Lisa Mullins talks with Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC., about whether there are Shakespearean dimensions to the scandal that has emerged surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The News of the World phone-hacking scandal continues to churn. Some new questions today — one is whether News of the World reporters paid police to track peoples’ cellphone signals, a practice known as pinging. Another question — why Prime Minister David Cameron’s former Communications Director, Andy Coulson, was not required to obtain top secret security clearance when he was vetted for the job. Coulson is formerly editor of the News of the World. He was arrested this month in connection with the phone-hacking case. As the Murdoch saga continues to play out, it’s been called a drama of Shakespearean proportions. One British politician adapted Hamlet tweeting, something’s rocking in the state of Murdoch. Some see Murdoch as a tragic King Lear figure. Michael Witmore is the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and he says that whatever parallels with the Bards were, the Murdoch story is not Shakespearean tragedy.
Michael Witmore: I think we tend to think of Shakespearean tragedy as involving large personalities, people with great power, but who bring themselves down; but who are essentially sympathetic. And given the portrayal of Rupert Murdoch in the news that I’ve seen, I don’t really think he is being depicted as a sympathetic character. So, my feeling about who he might like in Shakespeare’s plays would be something more like the character of Claudius in Hamlet. Claudius is a king who’s gotten control of the crown through gyle, but he’s a tremendously effective plotter. And one of the things he does in the play is put his nephew, Hamlet, under surveillance. In fact, I think Hamlet is himself quite aware that he’s under surveillance and thinks of Claudius as someone who is snooping. But at the end of the play I think is where we see the closest connection — Claudius does himself in. It’s the problem of being a hyper-efficient manager and a very good plotter, as sometimes you trip yourself up. And there’s a phrase from Hamlet, ‘hoist on his own petard’ which means you’re scheme backfires on you. And this is the place I think where people in the media are seeing some kind of connection.
Mullins: And what about other aspects of this situation, especially with News of the World, the Murdoch empire newspaper that’s now closed. Anything there that for you resonates with Shakespeare and his times?
Witmore: Well, I think people will feel this is an odd analogy, but Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, they are a group that is interested in telling stories. And so was Shakespeare. They’re very different kinds of stories, but I think it would be a mistake to say that Shakespeare and his audience or even us, that we’re not creatures of the water cooler in some way. We do want to hear those stories.
And we know, for example, that Shakespeare was reading short pamphlets, we would call them broad sheets, a one-page account of some extraordinary event that happened in London. And Shakespeare was reading about things like exorcism, murders, larger than life figures who demand attention. And Shakespeare was not above collecting them and putting them in his plays.
Mullins: Interesting to think of Shakespeare as fodder for the water cooler.
Witmore: I think that’s interesting too. There are bits of Shakespeare that circulate around our culture and are very important to us. But sometimes I think of Shakespeare as a kind of worldwide web in and of himself. We go to his characters or to things that he said as a stepping off point. And it helps us to frame stories that we’re trying to make sense of, or events that we’re trying to make sense of. Another thing I would say is that there are a lot of people in Shakespeare who you and I would not want to be. In particular I think a character like King Lear is someone who is exposed to incredible suffering. And it’s suffering that he inflicts on himself, but most importantly he ends up realizing that it is something that he did to himself. And it’s that kind of self knowledge that is so crucial to Shakespearean tragedy which I think is missing in the things that Murdoch has said at least in public about what’s happened.
Mullins: All right, just when you though you’ve heard everything you could possible hear about what’s going on with the Murdoch empire. Michael Witmore, thank you very much.
Witmore: Thank you very much.
Mullins: Michael Witmore directs the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.
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