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On snobbery, parody, folklore and the Internet

March 3, 2010

Quite a disparate bunch of things in that title, really. But there’s ultimately a connection, I promise. The linking factor in this case is something that isn’t in the title at all, and that’s Shakespeare.

Popular attitudes to him tend to be split between the following:

  • He can do no wrong.
  • He can do some wrong, but is still really that good.
  • He’s good, but not as good as the hype.
  • He’s too difficult to be good.
  • He may have been good once, but now he’s irrelevant.
  • He’s good, but still not my thing.

And for Shakespeare, you could really substitute ‘any entertainment property, ever’. Shakespeare, though, occupies a sufficiently lofty position in the Anglophone cultural imagination that a couple of standard responses are generally missing. The proportion of people in the “I’ve read it, and it’s bad,” category with relation to Shakespeare (as a whole; even paid-up Bard luvvies will admit that he has rubbish moments. Dormitat Homerus as they say) seems to be much lower than for other comparably canonical authors like (say) Dickens. Or perhaps they’re just keeping quiet.

The category that’s notably missing altogether is that of “I’m not going to read it, but will denigrate it anyway.”

The perception that you, Captain Informed-About-Literature, don’t need to read X populist and plebeian work to know how populistically and plebeianly bad it is is something common to pretty much every work of literature that’s ever been popular. (We’re seeing it happen right now with Twilight, books with which I have serious issues but which I have at least read enough of to base those issues off something other than snobbery.)

Snobbery is common to all popular literature (indeed pretty much anything that’s ever had a fandom/hatedom), but rarely brought out with reference to those artists who have long since been installed in the Hall of Fame. In literary circles it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to declare that maybe Shakespeare wasn’t so amazing, but the iron-clad ego required to state that you feel yourself to be above that sort of thing surpasses mere chutzpah by a factor of millions.

This all came out of a brief run-in I had today with Seamus, who spent the two minutes of conversation venting about a student he’d encountered from another university who apparently pooh-poohed Shakespeare on … well, nebulous grounds. Needless to say this offended me. And in the grand tradition of literary argument I sat down to write an incensed screed about it.

  • Contention 1: “You would understand why A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so much tosh if you only read Ovid [one of the sources] in the original Latin.”

When you open a debate about literary work X, it’s generally assumed by all parties that you are talking about X on its own merits, in a conversation open to anyone familiar with X. Declaring that you can’t hold a valid opinion on the topic – what the condescending “You just don’t understand” effectively does – without also having read Y is moving the goalposts. It’s fundamentally unfair. A debate about Y is an equally valid debate, but it’s not the one the other person(s) agreed to get into.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a work of literature in its own right. You don’t need to have read all its sources to a) enjoy it and b) have an opinion on it as it stands, and suggesting otherwise is snobbish and condescending. “You haven’t read Y and therefore possibly don’t understand my opinion of X”? Maybe valid. “You haven’t read Y and therefore don’t understand X itself?” Not valid in the slightest.

As it happens, I have read Ovid in the original: we did the Heroides in first-year Latin. Obviously didn’t get through nearly all of it, but enough to leave me with a lasting appreciation for Ovid’s skill at both poetry and storytelling. I like Ovid and Shakespeare. It’s not impossible.

  • Contention 1a: Shakespeare lampoons Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe in an unnecessarily offensive way.

Honestly? The actual story of the mechanicals’ play in the Dream is pretty much irrelevant. Shakespeare could have picked any tragic romance with a sufficient number of odd incidents, and the effect would probably have been much the same.

Because he isn’t parodying Ovid: he’s parodying a particularly awful type of contemporary tragedy. The dreadful over-alliterated fourteeners may be beyond the appalling, but that’s the point. “Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade, he bravely broached his boiling bloody breast,” is truly terrible: but the Earl of Oxford was at the same time producing stuff like “My life though lingering long is lodged in lair of loathsome ways / My death delayed to keep from life, the harm of hapless days” in all seriousness.

The joke isn’t at the expense of Ovid. It’s at the expense of contemporary writers who couldn’t write and – secondly but crucially – actors, not just contemporary but down the ages, who Do It Wrong. The rude mechanicals in the Dream are the spiritual ancestors of the village am-dram society in Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz.It’s perfectly obvious that Shaun Hot Fuzz isn’t having a go at Shakespeare, but at dreadful acting of Shakespeare, and it seems equally obvious that Shakespeare was in the Dream lampooning not classical tragedy but dreadful productions of classical tragedy.

  • Contention 2: “Shakespeare destroyed folklore!”

I’m going to borrow a phrase from the quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who, on being confronted with a particularly bad piece of reasoning, allegedly said “That’s not right. That’s not even wrong.”

‘Not even wrong’, according to Wikipedia, applies in cases where not only is a conclusion flat-out incorrect, but the premises on which it was based are also incorrect, making the whole argument more or less irrelevant.

In this case:

Wrong because it’s transparently obvious to any six-year-old that much of traditional English folklore is still alive and well today. We still tell the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Robin Hood. People still touch wood, count magpies, and don’t walk under ladders.

If anything is damaging the transmission of ancient folklore, it’s Disney: thanks to the wonders of mass media, one particular version of Snow White/Cinderella/Beauty and the Beast has become entrenched in popular consciousness as the ‘right’ one, whereas historically part of the point of folk- and fairy-tale was that it was transmitted variably, with every retelling being different.

Irrelevant because, pursuing that last point, it’s utterly meaningless to say that folklore can even be destroyed. Maybe a particular set of pre-industrial superstitions are dying out, but again, beside the point. Folklore is folk-lore, the knowledge of the people, and evolves with the generations. Each new generation creates its own crop of stories and superstitions.

You may say that the internet generation don’t. I’d disagree, and go so far as to say that we consume modern folklore via our ears and inboxes nearly every day. Two words: urban legends.

A lot of them are blunt, scare-’em-straight cautionary-tale-cum-horror stories, just like Little Red Riding Hood. And then you have the sort (see also: chain emails) that are framed as aspirational, reassuring stories – there is a God! You can have this baby! You can survive! – which are functionally identical to the stories telling little boys that they can rescue the princess, and little girls that they’ll land a prince of their very own, and mostly equally unlikely. Most people don’t marry a prince. Most people don’t get miraculously cured. But the stories endure.

The literary theory of folk- and fairytale is a field that utterly fascinates me, and one about which I’ll probably write more in future. I think that people have a tendency to think in what, for want of a better term, I’ll call ‘the fairytale mode’ far more than is generally realised – in books, in stories that happened to your friend’s cousin’s roommate but they swear it’s true, in films, in games. We like making patterns, and the cluster of narratives that make up fairytale are very tenacious patterns indeed.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    March 3, 2010 4:59 pm


    If only you’d been there for the argument itself. You’d have completely kicked arse.

  2. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    March 4, 2010 11:11 am

    Didn’t Shakespeare write plays for the general public to watch, who were almost all completely illiterate? If the intended audience were never expected to read Ovid, why the hell should you expect anyone to have read it before they understand it?

    If anything, he was bringing this story (and others) to an audience who would never have known it otherwise, which is surely beneficial rather than detrimental… (Note – I haven’t read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and nor have I read Ovid).

  3. thirithch permalink
    March 4, 2010 12:07 pm

    Nice essay! One small detail: weren’t the am-dram afficionados in Hot Fuzz rather than Shaun of the Dead? Anyway, I should definitely read this blog more regularly.

  4. wickedday permalink
    March 4, 2010 1:06 pm

    *facepalm* Yeah, they were. Editing now.

    Come back whenever 😀

  5. wickedday permalink
    March 4, 2010 1:12 pm

    Shakespeare did have some educated audience members, but the groundlings standing in the yard throwing peanuts – who made up the bulk of the Globe’s public – certainly wouldn’t have read Ovid. (If we believe Hamlet, they barely understood English: he claims, not entirely seriously, that the rabble are “capable only of inexplicable dumbshows, and noise.”)

    The point about bringing stories to those who otherwise wouldn’t have known them is a good one, and still holds. It’s an unfortunate fact that everything I know about the Wars of the Roses I learnt from Shakespeare – certainly never learnt any of it in school.

  6. thirithch permalink
    March 4, 2010 1:13 pm

    Thanks. 🙂 I like the thought of zombies and am-dram, though… I’ve seen some productions that would’ve greatly benefited from generous helpings of brain eating.

  7. thirithch permalink
    March 4, 2010 1:37 pm

    …the rabble are “capable only of inexplicable dumbshows, and noise.”
    Sounds like Michael Bay movies to me…! (And this is where I should stop reading blog comments and get back to work.)

  8. Seamus permalink
    March 5, 2010 4:37 pm

    Most big-cast plays have at least one part that could be satisfactorily played by a zombie. But those are the parts I usually play, so I shouldn’t support this zombie-actors idea.


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