Some Sound And Some Fury
A soliloquy on missed Shakespearean references in an impoverished culture
No one has been quite as titularly ubiquitous in the Anglophone world as the Sweet Swan of Avon. There’s Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian fantasy Brave New World (title taken from The Tempest); there’s Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 black comedy To Be or Not to Be (title taken from Hamlet); from 1991, there’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Hamlet again); there’s the 1998 film What Dreams May Come (Hamlet yet again). And, setting titles aside, while we’re on the subject of Hamlet’s shadow one might mention the prominent role played by Ophelia in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” as she perhaps does again a decade later in The Band’s eponymous song. (It’s debatable.)
But, like the old saw about the sound of the tree falling in the forest, what happens if you make a reference and no one gets it? The centuries-long system of cultural interchange, the erudite economy of the res publica litterarum in which the Bard is the common coin of barter, becomes dead, defunct, kaput. Don a suit of sables; the rest is silence.
Scratch that. There will still be words, words, words—but with less and less matter. Unworthy takes, one might say.
Laboring much to forget our learning, we are now in just such a period of severe cultural amnesia. Though the prognosis for a culture that has been so sick of late appears to have a better-than-even chance of being terminal, from time to time we can console ourselves with gallows humor. After all, if nothing else is permanent, the gallows is; its frame outlives a thousand tenants.
Not many days ago, in the course of the dreary quotidian proceedings of our dreary Office of the Revels (I mean Twitter, of course), there occurred an incident of dreary tragical-comical burlesque, illustrative of our sorry state. I refer to the dust-up over Ted Cruz’s allusion to Macbeth during Congress’s impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. According to Sen. Cruz, the trial was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Unworthy takes ensued.
First, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell pounced. Believing she was like an eagle in a dove-cote set to flutter Cruz’s Republicans, she tweeted: “@SenTedCruz says #ImpeachmentTrial is like Shakespeare full of sound and fury signifying nothing. No, that’s Faulkner.” But it appears that she had got her Williams confused. To her credit, she promptly acknowledged her mistake.
But alone she did not do it. Jennifer Rubin’s intrepid heart was made too great for what contains it, and so she triumphantly bit her thumb and added: “and it says volumes about his lack of soul. That’s Any Thinking Person.” I confess that I haven’t any idea what the quotation says about Sen. Cruz’s soul, nor what the last part of Rubin’s tweet means at all, nor why it is expressed with Trumpian capitalization. I cannot ravel all this matter out. It doesn’t scan. But let be.
For a brief moment, everyone thought they were having a laugh. The joke, however, was on them—and on all of us.
And what’s the joke? The cultural IQ of the United States, and our entire collapsing educational edifice. E.D. Hirsch noted the problem when he first published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy over three decades ago. Mitchell and Rubin both attended institutions of the most elite kind: Penn and Berkeley, respectively. (The former also educated Donald Trump.) But that was then, and things have gotten worse. At present, many people with college degrees are as little likely to know who Faulkner is as Shakespeare.
A survey of the landscape should cause our whole republic to be contracted in one brow of woe. Our ignorance contains legions, and its causes are many, from the technocratic (education is merely vocational training, designed to help the customer get a job and enter the “workforce”) to the ideological (progressive crusaders who want to dismantle all of Western Civilization, including the phrase “Western Civilization,” as a “white supremacist” scam; witness the farcical debacle over the Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project). When it’s not doing those things (or, better, while it is doing those things), its main purpose at the most competitive institutions is to provide credentialing and status-maintenance for D.C. circuit riders. The dismal state of American education combines with a general existential triviality among the commentariat to yield prominent pundits with a cultural frame of reference that extends no further than Harry Potter and The Handmaid’s Tale.
What is to be done? The 1776 Commission recently came in for much censure from the class of the Professionally Concerned, but its motives were comprehensible enough. Something is clearly rotten in the state of U.S. education, and the rot extends far beyond American civics. Perhaps the best reason to criticize 1776 is that it doesn’t go back far enough. We may need a 1564 Commission as well.
It is far past time for the American people to cease treating higher education as summer re-education camp for those who can’t, or won’t, learn a useful trade. It is unjust to students, and it is dangerous to society. For all the rocks the educational establishment hurls at alternative options like charters, those are the sectors to which we may look for some relief from our stultifying ignorant conformity. All signs indicate that the system will collapse under its own weight in the next few decades in any case; but there must be something to put in its place when it does. That is, in fact, why the rocks are hurled: the alternatives will attract, and the establishment will be out of work.
Jennifer Rubin’s Twitter handle says “America is Back.” That may be true (I have my doubts), but one thing is certain: American cultural literacy isn’t. For those who would like to see its return, now is the time to plan—and to work—for what comes next. What’s past is prologue, and all that. We’ve slept well. It’s time to awake.
Otherwise, it’s just tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeping along to a dusty cultural death. But take heart: the whole thing will be live-tweeted.
E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.