During my time in pursuit of a MA in English, I produced a lengthy study of the relationship between Star Trek: The Original Series, fan fiction produced as a result of TOS, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. As part of my preparation for this paper I read all of the academic work concerning Trek that I could find (a much simpler proposition then than now), and came across Dr. Mark Houlahan's "Cosmic Hamlets?" during that research. Dr. Houlahan's interpretation of the use of Shakespeare in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, briefly described below, left me feeling that he had overlooked an important alternative, one that needed exploration. The result is contained in the following paper. —DG
At first blush, it would seem that Shakespeare and Star Trek are not destined to be two great tastes that taste great together. After all, the former is the epitome of high culture, while the latter is one of the most recognized examples of popular culture, and these two brands of entertainment have tended to attract quite different audiences. Nonetheless, Trek producers have successfully mined the Bard's material for everything from titles to characters to plots. One of the most interesting uses of Shakespeare in Star Trek occurs in the sixth Trek film, The Undiscovered Country, which presents a highly problematic view of Shakespeare vis-a-vis his relation to two cultures, those of the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire, a Shakespeare who can be simultaneously said to be supporting and opposing a colonialist impulse.
One early scene forms a nucleus around which the interpretation of the film's use of Shakespeare can revolve. In this scene, the Enterprise crew has been sent to meet a Klingon warship carrying a peace delegation from the Klingon Empire. A party of Klingons is transported aboard for a state dinner. Chancellor Gorkon, the leader of the Klingon group, begins the dinner with a line from Hamlet: "I offer a toast: 'the undiscovered country.'" When the Star Fleet personnel appear perplexed, he clarifies his intent by adding "The future," and then opines "You've not experienced Shakespeare until you've read him in the original Klingon."
This line will usually elicit a chuckle or two whenever the film is shown, especially if there are English majors in the audience. As postmodernly humorous as the concept of Shakespeare writing his works in the Klingon language may be, it raises a serious question: "Why do the Klingons feel it necessary to adopt Federation (read, as we will later see, American) high culture?"
One possible response is to claim that the Klingons are honoring their Federation hosts by having taken the time to learn Shakespeare well enough to be able to meaningfully quote him; in this model, the comment that Shakespeare is best "in the original Klingon" could be taken as a joke, a good-natured jibe and gesture of good will which, not surprisingly, only the Klingons find funny.
If this was the case, however, it seems odd that all the Klingons present would understand Shakespeare. Some are surely support staff. Brigadier Kerla, for instance, appears to be a Chief-of-Staff for Chancellor Gorkon. As a representative of his state, Gorkon might certainly expend the energy to learn Shakespeare as a courtesy to his hosts, as might Chang, as a high-ranking military leader, and representative of a people who value their military. But it seems questionable that Kerla would make the same effort, and almost unimaginable that the two unnamed Klingons, who appear to be an honor guard for Gorkon, would be at all concerned with such a gesture. Yet, when Chang quotes Hamlet in Klingon ("TaQ Pagh, TaQ vay'"), all the Klingons laugh, indicating, in the context of the scene, that they understand the quote, its source, and the inherent humor in quoting Shakespeare to Star Fleet personnel in Klingonese. Knowledge of Shakespeare appears to be universal, at least among the Klingons depicted.
Another possible alternative to explain why the Klingons exhibit such interest in Shakespeare, especially when one considers the pervasive militarism of the Klingon society, is to posit that Klingons have no "culture" of their own. All societies have culture, of course, but one could speculate that the Klingons have placed such an emphasis on the art of war as to virtually eliminate interest in and expression of other arts.
This flies in the face of established diegetic facts, however. The richness of Klingon culture is shown repeatedly in The Next Generation; Worf sings selections from Klingon opera in "Unification II," and takes his son Alexander to see Klingon street performers enacting the story of Kahless and his brother Molor in "Firstborn," and prominently displays a sculpture of Kahless in his quarters. "The Icarus Factor" familiarizes the audience with a Klingon coming-of-age ritual.
With such a cultural heritage, why must the Klingons turn to the Federation, to "America's Shakespeare"? If the answer is not diegetic, it must, if it exists, be extradiegetic, existing outside the world of the story, in the world of the audience.
Star Trek is, clearly, aimed at a 20th century American audience. Episodes of the Original Series commonly dealt with concerns of its day; "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" tackled racism, for instance, while "The Omega Glory," "Day of the Dove" and "A Private Little War" all commented on the Vietnam conflict, and "The Turnabout Intruder" considered the issue of women's rights. The Next Generation addressed corresponding concerns for its time, with "The Outcast" attempting to tackle gay rights issues, and "The Hunted" commenting not on the Vietnam conflict, but the effects of that conflict on its veterans. Trek, for all its futuristic setting, is clearly grounded in the here and now.
And in the here and now, we "view every expression of interest in Shakespeare, both amateur and professional...as an unambiguous sign of cultural advancement" (Bristol 1). For the success of the film's narrative, the audience must accept the Klingons as their equals, as beings capable of enlightened and sublime thought. One of the most convenient shorthand methods of accomplishing this feat is to give them knowledge of an all but unquestioned canonical author.
In this interpretation, the actions of the United Federation of Planets could be viewed as amounting to cultural colonization (although one might argue that the Klingons themselves initiate said colonization). Other details in the scene support this hypothesis: the Klingons struggle with table manners, including the use of napkins and eating utensils; Uhura betrays a squeamish reaction when she sees Kerla eating with his hands (significantly, this occurs just as she asks him if he is "fond of Shakespeare," the question serving to heighten a sense of distance between the two cultures that could be seen as unbridgeable); Chekov commits a faux pas by commenting that the Federation supports "inalienable human rights" to a party composed of at least fifty percent non-humans. Azetbur, Gorkon's daughter, calls him immediately on his mistake, referring to the Federation as a "homo sapiens-only club." Kerla cuts to the heart of the matter with "We know where this is leading—the annihilation of our culture." Perhaps the ultimate support for this theory is that, of the Klingons present at the dinner scene, those who quote Shakespeare die; it seems we cannot have savages who can barely wield a fork appropriating our most revered poet.
It is this colonial impulse that Mark Houlahan attempts to document: "Shakespeare is indeed a form of cultural capital," he says, and then notes especially the use of Hamlet, commenting that this work, in this context, "is still the most desired commodity that capital produces" (34). Houlahan's remarks reinforce the importance placed on Shakespeare in the U.S., and extrapolate that same importance to the future Federation. In effect, Houlahan argues that the Klingons are allowing the Federation to foist its culture on the Empire, passively accepting it as superior.
However, still another unexplored, diegetically-based interpretation exists. Gorkon's comment could be read as an indication that the Klingon culture's relationship with Shakespeare bears some similarities to that of the early Americans.
The first documented performance of Shakespeare in the New World occurred in 1750. Thereafter, Shakespeare's plays were staged regularly and often, except during the war effort of the Revolution (Levine 16). In Philadelphia, 21 out of 35 of Shakespeare's plays were staged between 1800 and 1835 (17); similarly, between 1814 and 1861 two Mississippi towns hosted at least 150 Shakespeare performances (18).
Shakespeare's American popularity was broader than late 20th century attendance and stereotypes might suggest. "[C]oopers, printers, butchers, carpenters, servants, sailmakers, machinists, clerks, masons, bakers, plumbers [and] laborers" were counted in attendance of a performance of Shakespeare in 1849 (65), a strong indication that the works were as popular with the working class as with the upper class.
More importantly, Shakespeare came to be considered as an "American" writer. "When Cassius proclaimed that 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings'...and when Helena asserted that 'Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky / Gives us free scope'...they articulated a belief that was central to the pervasive success ethos of the nineteenth century and that confirmed the developing American worldview" (40). In the Introduction to his Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare, Bristol takes this line of reasoning to its ultimate conclusion: "Shakespeare is an American institution" (1). Shakespeare, it seemed, could be (re)interpreted as being in support of the "American Way." American support of Shakespeare was vehement. In the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans, a mural depicted Shakespeare surrounded by a halo and being "borne aloft on the wings of an American eagle." A noted American lecturer on Shakespeare referred to him as "'the prodigy of our race,'" an interesting appellation to apply to a writer who never set foot in the New World (23). Calls for the actors to break into patriotic songs such as "Yankee Doodle" during a performance were common (25-26).
The high point (or low point, depending on one's perspective) of this trend came in 1849 at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. Two actors, Englishman William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest, appeared in competing versions of MacBeth. Macready was widely regarded as being a supporter of British aristocracy, and had gone on record as making unfortunately condescending remarks about the tastes of American audiences, while Forrest was a vocal supporter of America and so-called American values. It was these perceived attitudes on the parts of both actors that lead to a violent confrontation.
During one performance at the opera house, Macready was booed and hissed from the stage; during a subsequent staging, violence broke out around the theatre, and the militia was called in to restore order. Several people died during the resulting brawl when militiamen fired into the crowd to enforce order (63-69).
The political and cultural importance of this altercation can be gleaned from the text of two posters used to foment rebellion against Macready's performance: "Workingmen, Shall Americans or English rule in this city?" cries one, warning that the crew of a British vessel currently in port had "threatened all Americans who shall dare express their opinion." The other cautions "Americans! Arouse! The Great Crisis has come!! Decide now whether English Aristocrats!!! and Foreign Rule! shall triumph in this, America's Metropolis," and reminds the reader that his ancestors had "once compelled the base-born miscreants to succumb," further entreating him to not allow himself "to be deprived of the liberty of opinion—so dear to every true American heart" (Nokes Appendix A).
Chancellor Gorkon's statement as to the language used for Shakespeare's original composition can be seen as a future iteration of this same impulse. Early Americans were able to interpret the Bard in such a manner as to make his works symbols of American democracy and individuality, the desire to overthrow unfair rule and expand the fledgling nation. It has been said by those who favor the canon that the core of Shakespeare's seeming timelessness lies in his ability to be all things to all people, to be reinterpreted as necessary for the times, and it is certain that the Klingons could find just as much material in support of their cultural values. Hamlet, for instance, would appeal to their cultural desire for honor and revenge, while the political machinations of MacBeth give voice to the political discord surrounding succession of power seen in The Next Generation episodes "Sins of the Father," "Redemption" and "Redemption II." Othello carries the day initially because he is able to draw on the value to the state of his military prowess. The Taming of the Shrew echoes Worf's comments in "The Dauphin" that Klingon mating rituals involve the female of the species howling and hurling heavy objects. It seems that if Shakespeare was not a Klingon, perhaps he should have been.
This explains several seeming inconsistencies in the dinner scene. When Gorkon cites "The undiscovered country" as his toast, he seemingly misinterprets the line. Hamlet, despondent over his own inability to pierce Claudius' veil of innocence, is speaking of death in general and suicide in particular, of "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" and "shuffling off this mortal coil" (3.1.79-84). Gorkon, on the other hand, explains "The undiscovered country" as a reference to the future. It's unlikely that a learned individual such as Gorkon appears to be would be unaware of the human interpretation of the line. Far more likely, however, is that he has reinterpreted the line to suit his needs and the needs of his culture. A Klingon warrior sees death in the service of the Empire as the ultimate positive termination of his or her life; in such a worldview, "death" is, at least hopefully, "the future." Furthermore, Gorkon is playing word games with the toast, using a human translation of the Klingon interpretation to bring a note of hope to the proceedings.
Similarly, when the Klingons are departing the Enterprise, General Chang quotes Romeo and Juliet to Kirk, oddly citing one of the more romantic lines, "Parting is such sweet sorrow" (2.2.211). This scene and quote become more comprehensible in light of the fact, later learned, that Chang is part of a conspiracy to end the peace initiative, and that he is longing to face the legendary Kirk in battle. With this information, Chang's line can be seen as not misinterpretation, but rather as a taunt, using the understood romance of the quoted moment to tease Kirk's infamous hypermasculinity, and perhaps even to provoke an immediate violent reaction.
It is all but impossible to consider Shakespeare, or any art form or work, as divorced from culture. If as Dasenbrock states, we write the texts that we read (238), then it comes as no surprise that the early Americans "created" a Shakespeare somewhat different from that of the Elizabethans. It should also, then, come as no surprise that a culture as different from our own as that of the Klingons, who could be viewed as an amalgam of Soviet Russian, Japanese Samurai and Tibetan Buddhist cultures, should create a Shakespeare to fill their needs, and that he should differ radically from "America's Shakespeare."