CliffsNotes Shakespeare cartoons work as literary travesty, but not as a teaching aids

One of the four short subjects on the “Blackboard” page of the New York Times’ quarterly “Education Life” insert is a gee-whiz Cheez-whiz feature on CliffsNotes Films recent release of animated seven-minute versions of six of Shakespeare’s most often-taught plays.

That’s 7 minutes a play.

From the publisher of study guides which all too often are mistaken by lazy students as cheating aids, not teaching aids. The danger of CliffsNotes, and the reason why most literature teachers look down on them, is that so many students use them to replace reading or thinking about original source material.

I saw most of the Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Othello at the CliffsNotes website. All open with a super hero character with a cape named Cliff flying into a public library where he sets the scene for the play. Cliff’s first words are always the same: “Hey, I’m Cliff and these are my notes.” Cliff will provide narrative links between the scenes throughout the play. A comic foil to Cliff in all of the introductions is a prop from the play, the handkerchief for Othello, Yorick’s skull for Hamlet and a bloodied, bodiless head for Macbeth.

The plays present little else than plots. Characters reveal in words what their soliloquies and actions show in the original Shakespeare. The type of animation, the irony in all the voices and the fast-paced editing stitched together by colloquial narration all derive directly from the fractured fairy tales and Mr. Peabody cartoons that Jay Ward created for the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” show. So is the reduction of complex minor characters to Commedia Del Arte caricatures, the worst of which is making the sensitive and thoughtful Laertes into an intellectually slow big guy, a Lenny or an offensive lineman in a Burt Reynolds football movie.

The Times article notes the use of slang in CliffsNotes cartoon Shakespeare. Here are some examples I especially enjoyed. When I say “enjoyed,” I mean I appreciated the cleverness with which the writers reduced beautiful words to the lowest common denominator of idioms:

  • “Making the beast with two backs…” to describe Othello’s marriage to Desdemona.
  • “…first it was like, oh no, we’re going to lose…” to describe the beginning of a battle in Othello.
  • “I like to call it ‘Daddy issues,’” which is how Cliff reduces Hamlet to a phrase popular with television psychologists; and “Weird stuff is happening in Rome” is how he describes the situation the day before Caesar’s assassination.
  • “Soothsayers, always saying sooths,” is Caesar’s way of sloughing off warnings about the ides of March.
  • “He’s your brother-in-law! Gross,” Hamlet to his mother about her marriage to Claudius.
  • “Dad, Hamlet’s gone bananas,” Ophelia’s plaint to Polonius.

I’m presenting my favorite outside of bullets because it may represent the epitome of travesty, which is, to quote Merriam-Webster, a burlesque literary or artistic imitation usually grotesquely incongruous in style, treatment or subject matter.

I’m talking about the reduction to 14 words of Shakespeare’s most well-know and oft-quoted soliloquy, the one Hamlet gives in the middle of the play that bears his name. Here is how Cliffnotes delivers the 36-line poem that Hamlet recites to himself and which hundreds of millions of school children have had to study and often memorize through the centuries:

“To be or not to be, that’s the question…right?  When you think about it…”

I think it would have been nobler in mind, and deed, if this bit of paraphrasing had remained in some undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

CliffsNotes states with pride that it believes that students introduced to Shakespeare by its films will want to read and see the original plays. Fat chance! Why would they? These seven minute cartoons are self-contained works of entertainment that satisfy viewers the way Road Runner cartoons or episodes of a sitcom do. The strange dress and sometimes archaic ideas are the same kind of easy-to-digest local color they are accustomed to getting at historical rides and exhibits at a Disney amusement park.

One telling detail: Before you can see any of the CliffsNotes Shakespeares online, you must first sit through a 25-second commercial for a movie about some kids making a zombie movie.

Because the CliffsNotes Shakespeares remain true to the plot, they are great for helping kids get “gentleperson” C’s in their English classes, as they enable the student to regurgitate the plot in essays, test answers and classroom response.

For the student or non-student of any age who has some familiarity with Shakespeare, the CliffsNotes versions should be a hoot, and especially, I think, for educated Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who have grown up with the kind of humor central to the CliffsNotes Shakespeares and are more familiar than Baby Boomers with the argot of the moment.  I could see my son and his friends (mostly other engineers and engineering graduate students) whiling away an hour laughing at these travesties. Some may have used CliffsNotes in the past and others certainly did not, but part of the humor for all of them would be that these were the CliffsNotes versions. It’s similar to laughing at pot humor in current youth movies.

That CliffsNotes would produce such intellectually bankrupt yet mildly entertaining nonsense makes perfect sense

But why does the New York Times publicize it? 

Without a doubt, CliffsNotes or its public relations agency has launched a national campaign to attract coverage of the CliffsNotes films in the news media and through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

But why did the Times bite?

The Times reporter, Katherine Schulten, doesn’t express a point of view, but lets the facts prove the obvious—that this film venture is intellectually bankrupt because it undermines every reason to study Shakespeare in the 21st century.

But for CliffsNotes, even bad publicity, and perhaps especially bad publicity, is good publicity.

Consider why anyone would criticize CliffsNotes, either overtly or implicitly as Schulten does? There is only one reason: because CliffsNotes encourages cheating by enabling students to avoid reading the assigned material. 

But isn’t that exactly what the marketplace for CliffsNotes educational products wants? So no matter how strong or weak the criticism, it helps CliffsNotes sells books.

There are other offbeat stories the Times could have covered, but the editors decided to help CliffsNotes sell its quasi-ethical substitutes to reading literature. In doing so, the Times may or may not have been expressing anti-intellectual values. It was, however, certainly expressing marketplace values.

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