Bardstreet USA

Oh, Carole. Don't think I'm picking on you in particular here - I know that this sentiment has been expressed a thousand times over. But still, what a daft thing to say.

I suppose the thinking behind this sort of comment - "It's not exactly Shakespeare, is it?" - is to call into question the quality of pro wrestling narratives in comparison to the superior work of William Shakespeare. Popular opinion seems to be that Shakespeare's plays are a mainstay of high school English syllabuses because they are somehow 'the best'. In fact, I would argue that they are more likely such a popular choice as a direct result of their similarities to pro wrestling.

In an essay called Before the Bard: 'Shakespeare’ in Early Eighteenth-Century London, Robert D. Hume suggests that our view of Shakespeare as a mythic literary figure is 'incommensurable' with the contemporary view of him as a playwright. Shakespeare was a mere mortal back then, one of many who wrote plays for the man on the street as much as anyone else. Jonathan Bate tells the story of a 1769 celebration of Shakespeare's work wherein an actor portraying a Frenchman put forward a long-held opinion of Shakespeare belonging to French literary connoisseurs - 'vulgar, provincial and overrated'.

Shakespeare was not idolized in his time, even if it's easy to fall into the trap of seeing him that way today. Thinking about Shakespeare today perhaps sparks school classrooms or the theatre as we now know it, which don't quite get across how the plays were originally performed, which Hume describes here:

People came and went; gossiped with friends; ogled the whores; bought refreshments. What is Sacred Shakespeare to us was merely a part of daily popular entertainment for them.
— Robert D. Hume

Refreshments? Whores? Ringing any bells yet, Carole? Hume's description reminds me more of a stadium filled with wrestling fans than a typical Shakespeare audience of this day and age. But, if Shakespeare's plays aren't held up as the 'best' plays in existence, why are they still talked about to this day, and why are they taught in schools so extensively? Bate suggests that this is a result of the combination of the availability of his work, and their adaptability in being squeezed and shaped to fit all kinds of ideologies in the hundreds of years since the plays were written. This adaptability is crucial to Shakespeare's parallel with pro wrestling.

For a moment, lets consider Shakespeare's Othello and the 2011 WWE storyline concerning CM Punk's departure from the company at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view.

Should you not know the plot of Othello off hand; the wily and conniving Iago is upset that he is being overlooked for a role as one of Othello's chief lieutenants in favour of Michael Cassio (a good choice for the role on the surface, but without the real-world experience that Iago identifies within himself). As a result of this, he conspires to shake Othello's faith in Cassio by suggesting that Cassio will betray Othello, taking away his wife and humiliating him. Othello is taken in by Iago's ruse, eventually murdering his wife in a fit of rage and killing himself when he realizes what he has done to his fine reputation.

Should you not know the CM Punk storyline in question; the wily and conniving CM Punk is upset that he is being overlooked as one of the top wrestlers in the company in Vince McMahon's eyes in favour of John Cena (a good choice for the role on the surface but without the indie cred that CM Punk identifies within himself). As a result of this, he conspires to shake Mr. McMahon's faith in Cena by suggesting that he will beat Cena for the title and leave the company, taking away the crown jewel of Mr. McMahon's empire and humiliating him.  Mr. McMahon is taken in by CM Punk's ruse, eventually distracting Cena enough to allow CM Punk to hit his finisher, pin him and leave with the title, whereupon Mr. McMahon is relieved of his duties with the WWE.

Of course, I'm leaving out bits and pieces of each story - but it's that main narrative of the pride of a respected, established leader being preyed upon by a master manipulator that is important. It's not that a WWE writer snatched the storyline from Shakespeare, and it's not that Shakespeare himself snatched it from an Italian story from 1565 called 'Un Capitano Moro'. It's simply a story that reverberates with people through the ages because it's something that anyone can understand and relate to, even if they don't understand that that's what they're doing on the surface.

So what? Well, comparing narratives like this can illuminate the culture that produces them. CM Punk returned a hero after this played out in 2011, whereas at the end of Othello, Iago is very much a villain. Perhaps this suggests something of the role of authority figures in society today compared to during the 17th Century; today we're looking for that person in power to take a fall.

To leave this example behind and go a little further, if we compare two pro wrestling texts, we can make other observations about the cultures that produced them. Say we were to identify a classic pro wrestling storyline, any one of the many that repeat themselves time and again - perhaps a match where a veteran takes on an up-and-comer. This narrative could play out over the course of one match, and - as I have mentioned before - play out in the ring but have a narrative that is decipherable purely through the match, without any outside elements like commentary or prior storyline build-up. We could quite easily find matches that told this story from American, European, Lucha and Puro traditions, and because pro wrestling is, at its heart, a narrative that plays out using only physical action, we could compare the different matches directly, without the linguistic baggage that a similar novel or play from those different cultures would carry with it. The cultural cues of pro wrestling are deeper than most would think - what makes a villain a villain is not the same worldwide. Such a study would first reveal the simple stuff; what a Japanese audience think of as 'heel tactics', where the line between hero and villain falls across the globe and so on - but, with a deep enough study, there is no end to the cultural insight that we could glean.

Brad JonesComment