What if Desdemona had a Sassy Gay Friend?

Sassy Gay Friend, a series by Second City Network, has become something of a YouTube phenomenon. It might be more accurately described as a meme. In the videos, iconic women from history and literature – including Eve, Ophelia, and Desdemona – are visited from the future by a gay best friend, who alerts them to the absurdity of the plot conventions, cultural myths and patriarchal ideologies that surround them. Sassy Gay Friend: Othello opens with Desdemona on her bed. A voiceover, in a mock-serious tone, explains: ‘Meet Desdemona from Shakespeare’s Othello. She is waiting in her bed to be murdered by her husband. This fate could have been avoided if she had had a Sassy Gay Friend’. Cue the emergence from a closet (the humour is not especially subtle) of the eponymous gay friend, played by Brian Gallivan. The video presumes a broad familiarity with the play’s plot, here comically distilled into its core elements as Sassy Gay Friend explains matters to Desdemona and repeatedly urges her to leave: ‘Tina Turner, we gotta private dance it out of here’. The pun on Turner’s song is indicative of the sketch’s easy humour. But the reference to the singer (who endured an abusive relationship at the hands of her partner Ike Turner) and to this particular song (about a woman who makes her living by dancing for the pleasure of men) has the effect of interpreting Othello as a text of male domestic violence and of the objectification of women.Other puns knowingly exploit established racial stereotypes about black men: ‘Does Moor mean more?’ he asks Desdemona and, as she laughs, adds, ‘now I’m being racist’. The video ends with the series’ catchphrase, ‘Now I’m being a stupid bitch … I’m such a stupid bitch’.

As its idiom and catchphrases suggest, Sassy Gay Friend is largely about the gags. What we have here is a fairly safe form of queerness and of homosexuality, one that presents the gay man as possessing a valuable commodity (his savvy attitude), to be extended back in time to literature’s clueless heroines. Yet the laughter is dependent on the queer advice that Desdemona receives. Perhaps the video ultimately does imply a queer reading of Othello, one that parodies traditional masculinity, while simultaneously questioning the role assigned to women by the forms of heterosexual desire as expressed in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Parody becomes an instinctively queer form here, encouraging us to look again or anew. High camp and fast-paced, Sassy Gay Friend: Othello deploys a postmodern knowingness to debunk the canonical Shakespeare and its complicity with such grand narratives as patriarchy.

You can read more about race and gender in YouTube Shakespeare in Chapter Three of Shakespeare and YouTube: http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/

The Fan Performance: Mr Shakespeare Reads

Mr Shakespeare Reads offers a playful investment in the human face behind the texts – or at least a simulacrum of the author drawn from popular culture representations. By adding the visual gimmick of Shakespearean disguise and hairstyle, the videos develop the established YouTube genre of the vernacular Shakespeare performance. What we here is a curious animation of an authorial and textual corpus in the form of an embodied performance of the Droeshout image from the First Folio. Through the paratexts that accompanying the videos, such as the channel description (‘William Shakespeare reads “The Complete Works of Me”. Sonnets, speeches, and prose, in full Elizabethan regalia’) and the description below each video (‘William Shakespeare reading from…’), we are encouraged to view the performances as the Bard taking up YouTube’s invitation to ‘Broadcast Yourself’. Holding his book, with a copy of the Folio image on the front, ‘Shakespeare’ reads a sonnet, occasionally looking to the camera. It is no accident that thus far the series has focused on the Sonnets, for it is these texts that have proved most accommodating to the idea of the singular author as literary genius. Mr Shakespeare Reads may signify little beyond the obvious visual gag. In part, the undertaking may be about acquiring the username ‘Mr Shakespeare Reads’ on YouTube and being the first to do so. Yet, as visual registers of the mythic author, the videos posit a Stratfordian Shakespeare. As such, they indirectly engage with the authorship controversy, itself a space where the primacy of individual genius finds ongoing expression in the popular imagination. The videos are continuous with a theme-park Shakespeare, or those street-performers that don Shakespeare disguises for the entertainment of visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon, and other locations of the Shakespeare industry. As in those instances, the simulacrum of ‘the man himself’ in Mr Shakespeare Reads reflects a desire for a grounding authenticity, which permits the illusion of unmediated access to the texts. Read more about fan performance and amateur Shakespeare in Shakespeare and YouTube (http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/).

The Fan Performance: “Geeky Blonde” Shakespeare

The Geeky Blonde videos are examples of the dynamic and evolving nature of vernacular Shakespeare production on YouTube. The first video in the series, The Merchant of Venice, was posted in April 2011. While moving across Shakespearean genres, with comedy (The Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night), tragedy (Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet) and romance (Cymbeline The Winter’s Tale), the videos are nonetheless consistent in terms of their overall approach and aesthetic. That said, some developments are evident when more recent videos are compared with earlier ones. The productions are noteworthy not only because they each involve one-person performances of the major – and indeed minor – parts by the creator, but also because they range beyond Shakespeare’s most prominent plays. With the shortest of the videos lasting ten minutes, they also challenge YouTube’s reduced attention economy. There is a striking variety to The Geeky Blonde’s performances, with characters differentiated through vocal modulation, facial and other non-verbal expressions, an extensive wardrobe (especially of hats) and well-paced editing. Read more about Geeky Blonde’s videos in Chapter one of Shakespeare and YouTube (http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/shakespeare-and-youtube-9781472500281/).

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.

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/