October 2, 2018

All the Screen’s a Stage

How Digital Culture Is Shaking up Shakespeare Fandom

Shakespeare fan fiction: self-indulgent pastime or scholarly exercise?

According to Louise Geddes, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Adelphi, fan fiction—stories using characters or situations from popular works, written by enthusiasts and posted online—is just one of many internet-based activities turning Shakespeare fan studies on its head.

Dr. Geddes’ book The Shakespeare User: Critical and Creative Appropriations in a Networked Culture, published in 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan and co-edited with Valerie Fazel, Ph.D., a professor at Arizona State University, traces the multivalent use of Shakespeare across modern media, from social media to games and business manuals. Shakespeare has become a platform through which we can process and articulate our contemporary experience, she argues, thanks to new, openaccess fan practices produced by digital culture.

More than most popular fandoms, like Star Wars or Sherlock, Shakespeare fandom is “very academic in focus,” Dr. Geddes explained, “almost a kind of Shakespeare worship.” Shakespeare scholars enjoy enormous cultural cachet, while the notion of Shakespeare “fandom” tends to conjure images of more superficial followers.

Dr. Geddes sees little distinction between the two, however. “Scholars are privileged fans who have been given the resources and time to study our subject as much as we’d like,” she said. Rather than assuming a professional/amateur binary in Shakespeare studies, which allows scholars to assert their intellectual superiority, Dr. Geddes proposes fandom as “a robust network of enthusiasts that includes casual readers, theater fans, students, professional scholars, actors and celebrities.”

This definition both democratizes and destigmatizes fandom, granting a legitimate intellectual underpinning to online fans’ nontraditional modes of engagement—which, Dr. Geddes maintains, would be termed “cultural materialist, presentist, feminist, queer…or postcolonial” if performed in an institutional academic setting. “Fans do it with such abandon, especially in online communities where a lot of them are teenagers; they’re learning about the material as they go and figuring out what’s there,” she said. “That’s a form of critical reading, the same way that other academic explorations published by Oxford University Press are critical readings.”

Some fandom practices take recognizable forms, from Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing film, which translates the play into a modern-day romantic comedy, to a production of King Lear presented by Syrian children in a refugee camp. Others are more unorthodox. The Tumblr blog Pop Sonnets rewrites top-40 songs as Shakespearean sonnets, while dozens of Tumblr users post outfit collages that link Shakespeare characters to certain contemporary fashions. Even Doctor Who has developed “strange and tenuous associations” with Shakespeare, Dr. Geddes notes, simply because David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, starred as Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production.

“Shipping,” or the practice of supporting romantic relationships between two fictional characters, is also common. The online fan network devoted to Mercutio, a character in Romeo and Juliet, “identifies him as gay, ethnically Eastern European or African American, sexually sadomasochistic, occasionally transvestite and both sexually and verbally unfettered,” Dr. Geddes writes in “Unlearning Shakespeare Studies: Speculative Criticism and the Place of Fan Activism,” a 2018 article in Shakespeare Survey 71. Mercutio fan fiction is “almost always erotic,” pairing him with everyone from Tybalt to Benvolio to Romeo. “They’re moving very far away from actual Shakespeare, to the point where Mercutio becomes a character in his own right who roams around,” Dr. Geddes said.

Many fan networks rely on the source text only as an auxiliary connector, instead looking to their own life experiences and ideologies to generate discourse and content. Dr. Geddes compares this to why someone might see a play solely because they like the lead actress. “They’re processing the text, but the primary point of contact isn’t necessarily as tangible as the text itself.” In The Shakespeare User, Dr. Geddes recommends restructuring traditional literary theories and methodologies to accommodate these alternate entrance points into the text. “I try to ask my students to separate where the text begins and ends,” she said. “Working that out is a kind of fan practice, one that we all participate in.”

Now, a new generation of young scholars—online fans themselves—are poised to lead the fandom studies revolution. “Academics my age didn’t have the opportunity to interact with and consume media the way that young people do,” Dr. Geddes said. “People coming out of doctoral programs who have participated in fandom are trying to make that experience relevant to things they want to study.” She views this generational turnover as symptomatic of a larger, inevitable shift in the way we process and disseminate knowledge.

Once restricted by gatekeepers who insisted that only wellread academics could call the Bard their own, Shakespeare fandom is experiencing an online renaissance, in the process destabilizing what Dr. Geddes calls “the Shakespeare knowledge economy.” “There are larger implications here about who gets to access Shakespeare,” she said. “We’re reclaiming that right to a seat at the table.”

Louise Geddes, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English. In addition to co-editing The Shakespeare User: Critical and Creative Appropriations in a Networked Culture, she is author of Appropriating Shakespeare: A Cultural History of Pyramus and Thisbe (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and associate editor of Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation.

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