Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt
A short sequence in the 1995 summer film comedy Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling) offers what might be considered a mini-allegory of Shakespeare's circulation within the popular culture of the 1990s. Based on Jane Austen's Emma, the film narrates the coming of age of “Cher, ” a Beverly Hills high school ingenue and media-savvy teen queen who reformulates the pleasures of discourse into side-by-side telephone conversations conducted on mobile telephones. In the manipulation of cultural capital as a means for asserting status, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) clinches her superiority inside of a contest that defines itself through Shakespeare. When her stepbrother's excessively Harvard girlfriend misattributes “to thine own self be true” to Hamlet and Cher corrects her, the girlfriend then rejects Cher's substitution of “that Polonius guy” and slams home her apparent victory with the smugly dismissive line, “I think I remember Hamlet accurately.” But Cher beats her, point, set, and match, with the rejoinder that while she, by comparison, may not know her Hamlet, she most certainly does know her Mel Gibson!
We begin with Clueless because it complicates present moves in cultural studies about Shakespeare. With its Los Angeles location and youth market for Shakespeare, Clueless offers an opportunity for certain kinds of questions. For openers, just who is its Shakespeare joke on-the girlfriend, Cher, or just whom? Just what is the high-status cultural currency here, and how does “Shakespeare” function as a sign? Does the fact that Cher knows Hamlet not via the presupposed Shakespearean original but only via Mel Gibson's role in Zeffirelli's movie signify her cultural illiteracy-or her literacy? Or does this exchange perhaps point us away from any presumptive original, be it Jane Austen's or Shakespeare's, and direct us instead toward a focus on just its mediating package, what might be called the Hollywoodization of Shakespeare in the 1990s? In a postmodern way that effectively mocks all the presumed distinctions between high and low culture, Clueless does not merely relocate high culture to a low site (Los Angeles): after all, this is Beverly Hills, not the Valley, and no one is more vigilant than Cher and her friends about maintaining standards and eschewing tastelessness. Instead, Clueless elaborates on films like L.A. Story (dir. Steve Martin, 1991) in which Steve Martin begins by reciting a speech in praise of L.A.