PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
MAINSTREAM NEWS MAKES MORE SENSE AS SHAKESPEAREAN DRAMA
Here is an experiment you can try at home. For one full week, take in as much world news as you can from mainstream news sources. But imagine at every moment that you are in a theater, watching a play of pure fiction. Immerse yourself in international news from the TV networks, NPR, Time, Newsweek, and every newspaper you can get. But imagine that it’s all a single drama, all scripted by the same team, all acted out by fictional characters.
I bet that by the end of a week, the news will begin to make a lot more sense to you. You won’t be bothered by all the falsifications and contradictions that bug you so much now. You’ll see how it all makes sense, how it all fits together so perfectly. You’ll see why journalists call their product a news "story."
Our mainstream reporting on world affairs is a drama of grand epic sweep, acted out by characters of Shakespearean proportion. All the world’s a stage. The names of the actors change from time to time. At any given moment, though, some nation, group, or individual must play each of the required roles. The show must go on.
After a week, you will get pretty good at spotting who is playing what role. Some are obvious. Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are Iago, doing evil for evil’s sake. Saddam Hussein is Lady Macbeth, viciously lusting for power and wealth. There are paragons of virtue, full of noble intentions, like Cordelia and Laertes. That could be Iranian students demanding democracy, or Israeli civilians killed by suicide bombers. Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli rockets are cast more as Hamlet—well intentioned, but still in the wrong, because of a tragic flaw. "Old Europe," especially France, is Polonius, full of bombastic words that no one should take seriously.
Sometimes an actor’s role is not so clear. Is North Korea the evil Iago or the mad savage Caliban? It depends on the day. The mullahs of Iran, suppressing the student movement, can be either Iago or Lady Macbeth. Tony Blair was doing a pretty good Laertes. But if he can’t finesse the scandal of the doctored intelligence reports, he may become a Hamlet. Ariel Sharon seems to be slipping from Laertes to Hamlet, too. If he isn’t careful, he could even become a Macbeth—an evildoer who still gets sympathy because it doesn’t seem totally his fault. His new Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, is also wavering between Hamlet and Macbeth.
What about the United States, its president, and his administration? Often they are cast as the pure and virtuous Cordelia or Laertes. When they come in for criticism, they may be Othello, who killed because he loved not wisely but too well. They may be Hamlet, hesitating and thus failing to do the right thing. Or they may be Lear, a victim of his own naïve trust and affection. In any event, their intentions are always good. Their mistakes are always due to some tragic flaw.
When U.S. policy goes wrong, we must be cast as a tragic victim. Our nation can never be an evil Lady Macbeth, nor even a Macbeth sadly driven to do evil. Any journalist who tries to cast the U.S. as villain will soon be dropped from the mainstream script-writing team.
This drama plays to a packed house, night and day, year after year. For the vast majority of Americans who pay attention to world news at all, it is the only show in town. And no wonder. It has all the virtues a great drama needs. It deals with ultimate issues of life and death, touching our deepest emotions. The plot is complex and constantly changing, leaving room for endlessly subtle interpretations. Yet the clear-cut roles of the characters make it seem easy to understand.
As Shakespearean drama, the news unfolds in a beautifully symmetrical order. It organizes our experience of the world in a grand tapestry where everything has a place, and everything is in its place. It lets us absorb the chaotic postmodern flood of media images, yet still believe that the world makes sense.
The order is reassuringly familiar. We follow the daily drama of world news for the same reason we go back to see Shakespeare’s tragedies over and over again. We recognize the characters right away. They are always the same, even though the actors’ names change so often. In the midst of constantly changing images, we can believe that nothing ever really changes.
Our lives takes on larger meaning as we, the audience, project ourselves into the global performance. We link our ordinary daily routine to the grandeur of the whole world. We identify our little selves with the great characters. We root for the good and rage at the evil. Most of all, perhaps, we see ourselves mirrored in the tragic heroes, who can never do all the good they intend. We make allowances for our own government's mistakes because we know that we, too, are trying our best yet all too often falling short of success.
Every time we watch, hear, or read the news, we go through a great catharsis. That’s what our English teachers taught us was the key to Shakespeare’s greatness. The drama takes us through the whole gamut of basic emotions. It brings all our messy, disturbing feelings to the surface, letting us feel them all intensely. But it’s all so aesthetically beautiful. We feel the feelings in such a harmonious way that it’s immensely satisfying.
When the play is over, we feel purged of all our tensions and conflicts. Everything is in order, the old familiar world is set right again, and we feel just plain good. Nothing has changed because nothing should or can change. So there is no reason to do anything, no need to respond to all the outrageous news of the day. The news is not meant to move you to action. It is an end in itself. The play’s the thing. You just have to come back tomorrow and take your seat for the next performance.
The journalists who rise to the top in the mainstream news game understand this all, some consciously and some just intuitively. Now you can understand it too. Please remember, viewing the world news as pure fictional drama is a game of pretend. The news usually includes some truth along with its fiction. But taking it as total fiction is an experiment worth trying.
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