Well, to brutally simplify the philosophy, the only “bad guys” are the people who aren’t doing anything. Otherwise it’s more like an epic tale of colliding forces all of whom technically could be the protagonists and antagonists.
EVAN: That’s an interesting direction, but I suppose my issue is how alternatingly broad and specific it is- So in these novels you’re proposing, the only villains are the idle?
GORDON: the idle, the apathetic, those trapped by their antiquated sense of morality, and those enslaved to their brute instincts and empty rationality.
EVAN: I suppose it works, but have difficulty seeing it as the header to a shelf in a bookstore. Which is sort of what I was envisioning we would do in creating our new genre.
GORDON: Huh. What’s your idea?
EVAN: Well, this isn’t my idea, but I recently came across this brilliant new novel put together by Ryan North, creator of the webcomic Quantz.
GORDON: Huh. If we’re going down that track, how about a novel written in such a way where you can rip out certain sections, rearrange ’em, and wind up with a completely different story?
EVAN: It would work, but sounds exceedingly difficult to pull off. I’m trying to think of how exactly one would go about writing one . . .
I think, keeping in discussing literature, we could devise a new medium of sorts- it would be a marriage of the graphic novel and the traditional novel. Heavy on both text and imagery, a seamless integration that showcases both the artist and the author.
GORDON: That’s sounds like your average Alan Moore book.
EVAN:The Watchmen comes close to it, but it’s ultimately still a graphic novel which prioritizes that sort of storytelling over the bits of prose sandwiched in between the panels.
How about we look at steampunk, and see if we can branch out from it? That seems to be the newest sort of genre out there nowadays.
GORDON: Fair enough. I’m just struggling to figure out an era of technology to “punk.” After all, steam power was really the first major leap in technology.
EVAN: And “cyberpunk” is already a thing as well.
GORDON: This is true. But what else is there? Modern tech? “Modpunk”?
EVAN: Well, we don’t necessarily need to “punk” something. We just need to look at what makes/made steampunk so popular and work off of that-
GORDON: It’s the art, the world, the fancy suits. But yeah, it’s the rich world that’s created; it appeals to us.
EVAN: It’s also a union of history junkies and the sci-fi/fantasy crowd, I think that’s a pretty large aspect of it.
Are there two sort of interest groups that we can intertwine? I mean, it’s already been done with horror and romance, long before Stephenie Meyers ever came along.
GORDON: Huh. I’ll admit, I’m having trouble trying to think of one that hasn’t already been covered. As of yet, I think my Nietzschean idea was the strongest lead we yet have.
What if went down that route? Trying to twist philosophies into narratives- the allegory of the cave would make a good story.
EVAN: I think the main issue is how broad it could get- though I suppose it could just be “Philosophical Fiction.” That I could see in a bookstore.
GORDON: That’d be cool. I mean, it all appeals to the questions and struggles we already have. Yet barring Rand (may raccoons urinate on her grave) and LeGuin, I can’t think of any explicitly “philosophical” novels.
EVAN: That may speak for their effectiveness/popularity.
I was thinking about taking a genre that’s immensely popular to this day, and smashing it together with another one. Self-help books.
EVAN: People eat ’em up.
GORDON: I’m just imagining a really sarcastic self-help book.
EVAN: Comedy and self-help has probably been done . . . hm . . . I would love to see a whole line of books that masqueraded as self-help books that you could gift to the naive.
GORDON: Heh, that’d be cool.
EVAN: They’d be excessively over the top, but just believable enough for people to [literally] buy them.
GORDON: That’d be funny, but it’s really not a genre.
EVAN: I think if self-help books are a genre then fake self-help books would be as well.
GORDON: It’s really more of a gag.
EVAN: Yeah, I suppose you really couldn’t have that many of them.
How about an exaggeration of the choose your own adventure book?
GORDON: Like forcing you to branch out into multiple novels?
EVAN: Ooh, that’s an idea! So your choices would determine what novels you get next; that’s brilliant.
GORDON: Ain’t it? You’re welcome, America.
EVAN: And Canada. And the world. Let’s open up our borders here.
GORDON: Except Luxembourg. **** you guys.
EVAN: You don’t even know anyone from Luxembourg.
GORDON: Exactly- what makes ’em think they’re so good they don’t talk to me?
EVAN: We are going to lose the viewership of an entire country because of you.
GORDON: Boo hoo.
EVAN: All . . . possibly one of them.
GORDON: Hey, Luxembourg! Andorra called, they want their quaint charm and history back!
EVAN: And with the slamming of an entire nation done, and with a few very decent ideas about exciting places literature could go, we should look forward to what we talk about next-
GORDON: New film style?
EVAN: Seems like we’d be following very closely the same sort of conversation. Not to mention really most of what can be done has been done.
GORDON: This is true.
EVAN: Hm . . . How about . . . nerd culture, just in general- The Big Bang Theory, the current conversation about “nerd girls,” the whole shebang.
GORDON: Sure thing.
EVAN: Okay, that fully wraps up our time. Say good-bye to the nice people, Gordon.