Academic journal article Extrapolation

Remaking Shakespeare in Discworld

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Remaking Shakespeare in Discworld

Article excerpt

What's Shakespeare doing in a place like Discworld? On one level, Terry Pratchett's fantasy novels Wyrd Sisters (1988) and Lords and Ladies (1992) ratchet up the level of intertextual allusion typical of his writing into fullblown adaptations of several Shakespeare plays.1 However, these adaptations do more than simply expand on Pratchett's usual habits of allusion: they also constitute significant revisions of Shakespeare's work and of Shakespeare's canonical status. As my initial question suggests, juxtaposing Shakespeare and modern fantasy can appear incongruous, precisely because Shakespeare's canonization has enthroned him at the top of the "literature" heap, while fantasy continues to occupy a somewhat more marginal space in the suburbs of popular culture.2 But juxtaposing high and low culture is Pratchett's specialty, while placing Shakespeare in incongruous settings is typical of popular culture engagements with his work and reputation; as Douglas Lanier has shown, Shakespeare is omnipresent in pop culture and, indeed, pop culture has helped produce the various Shakespeares whose cultural meanings loom so large for us (19-20). In effect, Wyrd Sisters and Lords and Ladies - especially the latter - suggest that while Shakespeare's writing continues to inspire new ideas, rereadings, and revisions, Shakespeare's canonization into the famous Bard reifies the cultural hierarchy that still defines what counts as "literary" writing.

In its ongoing struggle against the restrictions of fidelity, adaptation studies has shifted toward an emphasis on what Julie Sanders has called "celebrating its ongoing interaction with other texts and artistic productions" (18).3 Thomas Le itch, for one, argues that adaptation theory should challenge "readerly" analyses - which assume fairly static meanings that merely need to be discovered by the reader - on the basis that such readings support canonical authoritative discourses and a "consumerist" approach to reading. Instead, Leitch suggests a Bakhtinian emphasis on heteroglossia and an ongoing generation of meaning through rereading and rewriting (16). As he puts it, we need to recognize that "texts remain alive only to the extent that they can be rewritten and that to experience a text in all its power requires each reader to rewrite it" (13). I find Leitch's argument especially useful for my work here, since it is my contention that Pratchett offers a model for rereading and rewriting Shakespeare in precisely the heteroglossic sense that Leitch praises. In Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett depicts Shakespeare as, simply, "Hwel," a playwright at the mercy of the voices in his head, who also happens to be a dwarf. Through Hwel, Pratchett revises Shakespeare's image as a solitary genius working without reference to other people or other texts. Against Bardolatrous accounts, Hwel is thoroughly embedded in a collaborative and appropriative model of artistic creation.

Hwel is a significant, if secondary, character in Wyrd Sisters, but in Lords and Ladies he appears only in a footnote, a kind of afterthought at the end of the novel. The later novel not only writes Shakespeare the man out of its narrative, but also mounts a more thorough critique of Shakespeare's canonical status through its revision of Shakespeare's fairies into malevolent elves. Pratchett's version of the elves draws on folkloric tradition to mount a significant critique of glamour in general and Shakespeare's glamour in particular. Elvish glamour, in Pratchett's fantasy, becomes a metaphor for Bardolatrous readings that freeze Shakespeare into place at the apex of human culture. In Lords and Ladies, as in Wyrd Sisters, Shakespeare's writing offers ways to challenge and undo the damage done by Shakespeare's Bardolatrous image, an image sustained by the magic of glamour. In the process, Pratchett also challenges the conservatism of high fantasy epic as epitomized in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), where elves - like Shakespeare - embody high culture in a strongly hierarchical society. …

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