Open Review: "Shakespeare and New Media"

6. Locating the Limits of Othello through Wong Fei Hung

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 And that is precisely the space the final YouTube video I analyze explodes: the notion that Shakespeare is too small for the contemporary racial and cultural performances and productions that Asian-Americans students want to create. Like the other two videos discussed above, this 2007 YouTube video is described as fulfilling a class project. And like the students in the two other videos, these six Asian-American students seem to understand (and update) the Moor through performing the borders between gangster/gangsta culture. For the most part, these students dress in the white shirts, black suits, and thin black ties that Quentin Tarantino made famous as the modern uniform for white and black gangsters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.[57] They substitute lollypops for the ubiquitous cigarettes that Tarantino includes in his gangster wardrobe, but the students hold them dangling between their index and middle fingers to emphasize the sign for which they stand. The gangsta flair, however, is evident from the opening frame when Eminem and 50 Cent’s 2006 collaboration “You Don’t Know” is dubbed over the character introductions. Together the white Eminem and black 50 Cent ask, “Who run it? / You know, you actin like you don’t know / We run it / You know, but you actin like you don’t know,” making it clear that gangsta culture, while often associated with black, urban youth, is, in fact, non-discriminatory.[58] And this video seems to promote the blending of different cultural signifiers as a way to make a “modern day depiction of what happened in Othello.”[59] Unlike the Titus Andronicus video, which has a white, indie rock aural landscape, the music in this video is extremely eclectic, ranging from hip hop and rap (Eminem, 50 Cent, T.I.), to Catholic hymns (Andrea Bocelli), to techno club music (East Clubbers), to pop (Christina Aguilera), to a Chinese movie anthem (the theme to Once Upon a Time in China).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This YouTube Othello updates the language and the setting of the play, but it focuses closely on act two, scene three in which Iago deliberately gets Cassio drunk. Running for a total of twelve minutes, this video is much more self conscious about the tensions between Shakespeare’s play and the modern issues the students want to address.[60] For example, the plot summary that is provided as a textual prologue to the video reads in part: “there were these two guys supposedly, a guy and a girl, who loved each other very much. but the twist is the guy is black, and they girl is white! which, was like, MAJOR taboo waay back then. . . . *SPOILERS* everyone dies, so yea . . . kinda depressing. but that’s life! and Shakespeare is teaching us all about it!” As the students advertise their video as a “parody,” the juxtaposition of the colloquial language, spelling, and punctuation with the summary of Shakespeare’s plot is humorously jarring.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What also comes across, however, is that Shakespeare’s plot of forbidden interracial love seems so foreign and dated to the students as to be implausible. It was a “MAJOR taboo waay back then,” but it may not be to these students, the rhetoric implies. In addition, the students keep coming back to the notion that “everyone dies”: it is stated in this prologue; it is voiced as the first line of spoken dialogue in the video when the student who plays Roderigo reads the Folger edition of Othello and blurts out, “Everyone dies?! It’s so stupid”; and it is intimated at the end of the video when the students playing Cassio and Iago debate how to recover one’s “rep[utation]” and “street cred.” Cassio wonders, “Iago, what am I going to do?” In a metadramatic moment the student playing Iago replies, “What is Cassio going to do?” “I don’t know. Check the book.”ThompsonImage2Their expressions of shock and dismay that the play ends tragically implicitly challenge the assumption that Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s plays, and Shakespeare’s plots are for all times and all people. These students do not seem to buy it at all. Hence the prologue’s sardonic remark, “that’s life! and Shakespeare is teaching us all about it!” The implication is that Shakespeare may not be teaching them what they need or want to know.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Although the students update the scene in a very stereotypical fashion (gangsta/gangster), their production is not limited to these cultural models. In fact, the students seem to have chosen this scene (2.3) as a way to break out of the tragedy of the play. Filming in a nicely appointed basement with a built-in fireplace and bar, the students construct this scene as more fun-loving than tragic. For example, the songs that Iago sings to ignite the night of drinking are imagined as blending into Cassio’s drunken fantasies. Using a simple lip-synching technique, the student who plays Iago “sings” the “Ave Maria” and comments that he “learned it during [his] short stay in Africa.” Then the student performs the club song, “It’s a Dream” with three students serving as his back-up singer-dancers, bopping up and down to the fast techno beat. “Singing” along to the female vocalist’s vapid lyrics (“I remember the time of my life. / In the southern light I saw the dream in the sky”), this Iago tilts his head from side to side, looking extremely sweet and innocent: this is no tragic villain.[61] The levels of cultural overlay impart the parodic effect for which the students are clearly aiming. Moreover, these levels work to deconstruct any sense that the tragic ending of Othello is inevitable.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 While the updates to the plot provide a type of historical challenge to the notion of Shakespeare’s universality, the students’ version of the fight scene between Cassio and Montano more explicitly challenges the racial aspects of the cultural landscape of Othello. Moving the scene outside into a snow-covered backyard, the fight is conducted with swords. Yet the students make it clear that this is no homage to traditional Elizabethan or Jacobean stage fights because one of the students shouts an introduction in Chinese as the theme song to the 1991 Chinese film Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung) begins. With slow motion photography, an over-dubbed heart beat, and the Chinese lyrics to the theme song playing almost to completion, the staging of the scene invites one to think about the relevance of a Chinese cultural and racial identity to these students who unmoor Othello.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Once Upon a Time in China, after all, is a decidedly anti-Western film. Set in late nineteenth-century China, the film depicts the fight waged against English, French, and American forces by the legendary martial arts hero Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924). Deeply invested in inspiring pride in the cultural practices handed down by the “ancestors,” such as the practice of the martial arts, the film depicts the colonial endeavors by Western countries as not only repressive and violent, but also culturally dangerous.[62] Wong Fei Hung, who is played by Jet Li in the film, pointedly asks, “If the government regards martial arts training as illegal, the skills passed down by our ancestors will be lost forever. And if we are attacked by thieves, how are we to defend ourselves?” The “thieves” to which Wong Fei Hung alludes are, of course, the foreign countries who, the film suggests, plunder the material and cultural goods from China while simultaneously enforcing an adherence to their own Western ideals. Those who object to the cultural imperialism are referred to as “Chinese devils” by the Western traders.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The cultural conflict depicted in Once Upon a Time in China is emblematized in the relationship between Wong Fei Hung and Aunt Yee. When Aunt Yee arrives back in China from a stay in America, where she has been completely westernized, Wong Fei Hung assumes the role of her protector. While she wonders why he is stuck in the old ways (she wonders why he does not update his fashion with Western suits, for example), he wonders how she could forsake their cultural identity. The fight with the foreign powers, thus, becomes a fight to win back the Chinese women, who, the film suggests, are too easily swayed by cultural imperialism. Ultimately, Wong Fei Hung prevails by defeating guns and cannons with the traditional Chinese martial arts, and, of course, he wins back the women (who are almost sold into slavery in America!).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The theme song to Once Upon a Time in China is played several times during the course of the film as a leitmotif for Chinese cultural and racial pride: all of the major battles with the foreign traders are accompanied by the song. The fact that the students include this leitmotif within their adaptation of Othello is significant because it is a symbol for Chinese pride. Othello, of course, does not seem to admit the possibility of cultural and racial pride for Othello, let alone for Asians or Asian Americans. So the inclusion of this theme song challenges the limited range of cultural and racial constructions depicted. Despite the fact that the students do not explore the racial and cultural tensions between Othello and the Venetians and/or Cypriots in this adaptation (aside from the seemingly ubiquitous performance of the borders between white/gangster and black/gangsta cultures), these students are attentive to the connections between the seemingly disparate histories of colonialism and imperialism: the expansionist zeal of the renaissance (the cultural landscape within the play Othello), the first British Empire (the cultural landscape when Othello was written), and the age of imperialism (the cultural landscape of Once Upon a Time in China). Once Upon a Time in China, after all, does not end tragically for Wong Fei Hung, as it does for Othello. He is not divided against himself (culturally or racially), and he does not have to sacrifice himself for cultural unity. Instead, Wong Fei Hung becomes one of “our [China’s] legendary heroes,” as the film trailer promotes.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Thus the students’ persistent questions about the need for a tragic ending to Othello, coupled with their inclusion of the leitmotif for Chinese cultural and racial pride, implicitly deconstructs notions of Shakespeare’s universal applicability. This production identifies not only that the students’ cultural and racial identities are noticeably absent from the play (and, therefore, must be written in through an updating and unmooring of it), but also that the play’s actual presentation of cultural and racial tensions is woefully inadequate. The problem, this YouTube production insists, is not that cultural and racial tensions are universal. After all, there is some awareness in the students’ production that there are certain parallels between discrete historical moments of conflict. Rather, the problem is that Shakespeare’s Othello does not allow for expressions of pride in, confidence in, or belonging to a non-Western culture or race. The problem, the students’ proclaim, is that Othello is not broad enough to encompass their own relationships with their cultural and racial identities. All they see is that “everyone dies, so yea . . . kinda depressing,” but that is not how it has to be. Shakespeare’s script is not the only script for cultural and racial conflicts, they implicitly intone.

  • [57] Reservoir Dogs, dir. Quentin Tarantino; Pulp Fiction, dir. Quentin Tarantino, perf. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Willis (Miramax Films, 1994).
  • [58] Eminem, “You Don’t Know,” Eminem Presents the Re-Up (Shady Records, 2006).
  • [59] The beginning of the video includes a long written prologue about Othello and their “modern day” approach. YouTube: video posted 2007.
  • [60] Although it is clear that the performance is unified (i.e., it is all performed and shot in one day), it was actually posted as two separate postings on YouTube with the labels “1/2” and “2/2.” Because of the unity of the performance, I treat it as one.
  • [61] East Clubbers, “It’s a Dream” (2004 single).
  • [62] Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung), dir. Hark Tsui, perf. Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan (Golden Harvest Company, 1991).
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/ShakespeareQuarterly_NewMedia/thompson-race-in-performance-based-shakespeare-pedagogy/6-locating-limits/