Losing Shakespeare: Memories of Lost Culture in Apocalyptic Fictions
The fact is, Shakespeare was not sectarian; he pleaded nobody’s mission, he stated nobody’s cause. He has written with a view to be a mirror of things as they are; and shows the office of the true poet and literary man, which is to re-create the soul of man as God has created it, and human society as man has made it.
George Dawson (1821-1876), Shakespeare and Other Lectures
(Updated from previous post, “A Bard for the End of the World“)
In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?” After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.
This paper is not about Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or life; this is about SHAKESPEARE, the name said and written without any need for introduction or explanation; the noun that invokes a sense of Western civilisation more than all Greek philosophers combined. This is Shakespeare not as subject, but object. To invoke a mental image of the Bard of Avon is to create metaphorical parallels between high art, culture and erudition; one never says ‘Shakespeare is like-‘, but rather ‘Such-and-such is like Shakespeare.’ It is this immovable position as cultural touchstone that makes Shakespeare a reference point for the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story, allowing us to measure what has remained and what has been lost. If one were to ask a library search engine to find articles linking the terms ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Apocalypse’, the results would be a hundred different views interpreting the apocalypse through Shakespeare. I aim to invert the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare through the spectre of an apocalypse?
Ben Jonson called Shakespeare the “soul of the age”, and then amended “not of an age, but for all time”. It is in this spirit that I examine Shakespeare as one of the theoretical ‘survivors’ of an end-of-civilisation scenario. Curious about the real life implications of preserving Shakespeare in the event of catastrophe, I reached out to other sources to uncover the lengths to which some have gone to preserve – or pervert – Shakespeare as a cultural icon. Dawson’s quote refers to Shakespeare’s recreation of ‘human society as man has made it’, and in the centuries after Shakespeare, the Bard has become an inseparable part of that society he created.
Authors and filmmakers have devised multiple scenarios in which human existence is pushed to the brink of extinction, but they take their culture – and their Shakespeare – with them. I have narrowed these scenarios down to three categories: The Destroyed World, The Departed World, and the Destroyed Word (indicating not a collapse of life, but of letters). And in each of these I have discovered real-world evidence of similar endeavours to preserve Shakespeare in uncertain and desperate times, which adds credence to the authors’ motivations for mentioning Shakespeare (whether they were conscious of them or not) in their works. Shakespeare and the apocalypse have been linked before, as in R. D. Christofides’s study Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture: “We are still obsessed with apocalypses today. Current cultural and political debates often return to the future of the planet… Humans will destroy Earth. Humans will leave Earth. Humans will be annihilated.” Shakespeare’s tragedies often referenced biblical destruction and salvation; now Shakespeare is an object of human destruction and salvation.
Derrida helped to define this sense of historic preservation in his paper “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” (Diacritics, 1995), which Veronica Hollinger brilliantly incorporated into her article “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”: “What suggests this conjunction of fiction and theory is the striking symmetry between the logic of the Derridean archive and science fiction’s… own temporal logic as a future-oriented genre. Each requires an imaginative commitment to a future that recasts the present as the past.” Humans fret about the end of their existence – personally and culturally – and the cultivation of archives, like the squirrel’s cache of nuts, is meant to hold back the creeping winter of extinction. Popular culture and science fiction have conditioned us to believe that one of these seeds to be stored in our cultural archive is Shakespeare.
Destroying the World
“Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?”
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human
Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end.
The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse. The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.” He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).
In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society. Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.
Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play. But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.
I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.” In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.
Departing the World
There is another kind of apocalypse, one that does not necessarily present its full horror to readers because the protagonists have been removed from it; it is the refugee’s tale, those that have left earth behind, and Shakespeare is among their last connection to the planet.
Jill Patton Walsh’s 1982 novella for young adults, The Green Book, follows a small group of colonists fleeing earth before an unidentified disaster destroys it, and they go on to settle on an alien world. Besides their various trials and tribulations, literature is a key subplot, or specifically, the lack thereof, as each person was only permitted to bring one book, and the adults find themselves rapidly losing the memory of their cultural heritage, unable to retell to their children the stories on which they grew up. The Guide laments, “Not one Shakespeare… Among us all, not one”, and they spend the evening trying to recall Hamlet. The Green Book is written for children, readers who probably only know of Shakespeare as a name, but not the works themselves. Walsh, as an adult, knows better, though, and through her story is subtly conditioning children to understand that Shakespeare is important to their lives and is not something to be left behind forever.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy transports the Bard to our neighbouring planet as it is colonised by humans from all over the earth, yet Shakespeare is a cultural constant for all of them. The Odessa troupe travels the planet, putting on plays, including Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and Maya, one of the first settlers on Mars, criticises a young man for preferring the Restoration version of Lear: “Stupid child! We have told the truth tonight, that is what is important!” Keeping alive Shakespeare in his original form is important to Maya and the older settlers, the Shakespeare – unhappy endings and all – from their unhappy Earth. A young, happy Mars may want a happier Shakespeare, but it is a dishonest form of the Bard. For Nirgal, who was born on Mars, Shakespeare is one of his connections to his forbearers’ history. He grows up watching productions of Shakespeare, understanding the language, and yet when he finally visits earth in Blue Mars, an earth drowned by global warming, he find himself in Britain among people very difficult to understand: “Shakespeare’s plays had not prepared him for it.” For Nirgal, coming from another world, he believes the words of Shakespeare, having originated on earth, in England, should be universal. Time and language have moved on, and for the people of a foundering world, there is no time for Shakespeare; he is preserved on Mars now, not just in books but actively on stage.
The colonial ark ship Godspeed in Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy also carries Shakespeare with them: “The Bard wrote about star-crossed love, but I doubt he ever realized his works would one day be soaring through the stars” one of the characters notes. Looking over Romeo and Juliet, then looking at a ship-bound populace that reproduces only during an artificially induced ‘season’, the narrator wonders “How can I argue that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t really show love to a group of people who have no concept of what love really is?” To take Shakespeare from one planet to another, to ensure his survival along with humanity’s, is to serve as a reminder of what it means to be human. A copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets becomes a vital clue to the mystery surrounding the ship. Why use Shakespeare? Because what other work would one be certain was to survive removal from earth across three light years?
This is not without parallel in history; Alexis de Tocqueville noted the popularity of Shakespeare across America in the 1830s: “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” Shakespeare was brought to the US by colonists a century before, a reminder of their English roots and literary heritage. Similarly, Shakespeare found his way in the hands of British colonials to nearly every continent, shared around, translated, becoming a nearly universal symbol of humanity and the human condition. In the same way, science fiction sends its colonists into space, escaping a dying earth, with copies of the Bard.
Destroying the Word
A third type of apocalypse is not the destruction of the world, but culture as we know it, an apocalypse of art, literature, and history (what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. called “Cultural Literacy”). Dystopias are often examples of this fear, that the past we know might be erased, intentionally or inadvertently, and those treasures we hold up as the prizes of civilisation will fade away. Hollinger brings this to mind in her analysis of The Time Machine, when future humanity has no knowledge or point of reference for the archives contained in the Palace of Green Porcelain: “Only the Time Traveller, a stand-in for the implied late nineteenth-century reader, is present to acknowledge what has been lost of human history and culture.” The reader of these science fiction dystopias in which the words of Shakespeare have lost their meaning.
Perhaps one of the most influential works on twentieth century dystopia is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, a story of a highly technological and rigidly controlled society whose inhabitants have no names, only numbers. D-503, the mathematician and engineer, states “Thank goodness…the antediluvian times of all those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys, or whatever you call them, are over.” There is no direct knowledge of Shakespeare beyond his historical, poetic existence; he exists in this world only as an object of contempt. R-13, a ‘poet’ for the OneState who writes death sentences in verse, responds enthusiastically: “Yes, my dear mathematician… We are the happiest of arithmetical means… As you people put it: integrated from zero to infinity, from the cretic to Shakespeare. Right!” (p. 43). There can be no Shakespeare in the OneState because he would fall beyond standard deviation of averaged accomplishment; neither the moron nor the genius can be permitted to live, and so all great literature must be stripped from society to maintain the mean.
In Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) it is intended to be the supreme irony that John the Savage, raised in the uncivilised zone of the Reservation, is the only character familiar with Shakespeare’s work. A world without Shakespeare is crushing for him, and no so-called civilisation in which he can tolerate living. Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the World State, has read Shakespeare – only as his rank permits, since the Bard is forbidden. Why: “Because it’s old… we haven’t any use for old things here.” Like the colonists aboard Revis’s Godspeed, procreation is controlled by the state, and John’s attempt to share Romeo and Juliet with Helmholtz is a disaster, the latter laughing as he deems the play a “grotesque obscenity” (p. 187) with a “ridiculous, mad” premise (p. 188). When John and Helmholtz question Mond about writing something ‘new’ like Othello, the Controller states that such a production would be impossible to understand in the World State: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability” (226). Shakespeare is laid upon the sacrificial altar of progress, and with him, all those positive human values and emotions he expressed: love, romance, loyalty, bravery, etc.
The most recognisable imitation of Zamyatin’s We is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Not as far removed from the present as Zamyatin, Shakespeare plays a more recognisable part. Syme, the Newspeak philologist, tells Winston in a (disturbingly) gleeful moment that “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.” Orwell is to be bastardised by Big Brother’s regime, turned against himself; not merely lost, but corrupted beyond recognition. Appendix C states that “when the task [of translation] had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed” (p. 256). Which is the more desperate scenario: the Shakespeare lost to catastrophe, or the Shakespeare deliberately perverted? Orwell’s novel carries many messages about resisting the totalitarian state, the state that would morph your very language and thought process, and the use of Shakespeare as an example of this process – writing that should be more well-known than perhaps any other – is a deliberate metaphor for how deep the corruption of language and history goes.
Our history is rife with the banning of Shakespeare, from the Puritans to modern schools and libraries. These dystopias forbidding the reading the reading of his works are hyperboles with more than a grain – perhaps a bushel – of truth. Banning Shakespeare inherently gives Shakespeare cultural (and political) power, because there is no need to forbid something that is not a threat. Hitler knew that banning Shakespeare outright would not be effective, and instead appropriated and Nazi-ised the plays for political ends. Rodney Symington has written an entire book on the subject, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (2005). After Hitler’s ascension to power, a pamphlet called “Shakespeare – A German Writer” appeared, appropriating Shakespeare as a more German writer than English writer, and Hitler himself lifted the ban on performances of Shakespeare during the war.
Modern literature is rife with images of Shakespeare, turning the Bard and his works into pop-culture products, and it is this status of global, popular culture, that inspires these various tales of apocalypse to integrate Shakespeare into their texts as a metaphor for better days. Shakespeare himself grew up in an age of cultural destruction as the reformation swept England. Christofides notes that “Not only did many… Catholic images survive the seal of sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts, they also held a firm place in the collective memory of local communities… Most of this iconography was destroyed as part of Reformation decrees to obliterate idolatrous imagery.” Attempted destruction of centuries of cultural icons failed in Shakespeare’s time, and science fiction writers today envision a Shakespeare not so easily erased after all his centuries among us. No one ever suggests saving Jennifer Lee Carrol’s Interred with Their Bones from the ravages of radiation, nor do they invoke Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer as a symbol for lost greatness; but the source must be persevered to ensure that new cultural products inspired by Shakespeare might reknit society. In all of these examples, we never question why Shakespeare is present; to us it seems an obvious artefact. If the authors had elected instead to add, say, the canon of Tom Clancy or Stephanie Meyer, we would have instantly been flung out of the pretense of fiction and asked ourselves ‘Why in the world would someone take Twilight to another planet, and not The Tempest?’ There is an expectation that in the face of disaster and displacement we will save our most popular cultural icons, an expectation that seems reinforced by the real world examples cited.
Brin, David. The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985).
Christofides, R.M. Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum, 2012).
Heschel, Susanna. “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013).
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932).
Orwell, George. 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949).
Pinciss, Gerald M. Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).
Revis, Beth. A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012).
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text).
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).
 Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.
 Gerald M. Pinciss, Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), p. 158.
 R.M. Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum , 2012), pp. xii-xiii.
 Veronica Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013), p. 242.
 Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.
 David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.
 Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.
 Beth Revis, A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012), p. 37.
 Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 244.
 Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 43.
 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932), p. 225. All other citations in-text.
 George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949), p. 47.
 Susanna Heschel, “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.
 Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse, p. xiii.