"Did you also read the piece in the New Yorker about relatability?" asked the friend.
My pontification volume came down a decibel or two.
"It is about the relatability of Shakespeare's works."
I tucked it away for another day.
And that day came way sooner than I would have guessed.
Not because I read that essay in the New Yorker. But, because I happened to watch an interview with John Lithgow, about his performance as King Lear. For a change, it was not C-Span, but it was PBS. (Btw, one of these days I suppose I could write about how much these two channels are relatable to the youth, eh!)
Lithgow is an actor whose movie and TV performances I have immensely enjoyed over the years. Especially, his character in 3rd Rock from the Sun, and his role in that mother of tear-jerkers, Terms of Endearment. As I watched him speak, he was anything but that hilarious eccentric alien professor that he was on 3rd Rock. With a King Lear beard, Lithgow was professorial in his thoughtful responses.
To one question from Bill Moyers, Lithgow quoted Hamlet and seemed to recite something verbatim from the play. Lithgow expanded on his passionate and sincere belief that Shakespeare has remarkable insight into how the human mind works. I tucked away a couple of phrases that I heard, and I later Googled for it:
I am myself indifferent honest;Try convincing me that this is not relatable to the life that we now live, four centuries after Shakespeare's time.
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us.
Which is when I was reminded of that New Yorker reference. The nerd that I am, I pulled it up.
to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.Indeed. If a young student, or an older person, does not find Shakespeare to be relatable, it is a reflection of the highly circumscribed mental capacity of that person. "That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare."
To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.