Roar Culture Editor Alex Blank reviews Ian Burrows’s forthcoming book, Shakespeare for Snowflakes.
In 2016, Ian Burrows, a lecturer of English Literature in Cambridge University, has introduced trigger warnings in his course on slapsticks bodies and tragedy, which tackles such sensitive topics as sexual assault. The warnings generated plenty of backlash in the media, while portraying the students as separated from real life and unprepared for its hardships. In his upcoming book, Shakespeare for Snowflakes, Burrows argues against those critics, while at the same time reflecting upon the way bodies and human beings are treated as the line between comedy and violence becomes blurred.
Slapstick is a style of humour which revolves around exaggerated physicality and often uses violence in order to generate a comedic effect. Burrows’s book is half scholarly essay on the treatment of those bodies in theatre and reality alike, and half response to the simplistic and inhumane treatment of the ‘snowflake’ generation, with regard to the numerous articles against the course’s trigger warnings.
At times, the book steers a bit too far towards defense against multiple articles criticising the professor’s decision to ‘snowflake’ the course. As a result, the numerous good points of the work may get lost along the way, as it becomes preoccupied with its own raison d’être. Nonetheless, there is a plethora of insightful ideas to be found in the book, making one reflect on the nature of the way we control and/or dehumanise each other through the use of (parodies of) violence and a focus on embodiment.
Burrows situates violence and comedy together, as they’re bound by the nature of slapstick. In the ‘Falling’ chapter, he uses the – both real and fictional – instances of falling and numerous reactions to it. Falling is something that reminds us of our own embodiment, as well as our subjection to gravity. Whether we’re an actor on stage or Michael Gove (whose real-life fall is an example used in the book), we cannot escape that. The mentions of YouTube comments under the video of Gove falling prove how uncomfortable we are with our embodiment; so uncomfortable, in fact, that we succumb to mockery and cruelty, as some commentators did, to possibly hide our own sense of discomfort and unease by treating the fallen body as an other, not as someone/something akin to ourselves.
By othering the bodies, as Burrows states, we force them into an ‘aesthetic framework,’ which may become an act of oppression. The reality is, we have no control over our bodies. However, as we sit back and watch someone on stage lose control, our laughter at it gives us a sense of power; if not over our own bodies, then at least over someone else’s flesh. It is both alienating – as the body on stage becomes othered, and connecting – as the laughter reverberates all over the room (and our bodies) when the audience laughs in unison. As weakness becomes comedy, the laughter over it becomes power.
No matter how amusing and escapist this may sound in theory, treating certain bodies as alien can be dangerous. Our behaviours as an audience affect our behaviours as human beings, which Burrows consistently refers to by showing us real-life YouTube comments throughout the book. In the ‘No Two Alike’ chapter, he introduces the concept of interchangeable personhood, which is often depicted through using doubles, doppelgängers, mirrors of each other. He points out that if two characters are too alike, we don’t have to care about what happens to them as individuals.
Similarly, the snowflakes mentioned in the articles against trigger warnings also appear interchangeable, and are often considered privileged, infantile and weak. As a result, a student who walks out of the lecture theatre due to the personal nature of its content loses all individualism, and instead becomes nothing but a snowflake – a signifier that, when ascribed to a human being, deems one not unique but anonymous.
Besides considering bodies as alien, uncontrollable and dehumanising, the author swiftly introduces treating body as a text. Although it’s a minor part of the book, I believe it encapsulates the inherent paradox of othering a body on stage. On the one hand, it becomes a prop, while on the other it can also be a symbol, ‘a site for abstract analysis, comparison and discussion,’ and thus an alive and invaluable aspect of it. At the end, it is the audience’s choice how they want to treat the bodies they see, either in real life or on stage, but it seems as if every lens through which we look is a double-edged sword. Is that where slapstick’s allure lies in – in its equivocal nature?
As one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes goes: ‘All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.’ In the ‘Thaw’ chapter, Burrows compares violent plays to rewind therapy, which forces trauma sufferers to look at what had happened to them from the perspective of an outside observer. Maybe that’s what slapstick can actually teach us: to help distance ourselves from our problems and traumas, even to a small extent? Maybe if we ‘dehumanise’ ourselves on our own terms first, we can disable others from doing so? If we become both the actors and the audience, even us and them become mirrors of each other, after all.
Shakespeare for Snowflakes by Ian Burrows is available to pre-order here.