Shakespeare has a habit of popping up regularly – often in the most unexpected places, and it has recently become ever more apparent to me just how often he’s name-checked and his work is alluded to particularly in TV shows (though of course he’s managed to successfully penetrate almost every sector, quite impressive for a guy who turns 451 this year). Take last Tuesday’s episode of The Middle (which I’d put on while taking a dinner break, I’m telling you there’s no escape), for those who don’t know it – and I’m not an avid watcher in fact the only reason I was watching it was because Friends (which preceded it) had not lasted the duration of my dinner – it centres around a family with three kids and sort of like Meet the Parents style everything that could go wrong undoubtedly does. The trailer for the last season should give you a rough idea.
The kids are all quirky in their own way, first up there’s Axl who is currently at college, though living at home for the most part, disinterested in academic study but into TV and sport (he based a paper he wrote this episode on Pearl Harbour because he’d rather be taught by Ben Afleck than books from the library – his words not mine). Then there’s the middle one, Sue who is uber enthusiastic and is currently trying to raise money for her college fund, she’s certainly not gifted in the sports department and frequently causes disaster in gym class. The youngest of the bunch, Brick he’s awkward, shy, and a lover of books (an academic in training perhaps..).
But although Brick probably name checks more books and authors than anyone else in the series (like A Tale of Two Cities this Tuesday), this episode things were all in reverse and it was Axl who was to be found at the library that evening, whereas Brick was with a girl.
Axl was in the library finishing the paper (you know the Pearl Harbour related one) dispatched by his parents in the hope he’d get something done. But having finished the paper and a celebratory dance, he realised the library is empty and closed, he’s locked in.
Happy to rise to the challenge he embraces his skill of being able to sleep anywhere but he is shocked as he lays down and the lights come on downstairs. Following this chain of events he has a heart to heart with a bust of Shakespeare. Only he doesn’t know it’s Shakespeare – in fact much of the humour of the scene derives from this as the (broadly speaking) knowledge audience aware to whom he is addressing his speech laughs at his ignorance. It’s the kind of dramatic irony maybe even Shakespeare would’ve been proud of – or at least the kind he likes to use with his lower comedy characters in a wide number of his plays, especially given his love of misunderstandings, I’m looking at you Malvolio & Co.
Axl mistakes Shakespeare for being a feather salesmen (presumably a famous one) – in his defence Shakespeare was holding a quill as all good busts of him do. Better yet he nicknames Shakespeare LeBron. Obviously. Who, a quick Google search tells me, is a basketball player who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA – very similar to Shakespeare no doubt.
But made to face his fear (of being alone in the library away from his family) Axl ends up having a heart to heart with Shakespeare (or rather a marble version of Shakespeare) which looked something like this (only in white):
He tells Shakespeare how he’s scared about the future and unsure what to do with a business degree and all about his hopes and worries. Touching though this may be (Axl is after all a character who rarely opens up) I began to wonder what the significance of using Shakespeare was. Now it may be that the Show was merely imagining who the most likely suspect for a bust would be in a library, and yes Shakespeare is certainly up there, but perhaps there’s another dimension.
Shakespeare not only draws characters together giving them chance to have conversations and opportunities made possible only by the fictional platform on which the dramas are staged, but characters are brought to positions of extremity to reveal their true nature and tested and tried in the flames of the fiery fiction which Shakespeare kindles for us. But more than this it allows us, perhaps subconsciously to connect and feel with the character, situations we may never find ourselves in which experience with sometimes cathartic reactions in the plays. Perhaps, in some respects the confession of Axl to Shakespeare (who in this instance almost functions like the Catholic priest would in real confession, listening quietly and patiently, yes Shakespeare is in some senses figures as a mute secular god) gives a nod to this connection between the imagined world and the world of reality, the realm of the theatre and the way that shapes and reflects everyday life. Although with the plays the roles are of course reversed with the audience watching mute (mainly) and the actors, which are here represented by Shakespeare are those who talk freely – although not always – about their feelings, aspirations and so on.
I suppose what I’m really saying is, this nod to Shakespeare in a sitcom which does reference books elsewhere is less random than it may seem at first glance. Of course with sets and props nothing is left to mere chance. But I wonder what difference would it make if they’d picked another literary figure, say Fitzgerald? Why does Axl talk to Shakespeare? And what would you do if you were stuck in The Middle with Shakespeare? Perhaps this instance of Shakespeare throws up more questions than answers but it’s interesting to track the appearances of Shakespeare even popping up in The Middle of a sitcom college confession scene.