Culture Magazine

The King, Part IV: The Matter of Cultural Influence [Media Notes 16]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Now we know, from The Telegraph, that Michôd was quite deliberately playing off of and altering Shakespeare about young Hal/Harry/Henry V:
When asked about his interpretation of events at its London launch, Mr Michôd said: “Our version is very different to Shakespeare’s and it is very much about a young man being consumed by the institutions of power. There are various version of Henry V basically about a heroic king invading a country. To us, this story needed to be more complicated than that one.”
That article is about French reaction to the film, criticizing it as being not only anti-French nationalist preening, as was Shakespeare’s original tetralogy, but being particularly so in view of recent historical research. I can live with that – after all, I am not French. What interests me is simply the explicit assertion that, yes, Michôd was consciously revising Shakespeare and that he was doing so in the direction of, how you say, modern “complication”, complication that elides the, what, anachronistic? distinction between individual and state and leaves us only with personal power struggles among the elite.
But that’s not quite what I’m after in this note, which, I hope, will conclude my blogging about this film. As a side effect of an article I’m currently working on, I’m interested in the problem of influence, where influence is the cultural analog to inheritance in biology. Biology, on which, alas, I am not particularly well informed, presents three basic situations:
  1. Strict vertical inheritance, where an individual has two parents of the same species.
  2. Hybridity, where an individual has one parent from each of two neighboring species.
  3. Horizontal diversity (my term), where an individual can more or less freely acquire characteristics from other individuals; this is the case for single-celled species (which do not reproduce sexually).
In all cases, of course, the expression of inherited characteristics is subject to environmental guidance.
But there is nothing, so far as I know, in the biological world that is analogous to what happens in the case of creolization, where a new language emerges from the clash of two (or more?) languages brought into contact through interactions of peoples through, e.g. trade and/or conquest. The languages involved can be historically quite remote. But I’m not talking about languages here, I’m talking about literary works. Very specifically, I’m talking about Shakespeare plays.
There was a time when Shakespeare’s plays were re-written rather freely to suit them to contemporary sensibility. I am thinking, of course, of the likes of Nahum Tate from the 17th century and Thomas Bowdler from the 19th. That freedom has been extinguished, though I note that directors seem always to have been willing to truncate the plays to make them more suitable for performance. But what do we do with the rather wholesale transmogrification that produced Forbidden Planet from The Tempest and the rather less drastic transmogrification that produced The King from the second Henriad?
Would we describe any of that as influence? I think not; the connotations are wrong. Tate and Bowdler were simply altering Shakespeare to their liking. The creators of Forbidden Planet and The King simply used Shakespeare’s texts as source material as he had used, say, Robert Greene’s Pandosto as source material for The Winter’s Tale. Influence is only one kind of intertextuality. What other kinds are there?
Human minds find stuff and use stuff in many different ways. There is nothing like it in organismic development as it happens in the biological world, is there?

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