October 2, 2008. Just one month until a presidential election that made me feel better and better with each passing day about my decision to expatriate. As a leftist whose belief the Democrats meant what they said went out with Jimmy Carter, I had nothing invested in the outcome—except to see how Stephen Colbert would ridicule the candidates. Some days it was the only thing that kept me going.
Tonight’s Colbert Report looked especially promising. Stephen was set to interview one of the only talking heads I respect—a fellow Torontonian, no less—Naomi Klein. The show kicked off as usual, Stephen seated behind the giant C-shaped desk designed by a college classmate of mine. But things soon took an unusual turn. Stephen was talking about comparing the candidates to characters from Shakespeare! And then—not unlike Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan (another Torontonian) from behind a potted plant in Annie Hall, he brought on Stephen Greenblatt. Stephen Greenblatt! Author of Will in the World and one of America’s best-known Shakespeare scholars.
I was so excited I could barely listen to what he said. All I could hear was the voice in my head whispering: A Shakespeare scholar on Colbert! If Greenblatt can do it, why can’t you? Only Greenblatt was at the C-shaped desk. I would get to the Hot Seat, the space where Stephen does his main interviews.
The content of the interview didn’t matter much. Greenblatt compared Obama and McCain to characters in Shakespeare. (Note: I can’t tell you which ones specifically; I can’t review the show because I live in Canada. Comedy Central, whose website features the complete Colbert Report archives, is geoblocked; in Canada one can only see Colbert on the Comedy Network website, which doesn’t have this particular clip. Way to go Viacom, standing in the way of the pursuit of knowledge!) This sort of comparison is always dodgy at best. Years after the fact, I recall another example vividly. During the Clinton-Lewinsky kerfuffle, the Village Voice asked a number of B-list New York theatrical figures which Shakespeare characters were germane to the situation. The obvious comparison is Measure for Measure. There, Angelo is both a sexual hypocrite and a lascivious voyeur—Clinton and Kenneth Starr at once. Needless to say, not one of these theater professionals mentioned the play amid the predictable trite comparisons to Hamlet.
But the more I think about Shakespeare, the more I think there’s something very wrong with the whole idea of such comparisons even coming from a scholar of Greenblatt’s stature. On The Colbert Report they are in their proper place—as amusements. Like those online algorithms that tell you which European city you should live in or which Doctor Who companion you’d be, a “Which Shakespeare Character Are You?” game is good for a laugh (unless, like George W. Bush, you want to be Henry V and keep coming up Cloten, the buffoon from Cymbeline, no matter how you change your answers). That, and a nice bit of PR, is all it was for Colbert and Greenblatt. Colbert got to look sophisticated, which he actually is, and Greenblatt got to plug the paperback of Will in the World. Nobody got hurt.
But what if you took such comparisons seriously? It could end in tears. And that will be the subject of another post. (Always leave ‘em wanting more, isn’t that the first principle of blogging? Besides, I’m still seriously working out my thoughts on these questions. I’d rather not post them half baked.)