Sunday, June 19, 2011

$hakespeare and T-Rex

Today we're gonna take a detour through Internet pop culture here. I know, it's a scary place, filled with the buzz of technology, the minor explosions created by rapidly-evolving memes, and the squelching sounds emitted by Charlie Sheen gifs. In this land, it is not the well-turned phrase but the visual gag that receives adulation, and anyone . . . I mean anyone . . .  (and I'm looking at you, Double Rainbow guy) . . .  can be famous. Terrifying, right? But I promise that by the end, we will make it back to the safe haven that is the main topic of this blog: early modern literature'n'stuff.

I love Dinosaur Comics, a web-comic created by Ryan North, whose name even my non-comic-reading boyfriend knows because I talk about him so much. The basic layout is simple and virtually unchanging: six panels showing clip-art dinosaurs talking to each other and stomping on stuff. The main character is T-Rex, whose opinions, ideas, daydreams, and social interactions make up the bulk of the comic. His friends Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor are there, too; other (usually off-panel) characters include God, The Devil, Morris the Bug, some creepy raccoons and cephalopods, Edgar Allan Poe, and our man Shakespeare, who appears as a character in 15 Dino Comics, but is mentioned in at least 33 of them (I don't think all of the comics have been transcribed yet. LAYIN' DOWN ON THE JOB, FANS!).

If you've just completed high-school English (or, let's face it, even a graduate-level literature class), you probably have a conception of Shakespeare as some distant, dusty old dude who wrote plays with the specific purpose of having students turn around and scan his verse ("See his use of iambic pentameter, utilizing the natural rhythm of the human heartbeat?"), analyze his metaphors ("Now the Bard uses the universal metaphor of the sun in the sky to emphasize how crucial Romeo has become in Juliet's life"), and memorize his quotes ("Call me butt-love, and I'll be satisfied").

Shakespeare's name has become synonymous with all that is beautiful, clever, and artful in the English language; he's the Platonic ideal of good English writing. So we often use his writing as a litmus test, comparing other writers to his genius, and as a tool to teach about literary tropes and devices, ignoring his authorial failures and divorcing his authorial successes from any personal or cultural context. Shakespeare, the way he is spoken of today, is larger than a man; he is the Ghost of Literature past, present and future. Of course this is not helped by the fact that we know very little about his life or  personality. So, instead of being this great writer whose art is clearly linked to (and limited by) his life, like Dickens or Thoreau or Cather, Shakespeare becomes a name, an idea, a hovering disembodied genius waiting to pounce on unsuspecting LIT2000 students with a "Aha! Now you must do a video project translating one of my works into modern times, and post it on YouTube, because I am the World's Best Writer! Aha!" *rapier flourish*

In this light, North presents us with a welcome imaginative difference. Shakespeare often appears in Literary Technique Comics," an ongoing series in which T-Rex attempts to explain and model a literary device. So far, you might think, par for the course--the Bard is again being used as a boring literary example. But North twists it, because usually the person T-Rex is advising about literature is Shakespeare himself. He's either telling him about the correct usage of the trope--"It's a little thing called a metaphor, Will. Man! Study literary techniques much?"--or trying to get Shakespeare to write one of his great works differently--to spell "assume" differently in order to circumvent years and years of terrible jokes, or to include elephants as human companions in his plays. Or, sometimes, he's just trying to insert himself into Shakespeare's canon, by writing Shakespeare prequels and telling Shakespeare to create a dinosaur character named "Utahraptor" and then have Hamlet tell him off.

Shakespeare himself only ever talks, from off-screen, to T-Rex. Given T-Rex's special relationships with other disembodied or imaginary figures, such as God, The Devil, and Batman, it's reasonable to assume that the voice of Shakespeare we read in the comic is actually the voice of T-Rex's imagination. Shakespeare becomes a stand-in for certain aspects of T-Rex that we already know and love--his hubris, pettiness, and belligerence. In this way, North invests Shakespeare with a personality, and it's like our good friend T-Rex's personality--full of flaws, full of fun.

This dichotomy is crucial to North's presentation of Shakespeare. He's a character who makes fun of T-Rex and who, unlike the Shakespeare we meet in class, can be made fun of in turn. We chuckle when he uses early modern colloquialisms like "alack" and "forsooth," and laugh when he tells T-Rex it's "racist" to assume that early modern folk talk like that all the time. We know that when T-Rex talks to Shakespeare, he keeps confusing the dude by mentioning car keys, and blasting into space, and guns that shoot chainsaws. And we laugh when Shakespeare retorts, "T-REX. LISTEN. I have like no context to understand any of this," because, like, Shakespeare just said "like," man! He's alternately timely and anachronistic, and it's great.

Finally, mostly because I don't know how to end this blog entry except by devolving into abject adoration of Ryan North and T-Rex, you should definitely read Dino Comics, if only T-Rex describes Hamlet as "stabbin' dudes and havin' broods." Also, because making links makes me feel like I'm awesome at the Internet, check out the two Edgar Allan Poe comics. (See what I did there?)


masterymistery said...

interesting blog, interesting post.

given the world's population stands at roughly 3 times* what it was in Shakespeare's day, where are the Shakespeare's of today? The Beethoven's of today?

The flip answer is "they're around, you just don't know about them, yet" but I have an intuition that is not the answer.

"stabbin' dudes and havin' broods.": cool phrase.

* I don't know for sure, I just made it up

masterymistery at
cosmic rapture

Kate Lechler said...

I don't think you're far wrong from "they're around, you just don't know about them yet". William Shakespeare, the man, was NOT Shakespeare the institution in his own lifetime. He was a guy trying to get along in the world and his chosen mode was writing plays, like all the other playwrights that he hung around with. I don't know Beethoven's story so I can't comment on that, but today's geniuses are probably people trying to make a living doing something they love and are good at, but only history will tell us (and sometimes misleadingly) HOW far above the crowd they really were at the time. And then you've got geniuses like Banksy, who are starting a new art form, or revolutionizing an old one, and who are known around the world as the top artist in their craft.

masterymistery said...

Hi Kate, thanks for your response.

Revisiting this correspondence I'm absolutely stunned and horrified to note I'm putting apostrophes into plurals, a practice that I criticise sharply in others. Must have been a morning after a sleepless night.

Re Banksy, "I don't know much about art but I know what I like" ;-)

masterymistery at
cosmic rapture