Where is “Shakespeare” in My Own Private Idaho? Who, what or where is the work undertaken by the bard or the shadows of the bard? This is the question this essay poses. The director, Gus Van Sant, has asserted that “the reason Scott's like he is is because of the Shakespeare, and the reason Shakespeare is in the film is to transcend time, to show that these things have always happened, everywhere” (Fuller 1993:xlii). This seems more like a retrospective claim for the transcendent qualities of Shakespeare than a consideration of the specific place of the Henry IV plays in the film. What place do the Shakespearean sections claim, and what implications do they have for the way the film organizes its subjects and viewers? In finding Shakespeare in the film this essay aims to tease out some of the implications of the film, concentrating on paternity and the family tree, visual versus verbal signifiers and the uncanny/sublime as these are deployed through the narrative.
It does not take much probing to find that Idaho is dealing with-or stylishly commodifying-some of the Big Questions of contemporary culture; questions around the family, paternity, place, home, maternity, sexuality, status and all the elements of the masculine filmic Bildungsroman. Since the fatal overdose of one of the film's two stars, the twenty-three year old River Phoenix, it is as if Phoenix and the film have become reciprocally “about” one another. Phoenix's death, as well as his acting style, his work on the script (Van Sant describes him working “furiously” on the fireside scene) and the improvised style of the scenes where the groups of boys discuss their lives seem to refer the film back to a social world and to substantiate Van Sant's claim that those parts of the film “come directly from a number of people that I've known”, “I'm not being analytical” (Fuller 1993:xli).
But Idaho is also full of textual markers and pointers; “Shakespeare” is far from the only cultural marker in the film. It is richly intertextual-not to say overbearingly knowing-in its deployment of cultural references from popular culture to quasi-Freudian symbolism (for example the “family metaphor” that