Goodnight, Sweet Prince

Around the world, we’re mourning Prince, and also Shakespeare. What does that tell us about creativity and celebrity?

AUTHORS ARE MY ROCK STARS reads one of my favorite t-shirts, emblazoned with a portrait of Shakespeare made-up like a glam rocker. As fans all around the world have gathered to remember Prince, who died on April 21 at age 57, and of Shakespeare, who died almost exactly 400 years earlier, on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52, is it time to ask whether rock stars are our era’s Shakespeare?

Scratch the surface, and similarities abound:

Prince and Shakespeare were both genre- and gender-bending geniuses. Prince moved between funk, R&B, rock, and pop as lithely as he did between guitar, bass, piano, and a dozen other instruments, evoking masculinity and femininity with equal sexual allure. Shakespeare wrote sonnet sequences, epic poems, and an astounding range of plays: comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances, in which male and female identity, and the desires they evoke, are often astoundingly fluid. (He seemed poised to write novels, too, if only they’d existed during his lifetime: Hamlet’s soliloquies, though beautifully written, are theatrically awkward interludes intended to convey to the audience the internal thoughts of the protagonist, something difficult to do in dialogue-dependent drama but found frequently in fiction).

Great music speaks to us in the much way great literature does, giving form to what we each feel, in ways that convey and confirm our own emotions. Prince’s most upbeats songs will forever evoke the energy and ecstasy I felt in my teens and twenties, when my friends and I spent countless hours dancing to and singing along with them. But this weekend, as I listened to his love songs, many of which convey a poignant sense of loss, I cried. A few hours later, it was Shakespeare who had me weeping. I was watching the final episode of the Canadian television series Slings and Arrows, in which the enormously gifted actor William Hutt portrays a dying King Lear, a performance all the more affecting because it was filmed only a year before Hutt himself died of cancer. Prince wrote both lyrics and music, which move us in different, although often interrelated ways. Though we mostly remember Shakespeare for his moving words, he also made use of music’s emotive elements, incorporating songs throughout his plays.

Neither was a solitary genius. Prince wrote songs for and produced the work of other musicians. He also covered other musicians’ work, creating powerful tributes that nevertheless marked each performance as Prince’s own. As a playwright, Shakespeare took inspiration (including plot lines and characters) from other authors, even as he wrote his pieces for his fellow actors to perform. Each subsequent staging of one of his plays is a sort of cover version, in which director and performers interpret his work. Filmmakers and novelists (myself included) continue to rework Shakespeare’s stories and characters in new forms, creating fresh collaborations.

But, a skeptic might ask, four hundred years from now will anyone remember Prince, as we now remember Shakespeare? Or is his pop culture fame more fleeting?

As it turns out, that’s the wrong question, because it mistakenly presumes that Shakespeare has always enjoyed his current level of fame. During his lifetime, Shakespeare’s prolific output was well known among London theatre-goers. Today, Shakespeare reigns as the most famous author in the English language. But in the period in between, he wasn’t consistently well known.

Shakespeare’s work fell from prominence after 1642, when the Puritan government that overthrew King Charles I closed London’s theaters. Although the theaters were reopened following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Shakespeare’s plays didn’t always dominate. Between 1701 and 1735, Londoners didn’t see a single performance of Romeo and Juliet; in that same period, thirty productions were staged there of Thomas Otway’s The History and Fall of Caius Marius (almost unknown today, the play draws heavily on the plot and dialogue of Romeo and Juliet, transposing the action onto ancient Rome; although Otway’s less work is largely forgotten, he did give us the balcony we mistakenly believe is Shakespeare’s). Shakespeare only gained what we’d call rock star status later, thanks in large part to David Garrick, an English actor, producer, and theater manager, who staged a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769. Although partially rained out, the three-day Jubilee put Stratford on the map as site for Shakespeare tourism. And Garrick re-created the entire commemoration as a play in his Drury Lane Theatre, where it was performed for rapt London audiences.

Garrick’s Jubilee cultivated what we think of as celebrity. This type of fame only began to emerge in the mid-1700s, when a profusion of mass media (in the form of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, broadsides, and mezzotints) could reach a broad public. That public was increasingly living in densely populated cities rather than rural areas, participating in an emerging economy in which a proliferation of consumer goods fed fandom. Garrick crafted the cult of Shakespeare as an act of self-promotion, carefully creating associations between his role as impresario of the Bard and what he contended was Shakespeare’s lauded position as the embodiment of British culture. Garrick was hardly alone: his was an era in which artists, authors, and actors were achieving new fame by fostering their public personae in ways that would feel familiar to us today.

Perhaps we wouldn’t connect Prince and Shakespeare if the musician’s untimely passing hadn’t coincided with this milestone anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. But Prince, who loved to perform, who put himself on highly eroticized display, and who welcomed the public to events at Paisley Park, yet who remained notoriously vigilant about controlling the use of his image and his music, is undoubtedly heir to the sort of celebrity that emerged in the eighteenth-century. It’s not a kind of fame Shakespeare enjoyed in his lifetime. But, conferred on him a century and a half after his death, it’s the kind of fame by which we know him now.