Evaluating Shakespeare: recommendations for literary scholars
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This essay set out to show that the chief effects of new media on cultural institutions are not physical (as anxious responses to the “threat to the live”, and parallel examples of its challenges to recorded music and newsprint, suggest), but come from its attendant discourse, as inflected by changing narratives of value. However, the findings of its focus on the language of cultural value might, in fact, ultimately temper the assertion of Arts Council England that digital culture currently has a limited physical effect on the way traditional institutions operate. We’ve observed in this essay their major acts of reinscription and even physical reconstruction as they strive to recapture a value that is not controlled by them; and, finally, have seen that the new language of value they adopt has permanently changed the “intrinsic” nature of the tangible objects and buildings at the core of these institutions. If value resides not in things but in the way we talk about them – if “values are the sedimental deposits of the imperative to value” – then the discourse of new media does not simply offer an up-to-date alternative to an older language of intrinsic value, but permanently inflects our sense of what constitutes the “real thing”.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 This phenomenon is exaggerated in the case of Shakespeare because of the already slippery nature of the language in which his value is articulated. “Shakespeare” is at once a byword for transcendent “excellence” and “genius” and a set of Tudor artefacts; text and performance; Englishness and universality, among numerous other binaries, and these qualities are variously, and selectively, emphasized by the imperatives of education, nationhood and the cultural economy. His value is therefore difficult to connect firmly to any built organisation. The strenuous efforts of the institutions both to celebrate created value and to recoup it within their walls, and the subsequent failure of their superior claim to the “real” and authentic in a mediatized culture, ultimately expose their contingent relationship to the value of “Shakespeare”.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This essay’s case study of key UK Shakespeare institutions gives it both useful particularity and wider significance. Firstly, by showing what a mixed set of imperatives – of public funding, business and charity, among others – shape the discourse of cultural value in which these cultural organisations work, it has ready applicability beyond the UK, in, for example, the seemingly more independent, but heterogeneous, funding systems of US cultural and educational institutions, encouraging scholars in other cultural economies to tease out the hybrid influences on their articulation of “value”. Secondly, the essay’s focus on particular institutions is an important reminder for scholars of Shakespeare and digital media that technologies don’t remediate each other – people (and institutions) do. It offers a glimpse into the intentions and deliberate decisions behind the acts of remediation that these organisations perform – followed by a revealing account of the moves they make to manage the repercussions of that remediation. Thirdly, it exposes the local and particular pressures that shape the seemingly neutral, global discourse of the Globe, RSC, SBT and BL’s online self-presentations, and reminds us that the internet is not a transparent medium for sharing a “global” Shakespeare with new audiences and nations, but a tissue of discourse that continually rearticulates and reshapes the value of “Shakespeare”.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 4 Every new language, then, has the capacity to change permanently the value of “Shakespeare”. For scholars of Shakespeare and new media, this realisation might lend a new sense of urgency to the need to turn their attention from analysing only what Shakespeare might “mean” in different, unfamiliar media, to performing a more evaluative critical role. With new awareness of the multiple, complex influences on their narratives of cultural value, Shakespeare scholars, and literary critics more generally, are well placed to decode the discourses in which they are asked to show the importance the value of what they, and other Shakespeare-based organisations, do; and to see what is at stake in their use. In doing so, they can avoid ricocheting back and forth between an unthinking embrace of the latest, uninspected terms of value (“creativity”, “experience”) and a panicked resort to older ones (“objects”, “intrinsic”): veering between extremes of technophobia or technophilia; or, to invoke a current value crisis in UK humanities higher education, resorting defiantly to the “intrinsic” value of research in the face of the demands of the government’s Research Excellence Framework assessment to show the “impact” of that research in the wider world. Instead, scholars might be encouraged to devote more careful attention to reading the language of value that comes with any new medium for Shakespeare; to recognize that Shakespeare’s value is not merely a pre-existing quality conveyed by Shakespeare organisations, but something fluid that is endlessly inflected by the value narratives of institutions, policy, markets and technologies; and to work together with other Shakespeare institutions to create a more nuanced, balanced language for articulating the value of Shakespeare, and culture, in future.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the London Shakespeare Seminar, to Kate McLuskie and the “Interrogating Cultural Value” team, to staff and students of the Shakespeare Institute, to Christie Carson, and to Katherine Rowe, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.