Judging by the songs available on YouTube, the Broadway musical Something Rotten strikes an interesting balance between propagating familiar pop-cultural myths about the early modern period and unpicking some of those assumptions through playful anachronism. The opening number, for example, welcomes us to ‘the Renaissance/Where everything is new’: far from a transitional period still processing and remaking its medieval heritage, the 16th century is presented as a new broom. ‘Our mugs are made of pewter,/Our houses all are Tudor’: the Middle Ages are banished entirely, and one writer is securely ‘the top’. Can you guess who it is yet?
When William Shakespeare first appears, according to at least one dodgy video (mea culpa – the show’s UK transfer is yet to be confirmed), he’s far above us, at an open window. Fans crowd around on the lower stage, behind a Hollywood-style red rope. This visual elevation is notable partly because the fellow writers who we have just heard about, in a fairly comprehensive roll-call, all pranced about on that lower level. Shakespeare isn’t alone, after all – the lyrics, by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, go so far as to include a ‘Woo!’ for Thomas Dekker – he’s just higher. Better.
This introduction is based around the very post-Renaissance concept of Shakespearean exceptionalism, where all roads lead to the Bard. Other early modern authors get their moment in the sun on condition that they endorse, and help to create, the Shakespeare myth (here, as in other posts, I’m channeling the great article by Peter Kirwan footnoted below.) Rather than one among many, Shakespeare is the One who crowds literally kneel and worship – his celebrity, his popularity, and what he himself (not in this play…) refers to as ‘vile participation’ (Henry IV Part 1, 3.2.87), all feed into this sense of a democratically-elected superiority. As the character announces in a moment which sits between the mass market Shakespeare of Victorian cheap print and the modern dictator’s personality cult, ‘I am the will of the people now.’
In this context, even the repudiation of Shakespeare is a kind of naughty thrill that re-affirms his centrality. To sing along with fictional rival playwright Nick Bottom’s ‘I Hate Shakespeare‘ – the song released, complete with lyric video, as a kind of promotional digital single – you have to say the name ‘Shakespeare’ itself no less than fourteen times. And though Bottom’s attack makes points that seem fair from a twenty-first-century focus on clarity and originality – ‘He’s a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can’, who makes the audience ‘feel so dumb’ – these things are enjoyable because we know we’re not really supposed to say them. If Shakespeare is the will of the people, joining in these admissions of antipathy has a transgressive quality – we’re watching a musical about Shakespeare, after all.
So what impact does the desire to reclaim Shakespeare as an essentially modern celebrity – a figure set apart from his Renaissance context, even as that context is made to feel more distinctly modern by virtue of his position as its leader – have on Something Rotten’s depiction of Shakespeare himself? Well, in simple terms, it goes to his head. Christian Borle’s Bard is arrogant, preening – ‘a rock star in a leather jacket’, as one interviewer addresses him. He also, intriguingly, suffers from writer’s block.
By being acclaimed ‘the soul of age’ in his own lifetime (not after his death, as in Jonson’s poem), Shakespeare leaves the age behind, becoming defined instead by notions of authorship which not only post-date Shakespeare but which also arguably arose in response to his daunting influence. When Borle laments how his busy schedule and the ‘trappings of fame’ prevent him sitting down to compose, he’s referring to a way of treating authors as public property which is justified by the sense of the author as unique genius, a biographical figure whose life is celebrated as the source of the ‘inspired’ work.
Jonathan Bate has argued that ‘Shakespeare was the first writer in Western high culture to be praised specifically for his supposed artlessness’, for ‘genius in the sense of ‘native endowment’ as opposed to ‘the art which could be achieved by study’. Through Shakespeare, genius becomes associated with a model vision of authorship, which from the Romantic period onwards has increasingly foregrounded authors as figures worthy of public fame. In the promotional video, we see Borle’s Shakespeare trying and failing to exercise the native genius expected of him:
and you’re trying to find
an opening line
or a brilliant idea
and you’re pacing the floor
and hoping for uh
just a bit of divine intervention
so you write down a word
but it’s not the right word
so you try a new word
but you hate the new word
Shakespeare here is swamped by expectations, by the pressure of a whole culture looking in at his window, constantly aware of ‘This bar that I’m raising/To be this amazing.’ He has become subject to the anxiety of his own influence: ‘Hard to alleviate, the pressure to create!/(It’s hard)/Hard to do something as good as the last thing I did that was already great!’ In other words, he is blocked by what are essentially modern assumptions about how good Shakespeare should be. This is a far cry from the inherited idea of Shakespeare’s genius which relies directly on his lack of creative inhibition: Milton praised his ‘easy numbers’, and Jonson carped that ‘hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d’. While Shakespeare as presented by Jonson ‘never blotted out line’, Borle (like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love) is practically throwing reams of unsatisfying drafts out of the window.
In emphasising how exceptional Shakespeare’s writing is, Something Rotten thus paradoxically makes him seem a lot more like us. There is an image, and there is a person onstage struggling with his own creative process who might not be able to quite live up to it. Kirkpatrick’s lyrics don’t tell us it’s hard to be Shakespeare – they announce ‘it’s hard to be the Bard’, a version of ‘Shakespeare’ that audiences like us have created. Shakespeare holds the cultural prestige of the untouchable literary superstar partly because of the old narrative of his artlessness, his facility – one that survives in part because, as Richard Burt argues, ‘mass culture narratives rely on dated scholarship.’ Here, however, this is precisely the version of himself that Borle’s Bard – because of his hyperinflation as a cultural symbol – is conspicuously failing to deliver. Everything is new in Something Rotten’s Renaissance – except for the difficulty of finding anything new to say. This is a cultural problem which the narrative of Shakespeare’s pre-eminence, his ease, has done a great deal to create; so much that it now finds its way back into narratives of Shakespeare himself at work.
— Peter Kirwan. “‘You Have No Voice!’: Constructing Reputation through Contemporaries in the Shakespeare Biopic.”Shakespeare Bulletin 32.1 (2014): 11–26.
— Richard Burt. “Shakespeare in Love and the End of the Shakespearean: Academic and Mass Culture Constructions of Literary Authorship” in Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, eds. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 215.
— Jonathan Bate. The Genius of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. London: Picador, 2008.
— https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/something-rotten-hard-to-be-the-bard-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/something-rotten-i-hate-shakespeare-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/something-rotten-welcome-to-the-renaissance-lyrics/ & https://theatrelyrics.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/something-rotten-will-power-lyrics/