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.

Shakespeare and YouTube (Arden Shakespeare 2014)

Shakespeare and YouTube (Arden Shakespeare 2014)

The first ever full-length analysis of YouTube Shakespeare, Shakespeare and YouTube shows the importance of the video-sharing platform to the twenty-first century’s reception and adaptation of Shakespeare’s work.

By exploring YouTube’s function as patron, archive and distribution channel, my book seeks to analyse how the platform extends and challenges Shakespeare’s cultural currency. Investigating the intersection of YouTube’s participatory culture – its invitation to ‘Broadcast Yourself’ – with its corporate logic, the book argues that YouTube Shakespeare is a site of productive tension between new forms of creative interpretation and the homogenizing effects of mass culture.

Emphasising the need for critical media literacy,  I also explore YouTube’s usefulness as a pedagogical resource within Shakespeare studies. The book provides practical guidelines on using YouTube in the classroom, including detailed assignments designed to facilitate interactive, student-centred learning. Including a wealth of online resources, Shakespeare and YouTube will prove essential to an understanding of how Shakespeare is being appropriated and adapted in the digital age.


Table of Contents:

Introduction: Interpreting YouTube Shakespeare

Chapter One: Searchable Shakespeares: Attention, Genres and Value on YouTube

Chapter Two: Broadcast Your Hamlet: Convergence Culture, Shakespeare and Online Self-Expression

Chapter Three: Race in YouTube Shakespeare: Ways of Seeing

Chapter Four: Medium Play, Queer Erasures:
Shakespeare’s Sonnets on YouTube

Chapter Five: The Teaching and Learning Tube:
Challenges and Affordances


Archiving Shakespeare on YouTube

The videos collected here are just a small sample of the hundreds of thousands of videos tagged under ‘Shakespeare’ on YouTube. This site does not claim any rights over the videos but simply offers another way of viewing them, outside of the busy, unwieldy interface of YouTube.

However, the collation and annotation of videos outside of their original context raises questions about the provenance of videos (here divorced from their user channel or from the related content that appears alongside them) and of ownership too. What is the usefulness of archiving Shakespeare materials in this way? Luke McKernan’s BardBox has already done a terrific job in annotating Shakespeare videos in what remains a subjective sampling. Bardbox and this site do allow for a neater arrangement of videos (we can determine content under descriptive categories) and more targeted or niche viewing than YouTube itself allows. In her superb video book, Learning from YouTube , Alexandra Juhasz describes the platform and its network as facilitating chaos rather than order: “YouTube serves the decentering mandate of post-identity politics by creating a logic of dispersal and network. Yet it fails to relink these decentered fragments in any rational or sustaining way. There is no possibility to make collectives through its architecture. Information cannot become knowledge without a map, a structure, and an ethics”.

For Shakespeareans, YouTube’s participatory culture offers exciting opportunities that are now beginning to be seriously and critically pursued. Yet the unbounded volume of material is daunting. It places limits on the capacity of the individual Shakespeare researcher to undertake quantitative evaluations of even a single text. In the crowded mediascape, how will we build a composite sense of the reception of Shakespeare? Is such a goal even possible or desirable? And even if we were to succumb to archive fever, the possibility of compiling a full record of, say, Hamlet on YouTube, would most likely prove an endless, if not impossible, work.

Material on YouTube is after all ephemeral – it can be removed by the individual tuber; or made private; or, in cases where it is deemed to have infringed copyright, removed by YouTube itself. Here the issue of ownership crops up. Since YouTube’s culture of mash-up involves borrowing from existing media content, often using the “remix” as a means of commenting, sometimes in a critical fashion, sometimes in a celebratory fashion, on that content, uploads may infringe copyright on several fronts. YouTube’s algorithm uses content identification systems to detect the use of copyrighted images from such commercial media giants as Viacom and Universal. The implications of this for digital literacy and pedagogy are explored in Virginia Kuhn’s essay “The YouTube Gaze”, where she addresses the challenges posed by a hierarchical and inflexible attitude to the culture of mash-up and remix, one that fails to take account of “fair use” of such content (for example, for academic purposes). While condemning pirating, Kuhn calls for a more nuanced understanding of online video creation, where copyrighted material may be featured. For Shakespeareans, this aspect of YouTube culture poses some ethical as well as pedagogical problems – while we might want to direct students to the rich array of online Shakespeare production and to participate in production themselves, part of their education is about learning to recognize intellectual property and to provide proper citation in their work. How, then, are we to respond to those videos that infringe copyright? If we use them in our teaching or research, are we complicit in that infringement? But to silently comply is, as Kuhn argues, to limit our capacity to be active participants in the media and to “critically engage” its images, machineries, and politics. These are just some of the issues that YouTube Shakespeare involves and that the field of Shakespeare studies needs to begin to grapple with.

Ophelia and the doll house

Hamlet – The Death of Ophelia – Director’s Cut (uploaded 15 December 2006 by Edit 538) reproduces the iconic image of Ophelia’s death using stop motion animation and a wooden doll. The video eschews a naturalistic portrayal of Ophelia’s death that is evident in other Ophelia videos on YouTube and might be said to offer a parody of responses to and adaptations of Ophelia’s image, with the reduction of her iconicity to a wooden doll on a perilous journey across a bathtub. The opening title sequences, with their parodic referencing of the 20th Century Fox and MGM set up viewer expectations that this treatment of Ophelia is going to be less than serious. However, the comments on the video indicate that it is not viewed entirely as a parody, with several viewers taking issue with what they regard as an incorrect depiction of Ophelia’s death as pre-meditated. The video, even as it parodies images of Ophelia and perhaps parodies post-Shakespearean reproductions too, raises questions among its viewers about authenticity and faithfulness to the play. This and other Ophelias are available in the playlist below:

Web 2.Ophelia

This YouTube video Ophelia Drowns (uploaded by Bella1951) is a naturalistic style reproduction of Ophelia’s last moments. Here Ophelia’s death is imagined as

an accident rather than an intended act. The video is part of the well-established cultural afterlife of Shakespeare’s Ophelia: as an icon of girlhood; as teen-in-crisis; as spectacularization of death; as metaphor for media representations of women. There is an entire website devoted to Ophelia, which discusses recreations, responses, adaptations across Web 2.0 platforms such as Tumblr, Facebook and YouTube (see Alan Young’s http://www.opheliapopularculture.com/). A recent volume of essays The Afterlife of Ophelia, ed. by Kaara Peterson & Deanne Williams (New York: Palgrave, 2012) offers new ways of approaching the significance and multiple meanings of the figure. Ophelia seems to crop up repeatedly, most recently in Kylie Minogue’s music video Flower (Dir. Kylie Minogue, 2012). These citations may have less to do with Shakespeare’s character than with the circulation of recognizable images across Western media: as such, Shakespeare is one among a series of heavily mediated references. But adaptations like Bella1951’s Ophelia Drowns seem to be concerned with suggesting an ‘authentic’ Ophelia, as if saying “this is what really happened”; in the process, they stage an intervention in what Ophelia and her associative images are understood as meaning.

Race and YouTube Shakespeare: The Story of Othello

Billed as a trailer for the Red Door Theater’s production of ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged]’, The Story of Othello was commissioned by the theatre company as a backdrop to the live performance. Directed by Derrick Acosta of Mega64, The Story of Othello riffs off Reduced Shakespeare’s Othello Rap, reworking its opening lines and including visual cues to their Shakespearean style costumes. The video exemplifies a form of response to Othello in popular culture and on YouTube more specifically. Here, the play’s interweaving of race and sex is treated comically through parody and exaggerated performance. Two specific genres are targeted, namely the hip-hop and the boy-band music video. But it is with the treatment of race that The Story of Othello proves most interesting. The characterization of Othello is semiotically loaded with a specific cue, since the actor (Shaun Conde) wears an Afro wig. His direct performance to camera, another device from the music video that is patently parodied here, is interspersed with close-ups introducing the characters and title sequences which emphasize the narrative aspects of the rap. Parody can have a range of effects, from complict laughter with the stereotypes invoked to a laughter informed by critical distance. But as parody becomes one of the predominant modes on YouTube, does it not risk re-activating the very strereotype that is its target? The Story of Othello’s humour has the potential to put into circulation in an uncritical way a series of racial stereotypes as well as troublesome attitudes to sexuality. The comic treatment of Othello’s sexual desire for white women is a case in point: the refrain of the song playfully suggests Othello’s obsessive tendencies: ‘He said girl, you know I think you’re fine/ Girl I’m gonna make you mine/ Desdemona you’re making me groana/ You’re the hottest white woman on this side of Verona’. The specificity of Othello’s sexual preferences are further suggested, as we see a close-up of a lustful Othello, before the video cuts back to the rappers making pelvic thrusts to camera at the thought of Desdemona, followed by the rapper Dallas’s direct address to camera: ‘White women, where you at?’ Othello is presented as obsessively desiring Desdemona and the whiteness that she symbolizes for him. The video offers a parody of the gender politics of Othello, and also of hip-hop videos, especially the privileging of the male gaze and the positioning of woman as the object of desire. Yet it also trades in a set of stereotypes of voracious black male sexuality and the threat of rape that it has carried in the (white) cultural imaginary. While the narrative establishes Iago as the root of marital destruction – ‘There was a bad dude / Iago, such a menace/ He didn’t like Othello, the Moor of Venice’ – it simultaneously dwells on Othello’s destructive obsessiveness, both in an action sequence in which Othello leans over and smothers a sleeping Desdemona. The gestures and dance moves accompanying the final chorus signal a performative attitude to, and parody of, the hyper-masculinity of R&B and its address to women. But as the video cuts to an image of Othello hanging from a doorframe – ‘Yo, then he killed himself too, peace’ – it is not clear how such playfulness and irony applies to his story and its racialized baggage. Perhaps registering the difficulty of Othello itself, The Story of Othello seems contradictory. Its ironic aesthetic at once facilitates the disclosure of cultural stereotypes about race and sexuality as found in Shakespeare and contemporary urban music. Yet it also re-activates problematic associations between blackness and violence against women. Read more about this video and race in YouTube Shakespeare in Chapter three of Shakespeare and YouTubehttp://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/

Paul Robeson on playing Othello

YouTube is an expanding archive, and includes material that is of value and interest to students of Shakespeare: for more on this see Lauren Shohet’s article “YouTube, Use and the Idea of the Archive” in Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (2010). This video, featuring actor Paul Robeson, is a particularly important example of how YouTube can be used as a learning resource for Shakespeare’s Othello. Robeson first played the part of Othello on the stage of London’s Savoy Theatre in 1931 and in this interview he talks about the personal significance of the role.