Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Duping Facebook with Shakespeare

Last week, when I asked my students why, during a discussion of Macbeth, they were using the awkward non-verb “to un-alive” to describe the action of regicide, they informed me that Facebook had trained them to it, with its flagging of the word “to kill.” “People,” I said. “This is Shakespeare seminar. We can do better than that.” Shakespeare offers us myriad terms to describe deading a person. Here are just a few: to “murther,” to cause to “dwell in solemn shades of endless night,” to send to the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” to “unseam,” to render a “tongue . . . a stringless instrument,” to make one’s antagonist “food for worms.” The list goes on.

Later I went to Google to inquire about other Facebook-flagged words. A post from last year on HVMA Social Media warns advertisers that Facebook seeks “generally uplifting, growth-oriented content!,” and cautions that “using ad copy which directly speaks on weight, health, beauty, anxiety, loss, failure, underachieving, or other such negative self-implicating topics are almost always negated from the platform.” This type of thing poses communicative challenges which Shakespeare can help overcome.

References to weight: Here the Henry IV plays are useful. Shakespeare does not

scruple to point out Sir John Falstaff’s excessive adipose tissue and to criticize his health regimen (or lack thereof). He is a “huge hill of flesh,” a “bed-presser,” a “surfeit-swelled” glutton. “Leave gormandizing,” Prince Hal advises him. This is generally good advice, though I’m not sure it would sell weight-loss products.

Health: Apparently, both good and bad health are “trigger” topics. How to get around this? For bad health, Falstaff is again a source. He is “blasted with antiquity” and debilitated by “consumption.” His also-ailing not-friend King Henry IV is a “fangless lion whose “eye is hollow.” King Lear, too, “usurp[s] his life” after being “stretch[ed]” on “the rack of this tough world,” and as for the French King in All’s Well that Ends Well, his “flame lacks oil,” and he needs help even to get off stage. Kings are the unhealthiest people in Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare is generally more interested in describing sickness than in praising health, but he does give us some instances of miraculous curing. What you need is a magic virgin (see Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well), a “golden stamp” administered by Edward the Confessor (see Macbeth act four, scene three), or a drug that, though it makes you appear to be dwelling in solemn shades of endless night, has only a temporary effect, and lets you wake refreshed, though then immediately horrified by the discovery that you have been sleeping next to a dead (or un-alived) body (see Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline).

Beauty: Apparently use of this word makes some people feel bad. For promising ad copy, here are a couple of Shakespearean substitutes: “Teach the torches to burn bright!” Or, for Retinol: “Age cannot wither you!” 

Anxiety: Shakespeare would never use this word, but gives us plenty of the thing. Any of Hamlet’s soliloquies, or Richard III’s final one, would serve as a good promotional copy for anti-anxiety medication. For stress-related insomnia? Hamlet: “Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting / That would not let me sleep.” (The “Sir” adds tone.) Or, from Macbeth: “Sleep no more. [Insert name] shall sleep no more.” Not without Melatonin, he won’t! Othello could also use a prescription, but then again, he might best be left out of the equation, since not “all the drowsy syrups of the world / Shall ever medicine [him] to that sweet sleep / Which [he] owned yesterday.” Of course, Ambien and Lunesta come in capsule form.

Loss:  Type of unmentionable loss is not specified by HVMA Social Media. In Shakespeare there’s loss of a handkerchief, loss of virginity, loss of a loved one, and loss of reputation. Whatever your loss, the best advice comes from Othello: “Let it go, all.” The phrase isn’t “generally uplifting,” but it is “growth-oriented.”

Failure: This word is easily circumvented, by using one of Shakespeare’s direct descriptions of the emotional experience. Do you feel “shame, and eternal shame”? Are “all things cheerless, dark, and deadly”? “Let it go, all,” and then, rally, with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”

Underachieving:  Do your “enterprises, though of great pitch and moment, . . . their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action”? Do your activities “hold a wing / Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors”? In other words, are you not fulfilling your family’s expectations? While Facebook believes this condition may be remedied by avoiding all reference to the issue, Shakespeare lets you have it right in the face. He gets results, too. Check out the last acts of Hamlet and Henry IV, part one.

Other such negative, self-implicating topics: I could offer instances from Shakespeare scenes in which characters cleverly avoid responsibility for their misery (e.g., Laertes: “The king! The king’s to blame!”). But why? Those scenes mostly demonstrate that such tactics don't work.

Last week I saw a production of Othello in which the director had inexplicably inserted a romantic speech, written (by him or her?) in contemporary English, which Othello delivered to Desdemona on their wedding night. It was cringe-y. It would perhaps have passed muster at a contemporary wedding (“though not one attended by English majors,” one student assured me). But in the context of a Shakespeare play, competing with Shakespeare’s original language, all it did was baffle the audience. Why has Othello, the masterful storyteller of act one, suddenly lost all his speaking skills? Fortunately, he regained them a few lines later, when he returned to the original script. In that script, Shakespeare does not avoid “negative, self-implicating topics.” He raises them in order to take you somewhere important and bigger, and to direct your attention to somebody other than yourself. Katharsis! We will not get there on Facebook.

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