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An infinite variety of appropriations in American TV drama

Serial Shakespeare explores the dissemination and reassemblage of Shakespeare’s plays in contemporary media culture, regarding the way this taps into but also transforms his preferred themes, concerns and constellations of characters. The appropriations discussed include isolated citations in Westworld and The Wire, a typology of the first female president modelled on figures of female sovereignty, as well as a discussion of what one might call a specifically Shakespearean dramaturgy in Deadwood and The Americans. By proposing a reciprocal exchange between the early modern plays and contemporary serial TV drama, the book focusses on the transhistoric and transmedial dialogue a revisitation of the Bard entails. The readings consider the Shakespeare text again, from a different perspective, but also address the fact that his text comes back to us again, from the past. The book claims that serial TV drama keeps appropriating Shakespeare to give voice to unfinished cultural business regarding the state of the American nation because both share the sense of writing in and for a period of interim. Given that the Bard continues to write and read America, what the book draws into focus is how both scriptwriters and cultural critics can, by repurposing him, come up with narratives that are appropriate to our times.

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Appropriation, dislocation, and crossmapping
Elisabeth Bronfen

’Neill puts it, ‘that is sowed in the media ecology and scattered through it’. 6 By disseminating and dispersing the original text, these iterations leave the original dramas behind and, instead, favour derivations that mingle Shakespeare with his contemporary media appropriation. In the process, a sense of Shakespeare’s proximity to the current cultural moment is forged, as is an awareness of his historical remoteness. He occupies the present and yet is not properly part of it, instead straddling both temporal sites. Shakespeare is sowed in history, and yet, by virtue

in Serial Shakespeare
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John Drakakis

comprises the variety of material that was spontaneously available to Shakespeare in primarily non-textual form. From this perspective, the oeuvre is, in very large measure, dependent upon what, in purely cognitive terms, the literary theorist Aleida Assmann in her book Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Arts of Memory (2013) argues might have been ‘personal decisions and selections, on institutions and media’. The living memory might include details from the variety of printed texts that Honan and Burrow, among others

in Shakespeare’s resources
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Veep, Homeland, and Scandal
Elisabeth Bronfen

the rogue kernel within democracy, to the included exclusion. The translation that each refiguration of this pathos formula produces also brings with it a subsequent ripening. Something is changed and something is gained in the process. Selina Meyer’s charmed rule The opening of each episode of Veep traces the trajectory of a red line, initially rising steadily to indicate a boost in the polls, only to suddenly plummet again, all the way to the bottom of the screen. Corresponding media images serve as the background for this curve of political luck, revealing

in Serial Shakespeare
Westworld
Elisabeth Bronfen

keeps coming back as an uncanny, multi-layered mediatised body, always ‘on the point of vanishing only to reappear elsewhere and in different (media) formats’. 12 Taking his cue from Jacques Derrida’s notion of hauntology, Calbi’s point is that spectrality is an appropriate framework for understanding the heterogeneous and fragmentary presence of ‘Shakespeare’ in contemporary media adaptations, precisely because it draws attention to the way his plays occupy our contemporary cultural imaginary without properly inhabiting it. As Derrida himself argues in Specters

in Serial Shakespeare
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A series of first female presidents from Commander in Chief to House of Cards
Elisabeth Bronfen

took for her to put on a look of terrified anguish in a snapshot she herself brought into circulation to make the media think she is losing control. She had to imagine ‘America’s worst fear when it comes to a female in the Oval Office’. 17 The irony at play in this self-comment points to the way Claire can only fight against prevailing prejudices by performing the illegitimacy her opponents accuse her of, much as House of Cards itself debunks the very demonisation of female political power which it also reiterates. This first female president’s hands are dirty

in Serial Shakespeare
A study in genre and influence
Author: R. S. White

This entertaining and scholarly book takes as its theme the original argument that Shakespeare’s generic innovations in dramatizing love stories have found their way, through various cultural channels, into the films of Hollywood in the first half of the twentieth century and, more recently, Bollywood. It does not deal primarily with individual cinematic allusions to Shakespeare’s plays, nor ‘the Shakespeare film’ as a distinct, heritage genre, nor with ‘adaptation’ as a straightforward process, but rather the ways in which the film industry is implicitly indebted to the generic shapes of a number of Shakespearean forms based on comedy and romance dealing with love. Particular plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet all powerfully entered the genres of mainstream movies through their compelling emotional structures and underlying conceptualisations of love. Drawing on dozens of examples from films, both mainstream and less familiar, the book opens up rich, new ways of understanding the pervasive influence of Shakespeare on modern media and culture, and more generally on our conventions of romantic love. It is such connections that make Shakespeare a potent ‘brand’ and international influence in 2016, even 400 years after his death.

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The Americans
Elisabeth Bronfen

The reading offered in the final chapter is not predicated on any explicit citation of Shakespeare in The Americans. Instead, it conceives of cold war politics in Washington D.C. in the 1980s in terms of Shakespeare’s carnevalesque comedies of transgression. On the one hand, the fact that cross-dressed Viola and the Fool find themselves shuttling between the court of Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night is used to theorize the position of the disguised Russian agents, playing their part of subterfuge in the struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the confusion A Midsummer Night’s Dream performs by making use of a magic love juice is used to think through the enchantment ideology works by transforming the vision of those whose eyes (and minds) it infects. The spy work the Jennings undertake is read in terms of a carnevalesque play with identities, taking place in a heterotopic space that transforms the ordinary city into a dreamlike stage. As in the comedies, this means that while their performance of Americanness invariably moves toward a moment of disenchantment, waking from this dream draws into focus the conundrum of closure in serial drama, which by definition is open-ended.

in Serial Shakespeare
Deadwood
Elisabeth Bronfen

Beginning with a macabre performance of a scene from King Lear in Deadwood, this chapter focusses on the Shakespearean dramaturgy of this TV drama. The overarching claim is that David Milch rethinks the Western genre by tapping into Shakespeare’s trope of the world as stage. Al Swearengen’s monologues with the head of a dead Sioux chief as well as the way he conceives of his balcony as his private stage, are read in conjunction with the theatricalization of power in Hamlet. The dramatic tension between legitimate and rogue power at issue in Al’s claim to sovereignty also brings the genre of comedy into play. Characters and the role they play in the dramatic action in Measure for Measure and As You Like It are crossmapped with the set of characters that perform their parts on the thoroughfare of this camp town. The topsy-turvy world of comedy is further revisited in the enmeshment of parallel storylines in Deadwood. Oscillating between the various players and those who orchestrate the drama, this serial mode of narration draws into focus that there is no one unequivocal centre, putting into question the omnipotence of Al’s visual regime. At the same time, Shakespeare is shown once again to write the prototypical American myth, the Western frontier.

in Serial Shakespeare
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The Wire
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter reads The Wire with Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, proposing an analogy between the war on drugs in Baltimore at the beginning of the 21st century and his historical reenactment of the War of the Roses. At issue in both is the deployment of systemic cycles of violence predicated on a struggle between political legitimacy and legitimation. At stake also is the theatrical display of power that connects Shakespeare’s world to that of The Wire, even while both tap into a rhetoric of surveillance. The theatre audience, like the audience of the TV drama, is shown to be made complicit in the violent traffic performed on stage, page and screen.

in Serial Shakespeare