Written by Claire Hansen in Performances and Productions | 06.08.2015
You may have heard about the current clamour for tickets to a Barbican production of Hamlet featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. The production opened yesterday (5 August 2015), and it is ‘the fastest selling show in London theatre history’ (according to this Guardian piece). Media commentary (like this Telegraph story, and this story) positions ‘real’ Shakespeare fans versus ‘real’ Cumberbatch fans. It seems like a clash of two very different celebrity personas.
Can we approach this usefully from a critical standpoint? It certainly draws attention to the perceived relevance of Shakespeare, the cultural and popular value of Hamlet, and the power of modern drawcards like Cumberbatch. In light of this, the field of ‘celebrity studies’ might best serve such a discussion.
Defining 'celebrity' and 'celebrity studies'
So what is celebrity studies? In the inaugural issue of the Celebrity Studies journal, Su Holmes and Sean Redmond write:
"'Celebrity studies' might be described less as a distinct discipline than the product of an expanded and expanding intellectual interest in celebrity which, while it might currently find its most energetic hub in media and cultural studies, operates at the intersection of work emerging from a range of disciplines and approaches."(Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, 'A journal in Celebrity Studies', Celebrity Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2010, p. 6)
In the same issue, Graeme Turner writes:
"The analysis of celebrity, celebrities and celebrity culture is one of the growth industries for the humanities and social sciences over the last decade. Psychologists warn us of the dangers of 'celebrity worship', sociologists interrogate young people about their personal expectations of fame, and even a discipline with as attenuated a relation to popular culture as literary studies now studies such things as 'post-colonial celebrity'. The textual richness of celebrity culture is proving irresistible, and so the fetish for textual analysis that dominated so much of the 1980s has found itself right at home in the study of celebrity."(Graeme Turner, 'Approaching celebrity studies', Celebrity Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2010, p. 11)
These definitions of celebrity studies quickly call for a definition of celebrity itself. Chris Rojek offers a short but useful definition: 'celebrity = impact on public consciousness' (Rojek in Holmes and Redmond, p.4). In her 2013 dissertation on Shakespeare and celebrity culture, Jennifer R. Holl argues:
"What we call celebrity, I argue, is a sign, a recombinant amalgam of an individual’s enacted roles (broadly defined) and publicized personal life conflated with cultural fixation, all projected onto the bodies of living individuals. These human narratives both emerge from and circulate through the public sphere, forming an integral part of the way that cultures both negotiate and craft their environments." (Jennifer R. Holl, 'Stars indeed: the celebrity culture of Shakespeare's London', Dissertation, City University of New York, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2013, p. 12)
Turner offers a more expansive list of definitions of celebrity:
- 'celebrity is a genre of representation that provides us with a semiotically rich body of texts and discourses that fuel a dynamic culture of consumption.'
- 'Secondly, celebrity is also a discursive effect; that is, those who have been subject to the representational regime of celebrity are reprocessed and reinvented by it'.
- 'the celebrity which is the objectified outcome of this discursive effect is itself a commodity.'
- 'Finally, and in the end possibly most importantly, celebrity is also a cultural formation that has a social function. Not only is celebrity implicated in the production of communities such as fan groups or subcultures, not only does it generate celebrity culture and social networks, it also participates in the field of expectations that many, particularly the young, have of everyday life.'(Turner, pp. 13-14)
The Cumberbatch Hamlet example gives us three different, but here intertwined, versions of 'celebrity': Cumberbatch as the modern-day television and film star; Shakespeare as the historical literary figure; and Hamlet / Hamlet as celebrated canonical text and famous character. This produces an interesting dialogue between different types or embodiments of 'celebrity'.
Celebrity studies in Shakespeare studies and education
While the place of celebrity studies might typically be in cultural and media studies and not the field of English literature or education, it is a notably interdisciplinary area. Holmes and Redmond argue that 'celebrity is a subject which cuts across disciplinary and media borders – and the potential for exchange, fusion and debate here is considerable.' (p. 7) There is also room in celebrity studies for a historical approach:
"Yet that is not to suggest that the porous and interconnected nature of media forms is only of prime concern to more contemporary studies of celebrity: such a context can prompt historical work to return to the past in order to take a more expansive media[.]" (p. 5)
Can celebrity studies be useful in teaching or studying Shakespeare? How might it be used in the field of English literary studies or in education?
For discussions on the adoption of celebrity studies in education, you may like to look at this Guardian piece about university courses on celebrity, and another on the value of celebrity culture to students' education.
It seems to me there are several ways of adapting this field of work in relation to Shakespeare studies:
- Considering the role of 'celebrity' in an early modern context – how the names and reputations of playwrights and actors in Shakespeare’s industry were understood. Holmes and Redmond point out: 'As historical work continues to emerge (Holmes 2008, Murray 2005, Ponce de Leon 2002, Turnock 2007), there is the possibility for an increasingly dynamic dialogue about the origins of ‘modern’ celebrity, interpretations of the history of fame and the interplay between past and present.' (p. 5)
- Using celebrity culture as a reflective tool to reconceptualise the role of Shakespeare in educational and other contexts.
- Considering how the relationship between modern 'celebrity' embodiments and Shakespeare may be mutually transformative.
- How an experience of Shakespeare is affected by our familiarity with the actors, directors, or spaces of a specific production.
In a recent dissertation on Shakespeare and celebrity culture, Jennifer R. Holl argues that celebrity actors provide a human embodiment of Shakespeare’s celebrity. Celebrities – in our case, actors like Cumberbatch – 'have, over the centuries, embodied the specter of Shakespeare’s celebrity to become their era’s contemporary personified abstraction of Shakespeare’s narrative body' (p. 186). Holl gives the examples of David Garrick in the eighteenth century, Edmund Kean in the nineteenth century, and Laurence Olivier in the era of film. She argues that such celebrities 'illustrate the human collaboration at the heart of Shakespearean celebrity' (pp. 186-7).
Holl’s concept of celebrity as a 'collaborative construction' (p. iv) - both in early modern London and today - is useful and important, especially for considering the construction of ‘Shakespeare’ as a historical and canonical figure inside and outside the classroom. The current Barbican production of Hamlet thus raises questions about the cultural construction of celebrity and of Shakespeare, and suggests a mutually dependent relationship between historical and modern embodiments of celebrity.
Holl, Jennifer R., 'Stars indeed: the celebrity culture of Shakespeare's London', Dissertation, City University of New York, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2013.
Holmes, Su and Sean Redmond, 'A journal in Celebrity Studies', Celebrity Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2010, 1-10.
Turner, Graeme, 'Approaching celebrity studies', Celebrity Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2010, 11-20.
If you are interested in celebrity studies, the Celebrity Studies journal offers many of its articles as open-access material.