Episode 120 – “The Bard”

Here’s a thought experiment and two guiding questions: Imagine that William Shakespeare could write for television. How would he fare, and what does answering the question tell us about television as an art form?

Julius Moomer has, somewhat unintentionally, conjured William Shakespeake, and is understandably shocked to be conversing with the William Shakespeare in his apartment.  Moomer says, “Look, level with me pops, would ya? You mean to say that you’re the Shakespeare? Man, you’ve been dead a thousand years!” This is Moomer’s metaphysical challenge: If Shakespeare is the person who died in 1616 (not quite a thousand years!), and if a person who has died at time t-1 cannot be alive at time t, then the individual in front of Moomer cannot be William Shakespeare. In response, Shakespeare says, “It is true of course, but death is relative and need not be the end.” This doesn’t seem to be supported by anything in Shakespeare’s writings. In fact, he emphasizes the finality of death, in passages like one from Henry IV, Part 2: “A man can die but once; we owe God a death.” And rather than saying death is relative, whatever that means, in Measure for Measure Shakespeare says that it is absolute: “Be absolute for death; either death or life.  Shall thereby be the sweeter.”

The Shakespeare who is conversing with Moomer is right: If death isn’t always the end of the person, then his claim to be the same person as the historical Shakespeare cannot be rejected on the grounds offered by Moomer. This metaphysical hypothetical is just one of the allowances we have to make in order to follow out this thought experiment. We can, of course, interpret the episode as merely asking what would happen if someone with something like Shakespeare’s genius, wrote for television?

Serling, who wrote this episode, must have had a great time throwing television, a relatively new medium, against the work of William Shakespeare,  who represents one of the greatest literary and dramatic achievements in English literature. Shakespeake is decidedly highbrow. Television was, in the early 1960s, and still is, in many circles, lowbrow or at best medium-brow. Shakespeare’s plays are works of art. Television productions in the 1960s were widely viewed, even by the networks that broadcast them, as vehicles for promoting products during frequent commercial breaks.

What makes something a work of art? This is the fundamental question of the subfield of philosophy known as the philosophy of art. One way of answering it is to begin with uncontroversial cases of art and then come up with an account of its most important features. Then candidates for inclusion in the category can be examined and compared with the canonical cases. Another way to try to distinguish art from non-art is to fashion a characterization of the aims and methods of artistic creation. Art is created by artists, so what is it that artists do, and how are artistic enterprises distinguished from others? This is the approach recommended by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment.

“The Bard” sheds some light on this fundamental question by pursuing the second approach, showing the ill fit of a true artist, Shakespeare, in the context of modern television. Shakespeare aims to shed light on love, conflict, and death. Television directors, producers, and sponsors, in contrast, are interested in attracting an audience that will be receptive to the produces advertised. As they butcher the script, in rehearsal,  Moomer explains to Shakespeare that their decisions, to eliminate the balcony scene, the suicide scene, and make other changes, are guided by what is popular with the viewing public, by what is currently “big.” As Shakespeare leaves the rehearsal, and clearly gives up on writing for television, his indictment of the new genre is swift and severe. Television and the Shakespearean art of drama have no point of contact.

However we define it, it is clear from the history of art that it is a moving target, and new forms of artistic expression develop over time, and that includes the introduction of new media. The technological developments of the last one hundred years alone have resulted in a vast palette of media that have been harnessed by artists and perhaps would-be artists. Television paled in comparison with Shakespeare in the 1960s, and still does in the 21st century, but it can’t be as easily dismissed as an art form as it is dismissed by Serling, one of its practitioners.  If that’s right, Serling himself deserves some credit for the elevation of the medium.

Further Reading:

Kant, I., Guyer, Paul, and Matthews, Eric, trans., 2001,  Critique of the Power of Judgement, Cambridge University Press.

Lopes, D.M., 2008,“Nobody Needs a Theory of Art” Journal of Philosophy, 105: 109–127.

 

 

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