Let us consider the following scenario. Next week, after hundreds of years of relative easy rest, William Shakespeare’s good name is disturbed when someone discovers that he spent much of his life sleeping with married women and occasionally burning down the homes of the men whose wives he wished to bed. Do we need to really ask what sort of impact this would have on our perception of the works of Shakespeare? Would people stop producing the plays or going to productions of the plays?

Of course not. I can’t imagine that it would have much of any impact whatsoever. I find it hard to believe that there would be too many crimes, short of the more heinous ones involving children and human slavery, that would cause us to rethink our relationship with Shakespeare.

I do not mean to make a comparison between Shakespeare and modern actors, writers, musicians, and other artists, but why does it make such a profound impact on our feelings toward them when we find out that they do things that ordinary people do all the time without earning all of the scrutiny? Let us take Charlie Sheen, for example. Arrested for a domestic dispute, people are some now intentionally not watching the show out of a sort of boycott. There is even a Facebook group dedicated to boycotting the show but it is largely overrun with spam posts now.

Let us think of Phil Spector. When you think of Phil Spector, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it such musical masterpieces as “The Long and Winding Road” by The Beatles?

Rather, most people now think of the fact that he was involved in a long and winding trial for murder — one is having its results contested.

Lawyers for legendary music producer Phil Spector have asked an appellate court to throw out his second-degree murder conviction on grounds of judicial error and prosecutorial misconduct.

In an extremely detailed 148-page brief filed Wednesday, the attorneys cited multiple reasons they believe Spector was denied his right to a fair trial. They asked the California Second District Court of Appeal to reverse the jury verdict and order a new trial.

I can appreciate that murder truly is a heinous act and that we should most certainly try and convict any celebrity to the same extent that we pursue any other person who chooses to break the law. However, this does not change the fact that the art that they have made is still valid on its own terms, and that we should not just throw the art away when we find out something we don’t like about the artist. Shakespeare wouldn’t have it any other way.

6 Comments

  1. I’m a little surprised by your argument, Gordon.

    I think personal lives do matter and should influence what we think of a performance or a piece of art.

    It matters to me that Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite —

    http://www.slate.com/id/2146880/

    — and knowing that rightfully colors our understanding of the politics and policy behind “The Passion of the Christ.”

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/

    It matters to me that Shakespeare co-authored several plays, but did not give credit to his collaborators:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/contested-will-who-wrote-shakespeare-by-james-shapiro-1927492.html

    It must matter that Michale Jackson’s inappropriate relationship with children influences how we perceive the currents at work beneath his songs.

    Taking the next step — yes, it matters that JFK cheated on his wife during his presidency and yes, it matters that Bill Clinton ruined his presidency with his penis and yes, it matters that pedophile priests molest children in private while railing against immorality from the public pulpit.

    1. David,

      Well put. I should have expanded my meaning of things that are really heinous beyond the two examples that I gave. I too think that the examples that you gave matter. There are many examples, however, where actors and other celebrities commit significantly more minor infractions — and yet those are the ones being paraded around magazines like InTouch and UsWeekly.

      All of your examples absolutely matter. I’m glad you supplied the Shakespeare link. I think most people are unaware of this information!

      1. I think it all matters — large and small — because it helps color in the entire person.

        Does it matter that Charlie Sheen raises his fists against women? Yes. It makes me not want to laugh at his awful television sitcom that I have never watched.

        Does it matter Phil Spector killed a woman? Yes. Does it help explain the manic madness that drove so many artists crazy during the recording process? Probably, as a new tether is drawn in the definition of the man.

        Does it matter when celebrities drink and drive?

        The Shakespeare thing is pretty fascinating and Jim Shapiro at Columbia offers a beautiful examination of the man and his work in his new book:

        For more than two hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, no one doubted that he had written his plays. Since then, however, dozens of candidates have been proposed for the authorship of what is generally agreed to be the finest body of work by a writer in the English language. In this remarkable book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro explains when and why so many people began to question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. Among the doubters have been such writers and thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. It is a fascinating story, replete with forgeries, deception, false claimants, ciphers and codes, conspiracy theories—and a stunning failure to grasp the power of the imagination.

        As Contested Will makes clear, much more than proper attribution of Shakespeare’s plays is at stake in this authorship controversy. Underlying the arguments over whether Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays are fundamental questions about literary genius, specifically about the relationship of life and art. Are the plays (and poems) of Shakespeare a sort of hidden autobiography? Do Hamlet, Macbeth, and the other great plays somehow reveal who wrote them?

        Shapiro is the first Shakespeare scholar to examine the authorship controversy and its history in this way, explaining what it means, why it matters, and how it has persisted despite abundant evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a brilliant historical investigation that will delight anyone interested in Shakespeare and the literary imagination.

        1. David,

          I didn’t think of it that way re: Spector and Sheen. Good points all around.

          The whole issue makes me think of Mark Twain and how he delayed his autobiography by 100 years — some say because he didn’t want to offend anyone living with his words.

          http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/after-keeping-us-waiting-for-a-century-mark-twain-will-finally-reveal-all-1980695.html

          A section of the memoir will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy. But she was abruptly sacked in 1909, after the author claimed she had “hypnotised” him into giving her power of attorney over his estate.

          Should this scandalous relationship make us rethink our relationship with Twain? Do we continue reading his works?

  2. Yes, we should always be reconsidering our relationships with friends and artists and admirers and politicians.

    It’s fine to say, “Mark Twain was a great writer, but not a good man.”

    When we found out Thomas Jefferson had not just bedded, but impregnated, a “house slave” — his status and standing as a human being was greatly diminished because of the way he treated Sally Hemings.