Nothing Is at Stake: On Shakespeare, Lana Del Rey, and the Relatable

August 7, 2014 | 7 books mentioned 13 8 min read

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Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:

This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.

coverParramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.

Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.

Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.

This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.

coverBut there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:

Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.

coverBecause his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.

covercoverAccusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:

Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.

While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.

covercoverIn James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:

— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.

Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:

But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.

To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.

coverG. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)

Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:

He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.

What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.

coverWithout mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”

Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.

Image Credit: LPW

is a writer and teacher living in Minneapolis, MN. His short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in various venues, and he is also the author of The Ecstasy of Michaela, a novella (Valhalla Press, 2012).


  1. I didn’t think it was possible to say anything against The Bard, but I had a octogenarian Dutch professor in college who was not very impressed with Shakespeare, she thought he was “over-rated”. I had never heard anyone, especially in academia question him as anything other than the greatest writer ever.

  2. Rebecca Mead thinks that the definition of relatable is inherently selfish – that we demand that something echo what we feel for us to care. The fact is, the word relatable DOES mean whether or not something elicits feeling and familiarity from us and that’s legitimate. Good writing and more importantly good theater should elicit emotional response. If it doesn’t it is bad writing. Stop apologizing for it.

  3. Really enjoyed this piece. I think the whole “relatable” argument can be subjective. Would be interesting to talk to a thoughtful person who watched productions of Lear every 10 years between 25 and 85.

    RE: “At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.” Brought to mind something from Clifton Fadiman’s section on Samuel Beckett in “The New Lifetime Reading Plan” (4th ed 1997):

    “As for form, he once wrote to his younger disciple Harold Pinter, ‘If you insist on finding form [for my plays] I’ll describe it for you. I was in hospital once. There was a man in another ward, dying of throat cancer. In the silences I could hear his screams continually. That’s the only kind of form my work has.”

    Bleak indeed.

    Finally, the death-obsessed young woman to me makes sense to me as a cousin to Goth, death-metal, etc. When you are young, there is a certain glamour to morbidity. Once you are actually starting to fall apart, the whole thing is much less attractive…..!

    On a more serious note, those of us who have lived with those suffering from mental illness (manic-depression, suicidality…) find it anything but glamorous. I liked the bracing honesty of Kurt Cobain’s daughter, Frances Bean, who pushed back in response to Lana Del Rey’s Death Romanticism.

    I found the well-reviewed recent film “Silver Linings Playbook” annoying for this reason, the Hollywoodization /well-aerobicized glamour and Bi-Polar Chic of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence rang false to me. I could identify much more with the twitchy, shadowy forms of the relatives and neighbors hiding behind front porch lace curtains as they jogged by than with the main characters.

    Moe Murph

  4. Postcript:

    Fadiman made specific note that Beckett as a human being lived a brave and engaged life, including service as a member of the French Resistance during WWII. I enjoy that counterpoint to the “bleakness” of his artistic vision.

  5. I like that Beckett quote very much, thanks for sharing. My favorite Beckett anecdote is about how when he was a young man, he was stabbed by a pimp named Prudent, due to a misunderstanding or something, but he dropped the charges against the pimp because Beckett found him well-mannered. And Prudent apparently apologized for the whole thing.

    And I liked this article a lot.

  6. “The fact is, the word relatable DOES mean whether or not something elicits feeling and familiarity from us and that’s legitimate. Good writing and more importantly good theater should elicit emotional response.”

    Familiarity, yes, but you go too far. ‘Relatability’ has nothing to do with emotional response. Mass murder elicits an emotional response but few would find it relatable. Demanding a four hundred year old play be ‘relatable’ is beyond sense. Is the Iliad relatable? Not in the slightest, but it is still a devastating portrait of war, the limits of loyalty, and the cost of friendship. If we are honest with ourselves we must admit that the only people we can relate to are, by definition, those who are most like ourselves, and if we limit our literature to those characters who we are most akin to, we defeat the very purpose of the art.

    It may be worth noting that my spellchecker flags both ‘relatable’ and ‘relatability’. Shakespeare had no use for such a word and neither do I.

  7. The word you’re looking for is “empathy.” The issue of “relatability” can easily end up in the realm of narcissus.

  8. Much Ado About Nothing?

    What an astonishing thing that the narcissistic petulance of an Ira Glass tweet about a production of King Lear should evoke so much furor!

    When I got an email with the title, “Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks.” On literature and culture in which “nothing is at stake,” I was tempted to simply ignore it. But, no, that wouldn’t do. Had to read the essay. Quite the picaresque mix, following that nihilist rogue, Shakespeare, ranging from commentary by Tolstoy & Wittgenstein to a discussion of Lana Del Rey. I won’t take issue with Parramore on her assessment of Del Rey – I think she nails it (and I think of said femme as a 21st Century Gustav Klimt creation.) I will, however, take issue with some of what John Pistelli has to say.

    First, let’s not take Glass out of context. Here, apparently, is the thing in its entirety: “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”

    Strong words, when so few have to matter. The notion of “relatability” has been well addressed by other commentors, so let’s sweep that into the dustbin where it belongs and move on. “No stakes…” Pistelli seems to concur. I beg to differ.

    From the beginning, choices matter – and they are made for high stakes. Lear, full of hubris and longing to be loved, unwisely asks his daughters how much they love him. Regan & Goneril have no problem toadying up to their father for a piece of the kingdom. Cordelia, however, cannot. She’s watched her sisters make fools of themselves as they lie about their love for their father, and, when he asks what she can say to win a third of the kingdom, she makes a moral choice. “Nothing, my Lord.”

    There’s stakes for you, Glass & Pistelli. The dominos are in place, and, as Lear implodes, she pays the price with banishment, eventually her life, as destructive consequences begin to fall in a world gone maddeningly wrong. But this is self-evident, and it perplexes me why I have to point it out. Here’s a clue left by the author:

    “Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world.”

    Time and again Pistelli refers to the nihilism of Lear & Hamlet, both brilliant tragedies and accuses Shakespeare of the crushing nihilism of modernity itself, precursor to Kafka & Beckett. Most certainly, he was. Why stop there? Let’s go further, let’s quote Macbeth:

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    But Shakespeare wrote some 30-40 other plays. To be sure, Shakespeare had his dark side, present also in the comedies. Before Oberon & Titania can bless the union of Theseus & Hippolyta, they’ve got to sort out their own wrangling and heal the rift (they created) in the natural world. Before Beatrice & Benedict can tie the knot, they’ve got to heal the wound created by Don John, who falsely accused Hero of adultery before her wedding. And how, in Much Ado About Nothing, do they go about it? Well, at first Beatrice demands of Benedick, “Kill Claudio!” More tough stuff. In the end of these comedies of estrangement, banishment, our poet brings the light.

    But how is a poet to do this in a world gone so spiritually astray as to have the pope issue a papal bull calling for the assassination of the head of the Church of England, as Elizabeth I certainly was? Dante dealt with schism by setting up his Commedia to revile some popes & praise others, to have the last word about who deserved the endless punishment of hell. Our English Bard likely saw the emptiness of spiritual potentates, and went beyond them to a new kind of humanism.

    Case in point: the latter plays, full of dark deeds and false accusation (The Winter’s Tale & The Tempest are perfect examples,) in which our Bard invokes a kind of fairy-tale world, full of strange creatures, magic & spells. I may as well call them The Fabulist Plays, because that’s how I think of them, and his venture into this fabulous realm enhances his ability to cast light on the darkness and bring about a hard-won healing through simple, human acceptance and forgiveness.

    Because, when he’s a truth teller and spiritual authority, that’s what a poet does.

  9. Great article and good comments, here, especially Moe’s.

    On the issue of “relatability,” contra Madeline Raynor’s comment, this dubious adjective refers not to the eliciting of emotional response (which of course, good art usually, although probably not always, accomplishes), but to whether an audience member/reader can identify with the protagonist. This pernicious little word is very freely in Hollywood, where spec scripts are bought or not very often on the basis of whether or not a studio exec feels like the average American will see themselves in the main character. It has nothing to do with feeling or arousal of feeling, and everything to do with a kind of stunted, infantile insistence that other people be like us.

    For that reason, King Lear is an illustrative play to level this critique at, since as a medieval king who wields terrible power he is so different from us. Yet emotionally, how similar to so many of us, in his petulant insistence on being loved in his terms, and in his self-destructive rage. As good readers/theatergoers, we should be able to make this empathetic leap, despite not being monarchs, and despite the play’s arguable lack of traditional stakes.

  10. The presumed need for “relatability” seems counter to the whole concept of art. I mean, don’t we read and think and look and listen for the very purpose of being moved beyond our dull, null, navy selves?

    My friend, the high school English teacher, says her students require the simplest of stories with culturally-approved avatars and received PC morals, with instantly recognizable stiuations and milieux . I sort of get it — she is, after all, competing with a multitude of platforms and media and venues and home languages and cutlures, not to mentions tweets, snapchat, etc.. And she is chary of unwittingly hurting a child with Un-PC ungliness.

    But surely adults could muster the strength to peek behind the curtain of received opinion just a bit. And if we don’t teach kids to stretch, how ever will adults make the journey? What happens to ideas and actually thinking about stuff when we close off anything questionable or “nihilistic” or just inappropriate?

    Well, it reminds me of the nice, earnest, young English major at Starbucks who asked what I was reading. I mentioned Nabakov, causing him to blanch and draw back in horror. “Oh no,” he breathed, “Oh, I could never read him!” Why? “Because Lolita is about the sexual exploitation of a female minor by a middle-aged white male — he molests her!” (also something about the male gaze, whatever that is, exactly.) He was, however, reading Venus in Furs and heartily recommended it.

    I was nonplussed. A smart, well-read kid with that much self- censure and fear of — of — what? Inappropriate reading material? Bad books full of amoral, bloody-minded scoundrels with whom we might be tempted to exchange a knowing look ? Are we that fragile? Is our ethical foundation so shaky? Do Humbert Humbert and Raskolnikov and malingering Hamlet have that much evil power over us? That nice young man — all those nice young people — don’t they yearn to transgress a bit in their reading? I’m sure they do — they have just been told they mustn’t, and that is very sad.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece and the excellent commentary.

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