Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Shakespeare without SHAKESPEARE: The Improvised Shakespeare Company

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Shakespeare without SHAKESPEARE: The Improvised Shakespeare Company

Article excerpt

Shakespeare and popular culture have a long and complicated relationship. Shakespeare is no longer isolated in academies and on the "proper stage." He is appearing more and more, and in more and more diverse ways. We see him on stage, on film, and in advertisements. His name is evoked in politics, romance, and novels (and romance novels). Shakespeare tourism, folklore, and mythology have become a part of our cultural and national identities. This intricate marriage, and the ways in which popular culture constructs, contests, and perpetuates Shakespeare's cultural authority and meaning have become important questions in Shakespearian studies. As Robert Shaugnessy argues, Shakespeare and pop culture have gone from a periphery concern to "one which is making an increasingly significant contribution to our understanding of how Shakespeare's works came into being, and of how and why they continue to exercise the imaginations of readers, theatergoers, viewers and scholars worldwide" (1). Quite simply, Shakespeare's relationship to popular culture matters.

One of the more interesting contemporary Shakespop examples is the Chicago group The Improvised Shakespeare Company (ISC). Douglas Lanier argues that our ideas and notions about Shakespeare are constantly being shaped and reformed through popular appropriations. As Lanier argues, Shakespeare in pop culture is "an important means by which notions about Shakespeare's cultural significance [can be] created, extended, debated, revised, and renewed, not only parodied or critiqued" (19-20). As a result, many contemporary appropriations struggle both to lay claim to and contest Shakespeare's authority. Contemporary uses of Shakespeare, according to Diana Henderson, not only "remake him in our own image...but they also teach us to see that image and the past anew" (Collaborations 2). Like many other appropriations, collaborations, and adaptations, the ISC reveals current attitudes toward and the relationship between popular culture and Shakespeare.

In order to examine in some small way the relationship between Shakespeare and popular culture, and the ways in which pop culture constructs, contests, and uses Shakespeare, I will be investigating the ISC. I will be analyzing their relationship to Shakespeare and the ways in which they use Shakespeare in performance to both reify and contest his cultural authority. How do cultural appropriations such as the ISC frame the way that Shakespeare is viewed in contemporary culture? I will briefly explore Shakespeare in popular culture to provide a framework before more fully exploring the history and structure of the group. I will also be analyzing several performance examples, and of course discussing the ways in which an improvised company negotiates the most sacred of all Shakespearian issues: language.

Although most associate Shakespeare's plays in contemporary culture with high art that primarily appeals to a highbrow audience, that impression was not always the case. His work has undergone a long and complicated shift from a popular playwright to an icon for cultural supremacy, and often times has even simultaneously been a symbol for both high and low. Douglass Lanier argues that "Shakespeare's special status in the literary canon springs from a complex history of appropriation and reappropriation, through which his image and works have been repeatedly recast to speak to the purposes, fantasies, and anxieties of various historical moments" (21). We need only look at the performance history of a play like Othello to understand the direct relationship between Shakespeare and the times.

So how did the provincial playwright who created John Falstaff become a symbol for the cultural elite? The simple answer is the printing press, but the more interesting answer is popular culture, and both play a significant role in the ISC's relationship to the Bard. This essay cannot and will not attempt to outline the complex and varied transformation in detail, but a basic understanding is necessary to help understand his current (and past) relationship to popular culture. …

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