In Days Like This, Where Art Thou, Shakespeare?

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Over the last decade we have perfected a form of news that might be called Shakespearean tabloid. We live in a golden age of the genre.

The greatest classic of Shakespearean tabloid in our time was the O.J. Simpson case, which had everything (grisly murder, fame, sex, race and more, all played out before an audience of billions from Judge Lance Ito's courtroom).

Since the first days of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Clarence Thomas (another courtroom-type setting, with power, sex, race and gender conflict acted out before a hilarious cast of U.S. Senators), American news audiences have witnessed an extraordinary procession of such dramas. The death of Princess Diana (death, youth, beauty, sex, royalty, etc., with the media themselves playing a villainous role in the form of the paparazzi) offered Shakespearean tabloid that seemed unsurpassable until... John Kennedy Jr. fell from the sky with his wife and sister-in-law, a tragedy (death, youth, beauty, royalty of the American kind) compounded by its heartbreaking blood tie to the ur-tab story of the century — the assassination of John's father in Dallas in 1963.

The Elian Gonzalez story — a heartbreaking business in a different way, a Solomonic dilemma with high cultural flavoring and an added dimension of exiles vs. the old Stalinist dictator — turns out to have legs. Whether it will be one of the classics of our time remains to be seen.

This is an unpleasantly cynical way to write about ordeals that, for the people involved, are harshly painful and, well, real. But the very authenticity of the original tragedy is, by definition, bankable, and attracts to itself the gaudy luminescence of media spectacle. The three-ring circus comes to town. Bardic electronics record it all, and 24 hours a day, the footage plays, and commentators dramatize, colorize and moralize the pain.

Shakespeare might have felt himself inadequate to do justice to some of this. The Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton story (great power brought almost to ruin by sleazy sex, with a blue dress playing its decisive part, like Desdemona's handkerchief) unfolded in the manner of great Shakespearean tabloid — constantly topping itself.

Columbine High School was the nightmare classic of what is becoming an American subgenre, the school shooting. Columbine did not have sex or fame or power, but instead offered the familiar dynamic of impotence with a satanic overlay: a disturbed desire to achieve fame and power by committing powerful outrage. Oklahoma City had some of that hideous aspect.

Events of history have come to participate in the Shakespearean tabloid form. What was more indelible than the night the Gulf War started, live on television from Baghdad? That war, a peculiarly compact production as wars go, had Christiane Amanpour and Arthur Kent, the "Scud Stud," to dress up professional journalism in a lightly sexual glamour.

Where did it start? Long ago, in the Pleistocene of the media, there was the Lindbergh kidnapping, a tragedy with relentless media legs that drove Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh out of America and, ever since, has provided sound argument for anyone who wishes to prove that journalists are animals.

The modern era of history as tabloid began in the '60s; almost the entire decade, in fact, was Shakespearean tabloid — especially the year 1968, which started with the Tet offensive, moved on through Martin Luther King's assassination, nationwide racial uprisings, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and the photogenic Walpurgisnacht of the Chicago Democratic convention.

You can identify classic Shakespearean tab by the way that it becomes an obsession of both audience and media , and uses up all the available oxygen. In this golden age, the god of news seems to have become providential, and has, for some time now, been providing big sagas with a disturbing regularity.