What’s Ophelia doing on YouTube?

It is no longer possible to think of Ophelia simply as the restricted tragic girl of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s character has become a recurrent text, image, and even a brand that can be endlessly repurposed and appropriated.

There are several interesting questions to ask about Ophelia on YouTube: What is at stake in the turn — or return — to Ophelia within online culture? To what extent is Ophelia a progressive text? eIf Ophelia productions are indices of the democratic media-making associated with Web 2.0, then to what extent do they signal new, meaningful forms of feminism?

In an essay published in Borrowers and Lenders (http://http://www.borrowers.uga.edu/1281/show), I try to address these and related questions. Building on recent work on Ophelia as a discourse that names and constitutes the contemporary girl, the essay examines a variety of Ophelia productions on YouTube. It identifies particular genres of response and situates them in terms of current debates within girls’ studies, as well as media studies. This essay interprets Ophelia videos in terms of a triptych, “YouTube-Shakespeare-Ophelia.” Each of these terms should be understood as a frame, both enabling and delimiting, through which girls produce and/or perform postfeminist identities online. Ophelia is now a meta-language for a set of negotiations within girls’ culture and the (im)possibility of authentic expression in the contemporary mediascape.

Of course, YouTube is just one among a number of social media platforms where we can find responses to and appropriations of Ophelia. Alan Young’s website Ophelia and Popular Culture (http://www.opheliapopularculture.com/) provides an impressively detailed database of vernacular productions as well as general examples of Ophelia’s citability. Ophelia survives or remains through social media. But in such modes of survival, there is a constant displacement and transformation of the character from Hamlet. Indeed, these new Ophelias alert us to the fundamental indeterminacy of the thing we call Hamlet‘s Ophelia and will invariably come to shape how we regard the character.

What if Hamlet used social media?

In this YouTube video Hamlet Gone Viral, Leia Yen takes the dominant elements from our contemporary mediascape (Facebook, Google search, Google maps, Yahoo, Twitter, Tumblr, Gmail, YouTube, the blog) to tell Hamlet’s story. As the Hamlet plot unfolds through a series of media screens, it’s tempting to interpret the video as instance of what Doug Lanier dubs “post-textual Shakespeare”. But the text of Hamlet remains here. It is also creatively re-purposed. In using Facebook’s update culture as its primary narrative device, the video suggests that posting online through social networking and media are communicative acts, modes of self-formation and even biography. Hamlet Gone Viral captures the tension or paradox of online lives, lives that communication brands (from Facebook to Google) enable and, at the same time, frame and, to a degree, contain. We serve their visibility and value as much as our expression. The video also says something about the role of media in knowledge construction. In this twenty-first century characterization of Hamlet, Google emerges as a form of authority. Search assumes something approaching epistemological standing. In Shakespeare and YouTube (Bloomsbury 2014), I suggested that through the platform, “Hamlet never dies. In their productions, tubers partake in a Hamlet-like desire for story and for remembrance, a desire to leave a digital footprint in the contemporary mediascape, via the paternal Bard”. This video takes things further, noting how expression is not simply filtered through a single platform like YouTube but is rather a function of the interrelation of multiple media. This is social media. This is social media Shakespeare. And all three components carry equal weight. But perhaps we are moving towards a post-Shakespeare phase, never mind a post-textual one. The Shakespeare quotation or reference may primarily function here as a conduit for connectivity. Hamlet Gone viral is, then, less about Shakespeare or Hamlet than about the workings of social media itself. The extent to which Shakespeare might get lost amidst different technologies is evident in an earlier video The Internet Tells the Story of Hamlet

But is loss a productive way of thinking about what is happening to Shakespeare – or Hamlet – in these videos? The description accompanying the The Internet Tells the Story of Hamlet video is interesting: “19 separate programs tell the story of Hamlet”. There is a sense of boast here about the number of software programmes that have been used to make the video. But perhaps there is also a suggestion about how the medium or technology simultaneously displaces and transforms Shakespeare.

For the creators of these videos, using Web 2.0 technologies to respond to Shakespeare may not be about displacement or transformation but simply their default, habitual mode of expression. And because of YouTube’s system of tags, as well as its algorithmic tracking of viewer selections, we begin to notice yet more videos where creators use the language of social media to tell Hamlet. What at first seems to be an original conceit, turns out to be part of a wider practice:

These videos are examples of how YouTube and social media platforms are being integrated into teaching. Students are being encouraged to use their familiarity with social media as an entrypoint into their study of Shakespeare. We encounter plot summary but also video as a form of interpretation and close reading.

Hamlet the original vlogger

This is one of the many fine examples where Hamlet’s soliloquy is re-purposed and updated as a vlog. In “Robbie Hamlet rap”, by dmcm720, the soliloquy is performed through the idiom of hip-hop. “Is it better to be alive or dead? “To be or not to be” is how it was said”. It suggests some symbolic connection between Hamlet’s anxious desire to determine an identity for himself and the invitation of the You Tube platform: “Broadcast Yourself”. For more on this and other Hamlet uploads, you might be interested in my article available at http://www.anglistica.unior.it/content/uploading-hamlet-agency-convergence-and-youtube-shakespeare

“To tube or not to tube”

This upload by JeffMaus is a fine example of user-generated Hamlet content on You Tube. It combines a series of images from film and TV with a voiceover, which is the audio of Kenneth Branagh’s performance from his 1996 film. The images variously suggest drug addiction, alcohol dependency and psychic disturbance. Other elements include Lou Reed’s “Heroin” and a quote from Kurt Vonnegut on smoking as a form of delayed self-annihilation, cited in the detailed version of the by-line accompanying the upload. The combination of the Branagh audio with the visuals can be understood in the context of mash-up culture, where existing media content is cited and redeployed in a process of creative redaction. Here, the montage of filmic images visualize rather than compete with Hamlet’s words and, in the process, suggest or even assert an interpretation of them. Further, I think the effect of the images, especially the opening shot of a man injecting himself and the close-up of a needle superimposed over other images of people drinking and in states of distress, is to imbue Branagh’s somewhat dispassionate performance with pathos as the viewer is prompted to reflect on suffering and psychological torment. Hamlet thus functions here as one of the intertexts – along with the remediated films and the Reed and Vonnegut quotes – that prompt a consideration of humanity.