Shakespeareans in Paris: Notes on the Digital

Back today from a week-long conference in Paris, where I was talking about ‘Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time’. Unsurprisingly the email backlog is about a mile long, but I thought I’d jot down a few notes about digital Shakespeare at the conference before I forget…

Well, there actually isn’t too much to say — this was a fairly un-digital conference. Not that that’s a bad thing. There were several interesting plenaries, panels, and seminars, and I certainly didn’t mind spending as much digitally unmediated free time as possible around the Latin Quarter in Paris. There was a conference hashtag, though no one quite knew what it was (#shakes450? #shake450? #ParisShakes?). And there were only a few sessions that touched upon digital humanities issues, most often through the question of digital methods, rather than direct address of digital Shakespeare as subject matter itself.

Instead, much of the conference actually looked back — to Shakespearean celebration over time, and especially to the anniversaries in 1914 and 1916 that saw Shakespearean commemoration embedded in the traumatic politics of the Great War. Interestingly, some papers suggested that this was when we saw the emergence of a so-called ‘global’ Shakespeare, wrapped up in the processes of global politics, finance, and culture, that has become such a frequent focus in Shakespeare studies today.

A couple of exceptions though to the relatively un-digital conferencing I did last week. The first is that I met in person for the first time three MA graduates of the Shakespeare Institute’s distance learning programme. One is French and is now pursuing a PhD there, another lives in Abu Dhabi and is setting up a Shakespeare society there, and the other is based in Paris and is now doing a PhD with me and one of my colleagues. I’ve ‘known’ each of them for several years, but this was the first time that I got to see them in the flesh, give them a hug, and congratulate them on completing the MA (each with great aplomb). It was a lovely continuation of our relationships, and the shift from digital to in-person and now back to digital felt completely natural — we might be spread across great distances, but in festive moments like conferences both time and geography contract to bring us together in the most concentrated of ways. The only slightly unnerving and even funny moment was when one of the students recognized me in the queue for the bathroom and came up to me and asked — with puzzlement but also enthusiasm — ‘Who are you??’

The other noteworthy digital moment was the final plenary, given by Professor Sarah Hatchuel of the University of La Havre. Her excellent paper looked at how many of the blockbuster Shakespeare films of the 1990s are being pulled apart and repurposed in the digital world. She offered examples of YouTube mashups, video game homages, and theatre trailers, but without a doubt my favorite was the ‘Hamlet gone viral’ social media video created as a senior English project by a very creative high school student:

It’s the drama of Hamlet told through the world of online communication, and there are several moments that offer both witty and critically astute takes on the action and characterization in this story (a personal favorite — the Gmail nunnery scene at 4.00). I think what the project does especially well is suggest the extent to which we enact our own experience of interiority online. So Hamlet uses Google and Ask.com to look up information about grief, to ask anonymous questions about what to do if…, and of course he uses Facebook to navigate the confusing personal relationships making up his social world.

One thing that came up in the questions, and that is of especial interest to me, is the fact that most of Hatchuel’s examples (including the Hamlet) are primarily comic. While she rebutted that some of them were rather serious, I would suggest that the most effective and interesting examples were indeed essentially funny. For me this raises the question of how digital works as an artistic resource. Given the fact that much of our digital and digitized life is made up of the experience of fragments of information washing over us almost constantly (news headlines, interesting links, funny animal pictures, Upworthy videos), it makes sense I think that digital creativity is especially adept at the art of juxtaposition, wit, and subversion. A big question for me though is whether or not it can work in other genres too. Digital media constantly makes us laugh, but can it also make us cry? If so, what might that artform look like?

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