Monday, May 16, 2011

Internet excesses recall Shakespeare’s time

Along with the decline of youth morals, a favorite topic of people of a certain age is the decay of the language.

The idea that there was a Golden Age of morals and language, now corrupted in our decadent time, has been a literary topic for a couple of thousand years. It is part of the human condition that elders wax nostalgic about the past and criticize their juniors.

In any case, the Internet is the latest seed of decadence. Some see abominations everywhere in spelling, grammar, usage, slang and taste. They are right, but they are misinterpreting what it means.

Revolution means destruction

The Internet has brought a language revolution at least the equal of the revolution brought by the printing press and mass production of books, which was in high gear by Shakespeare’s time, around 1600.

The revolution in Shakespeare’s time resembles today’s:
  • An upstart group of professional writers elbowed its way onto the scene. This annoyed those who previously had a monopoly. In Shakespeare’s day, it was the clergy and a handful of university-educated philosophers and poets who were annoyed by these upstarts. Today it’s journalists and book publishers annoyed by bloggers, e-books and digital media. 
  • Piracy was rampant. Only half of Shakespeare’s plays were published in his lifetime, none by him personally. There were no copyright laws. Printers were the villains in those days. If they got their hands on an acting company’s script, they could publish it and pay no royalties. Some would hire actors to do a reconstruction of a play from memory. Today the presumed pirates are the aggregators like the Huffington Post who have made a business out of using other people’s work without having to pay for it.
  • The new media promoted dangerous ideas. In Shakespeare’s time, the Master of the Revels had to approve scripts of plays before they could be performed. The censors scrutinized the work for blasphemy and treason. Playwrights were sometimes imprisoned and theaters closed down. Today, authoritarian regimes try to shut down Internet access.
  • Bad taste, excessive violence and sexual explicitness ruled. Many of the most popular plays of Shakespeare’s time, such as The Spanish Tragedy, catered to the audience’s thirst for blood and guts. Shakespeare’s own plays are filled with murders and raunchy sexual talk. The Web is blamed today for encouraging the same.
  • New writers were unqualified. Shakespeare himself was depicted as an "upstart crow" by one of his competitors because he lacked the training in classical Greek and Roman literature of university-educated contemporaries like Ben Jonson. Today journalists complain that bloggers and citizen reporters lack professional training and are filling the Internet with rumor and twisted information. 
  • The language was being debased by extravagant use of new words and phraseology. In Shakespeare’s time, the sudden availability of books in French, Latin, Greek and other languages led to preposterous excesses. The language was in flux, much as it is today because of the pressures of the Internet, with its digital and urban slang, marketing slogans, remixes and other novelties that have no name.
One of Shakespeare’s own comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost, devotes much of its energy to satirizing the abuses of language by, among others, the pedantic Holofernes, the pompous Armado and the clumsy Moth. This play isn’t performed very often because the language doesn’t travel well. Shakespeare contrasts plain language -- "russet yeas and honest kersey noes," where russet and kersey refer to plain peasant fabrics -- with the "maggot ostentation" of
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical...
Shakespeare hated pretentious language, and he satirized its use with many of his comic characters. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of constable Dogberry in the film version of Much Ado about Nothing is an excellent example of the type. He mangles English and Latin phrases alike as he tries to impress us. 

Not decadence but revolution

We are not living in a decadent age, but a revolutionary one. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, the explosion of information caused by a new publishing technology has disrupted traditional communication and challenged traditional authorities. It makes people uneasy to see the old models being destroyed.

We look back at Shakespeare’s time as a golden age of literature, but we have only saved the best. It was a time of tremendous experimentation, just like ours, and it had tremendous excesses, just like ours. Because the old models and rules are being overturned by a revolutionary new publishing tool, we are in for a period of unbridled creativity. No one knows yet what will stick, but much brilliant new work is being created along with all the garbage. The best will stand the test of time.

The future of writing and publishing could be viewed as frightening or as an exciting ride. I would encourage you to take a deep breath and climb aboard.

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