Shakespeare as Media Critic: Communication Theory and Historiography

By Linton, David | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1996 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare as Media Critic: Communication Theory and Historiography


Linton, David, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The current tendency to explain everything from election results to the breakdown of the family in terms of media influence attests to the belief that the communicating practices of a culture play decisive roles in the outcomes of human endeavors. In analyzing the nature of these influences and the characteristics of the outcomes, some communications theorists and historians focus on the effects of a medium's form while others attend to its content. Content-analyses most often deal with controversial subjects such as violence, erotica, propaganda or political messages, while effects-analyses focus on the social, psychological or cognitive alterations that result from the use or exposure to a given medium.

Examinations of the impact of the printing press, for instance, have led to a wide range of conclusions: from Claude Levi-Strauss's contention that literacy favors despotism, through Jack Goody and Ian Watt's more moderate view that literacy contributes to social stratification, to Eric Havelock's conclusion that literacy has been a democratizing influence in human history. Similarly, examinations of the impact of television have led critics like Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz to claim that this medium has contributed to the deterioration of social institutions, while Jib Fowles and Henry Perkinson hold that television has been a positive force in the growth of human understanding.

Yet the thought that communications media deserve scrutiny is hardly a new idea. Four centuries ago a prominent social critic in Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare, embedded in his plays a critique of the effects and uses of print media and literacy, both of which were rapidly reshaping social practices in 16th-century England.

My purpose in this essay is to argue that Shakespeare's understanding of communications and the media of his times entitles him to recognition as a formidable media commentator. First, I will illustrate the scope of Shakespeare's presentation of media and literacy issues by presenting a wide range of examples from all the dramatic forms in which Shakespeare wrote and by showing that his concern is sustained for the full span of his career. Second, I will focus specifically on one play (Henry IV, Part II) which functions as a kind of case study of Shakespeare's interest in particular media practices. In this way, I hope to make an updated and concrete contribution to what previous researchers have already identified as Shakespeare's concern with media issues, and thus by way of providing a context for my discussion I will first provide an overview of this scholarship.

Some of the most influential contemporary communications theorists have noted Shakespeare's use of media themes. Harold Innis commented on the relationship between the printing press and Shakespeare's plays (Bias 55, Empire 148) and Marshall McLuhan, in his usual sweeping fashion, noted that, "A fairly complete handbook for studying extensions of man could be made up from selections from Shakespeare" (Understanding 3). In fact, McLuhan opens The Gutenberg Galaxy with a description of King Lear as Shakespeare's alarmed response to the impact of print. He says that the play is an "almost scholastic demonstration of the need for a ratio and interplay among the senses as the very constitution of rationality" (13), a delicate balance which had been disrupted by printing. In a similar vein, Walter Ong has discussed at length the impact of print and literacy upon mental functions, observations with particular pertinence to Shakespeare's most literate characters such as Hamlet, Angelo and Romeo.

Literary scholars and practitioners of the rehistoricizing enterprise have also directed attention to Shakespeare's treatment of communications issues. Donna Hamilton, for example, situates the plays in the political context of the court patronage system during a time in which, she claims, "writing was understood to be a chief means for reifying authority" (103). …

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