Bookends: How Shakespeare Embodies Popular Culture

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He probably bites his thumb at us. (Photo: issocompensa.com)

I wonder sometimes what place popular culture has in a world that sometimes seems to be caving in on itself. It is a question that I have implicitly attempted to answer over the course of this column, with varying degrees of success. So, as I bring my column to a close, I find myself thinking about where we should locate pop culture, how we should prioritize it and what pop culture has become.

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The University of Connecticut has recently become host to Shakespeare’s First Folio as it tours its way across America. The Folio, published in 1623, was the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays and has allowed Shakespeare’s work to be known to us today. In essence, the publication of the First Folio helped to solidify Shakespeare within our cultural memory. We would not have Shakespeare the way we know him without it.

I bring up the First Folio as a moment in history, or perhaps a present one, in which the boundary between culture and pop culture is, at best, extremely permeable. During his time, Shakespeare might have been described as the lowest common denominator. Theatre was for spectacle; it was for the masses. Theatre was meant to sell tickets, and it was meant for consumption. Whether a higher plane of art was intended or not is well beside the point, which is, indeed, that Shakespeare has always belonged to the people. While there were periods in history when Shakespeare was not popular in the same way that, for example, someone like Kanye West is today, he has always been popular in that he has always belonged to us all.

Shakespeare has always belonged to the people.

Now we revere him: not only his works, but also the man himself as a fountainhead of literary and cultural genius. He represents whatever we want him to be. He is at once a great playwright, an unlikely creative anomaly, the Bard of Avon, a pillar of Englishness and the world’s poet. He is not only a man living in Early Modern times; he is also the product of whatever cultural moment in which he is read.

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What Shakespeare is not, I would argue, is a creative force that started as a popular phenomenon that was later incorporated into a more rarefied cultural consciousness. Shakespeare began as pop culture and has remained ever defined and shaped by pop culture. Perhaps he does not grace the cover of People Magazine or the homepage of BuzzFeed, but he is still popular. He still belongs to whomever will read him.

Pop culture, then, a term that seems to suggest everything frivolous and fleeting, might instead be worth redefining as work that unites us as a common thread. It is a common denominator, but it is not lowest. Indeed, as with Shakespeare, to imagine pop culture as something low, something that Orwell’s proles might consume mindlessly and purely for self-gratification, is to create divisions between us—the populous—that seek to exclude.

I don’t mean to suggest that popular culture will instigate the revolution. Rather, I offer that popular culture is not so fleeting as it might seem, and it is certainly not so frivolous. The vestiges, and moreover, the connections that pop culture create have a way of sticking around. So much that 393 years after its original publication, Shakespeare’s First Folio still strikes a proverbial chord, still attracts people to its pages, still inspires a feeling of community and common experience and shared knowledge.

Pop culture is a portrait of society.

Pop culture, I think, is the manifestation of communities trying desperately to cultivate and curate their own image. That is to say, pop culture is what you get when a group of people as a collective tries to paint its own portrait without being able to look into a mirror for reference. But with the blind leading the blind, so to speak, we are required to make connections with each other, to record and transcribe, because 393 years from now, all we are likely to be remembered by, as Hamlet would say, is our “words, words, words”.