One question that will never be on any quizmaster’s list is ‘Who was Shakespeare?’ The reason is that it’s too easy. It’s like the question ‘What is the usual accompaniment in England to deep fried, battered fish?’ If you don’t know the answer then you’ve never been in England. And yet the 2007 winner of the Big Brother reality show is the English BrianPreview Belo would not be able to answer that question. When he emerged from the house the show’s presenter, Davina McCall, interviewed him. During that interview he claimed that he’d never heard of Shakespeare. It’s difficult to believe because he was born and raised in England. He would have gone to an English school where Shakespeare is on the curriculum of all secondary schools. However, on reviewing scenes from the show where he appears, one can see that it just may be possible.
In the current Celebrity Big Brother, the archetypical ‘Essex girl,’ Amy Childs, was given the task of dropping some Shakespeare quotes into her conversations with other housemates. The Big Brother directors were, of course, delivering one of their expected portions of racist and sexist entertainment by pointing to the stock type of Essex girl and making fun of her. She did it well, although she later commented in the diary room that she hadn’t had a clue about what she was saying,
An English lecturer at the University of Wales Institute, Mr Eric Hadley, has been using Big Brother as a way of exploring Twelfth Night. One of the most notorious housemates, ‘Nasty Nick’ is Malvolio, the puritanical steward in Olivia’s house. Mr Hadley sees that household as a Big Brother house, with all the occupants quarrelling, conniving, playing mind games, devising practical jokes and coupling up.
Big Brother’s nightly edited digests are dramatic with their careful selections carved into dramatic narratives. And they are full of theatre. The show also does whatever it can to involve its mass audience with voting for evictions and with its spin-off shows, to which the audience can phone or text their messages. There is little of that in today’s theatres but in Shakespeare’s time one of the great things about a performance was just that – a lot of audience involvement – people shouting out, throwing oranges at the actors, and so on.
We tend to see Shakespeare as high culture, but in Elizabethan and Jacobean times the plays and their performances were very much imbedded in popular culture, just as Big Brother is today. One of the great attractions of Shakespeare’s plays is that they portray the common people and their concerns so accurately and entertainingly. And the universal themes of the plays were the concern of all. Beneath the direct appeal to the mindless that Big Brother deals with there are the universal themes that audiences identify with – not in the tasks and events that the producers provide for the contestants but in the housemates’ human reaction to those things.