Sampling: A Transformative Fair Use Argument

© 2012

“The general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions – knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions and ideas – become after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use.”[1]


Digital sampling is the process of manipulating pre-existing sound recordings and incorporating them within one’s own music.[2] This creative process, and its current standing within the United States legal system, highlights the shortcomings of the courts in relation to musical copyrights. This practice should be flourishing due to the cultural and technological revolution that began with the advent of the computer, and yet sampling is being repressed by rights holders—who, more often than not, are not the authors of the protected works—in the courts. Under the current United States legislation and precedent, samplers are akin to thieves as opposed to authors of creative work.

This paper shall focus not only upon the current state of digital sampling within the United States, but also attempt to create an argument in favor of rendering such practice applicable under the Fair Use doctrine. While digital sampling is certainly not an issue exclusive to the US, this paper shall feature this country as its primary focus due to the majority of commercial music being covered under US law.[3] The primary cause of this is the institution and upholding of a primarily copyright holder-favored system that has not yet adapted itself to the more auteur-favored system of the foreign market.[4] In order to accomplish this, this paper shall illustrate the systemic problems that affect musical copyrights—especially in regards to digital sampling—as well as suggest a new “fair use” approach, or structure, towards sampling that would better serve artists, rights holders, and the listening public.

Part I shall delve into the origins of copyright as well as its later relationship to musical works. The purpose of this examination is not only to build a foundation of understanding of past precedent and opinion, but to illuminate the maturation from origin of copyright to current views and case law. Part II shall present a brief history of “sampling”—sometimes referred to within as “borrowing” or “quotation”[5]—and establish that, as a desire to borrow and manipulate existent music, digital sampling is rooted deep within the nation’s cultural and legal history.

Part III shall examine the contradictory history of the case law surrounding digital sampling through the eyes of one particular litigation: Bridgeport Music, Inc. v Dimension Films.[6] In reviewing what could be called digital sampling’s most famous litigation—and the one that seemed to seal its coffin–this paper shall attempt to best illuminate not only the contentious nature of the subject, but how the courts system favors rights holders over the artists involved. Finally, Part IV shall take all the above-reviewed information and apply it within a proposal based primarily in the standards of the Fair Use Doctrine—one that favors the artist and the sampler over the rights holder. In effect, the end result of this proposal would align musical works rights more closely with the droit d’auteur theory of the international marketplace than the current US system.


Federal copyright finds its legal inception in English law. During the 18th century, Parliament sought to break up the publishing monopoly[7] that the crown held over British printing presses by enacting the Statute of Anne, written as “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.”[8] This landmark 1710 legislation granted authors copyright in their creative work as well as the exclusive right to publish it—the main point of contention from previous law in relation to the crown’s monopoly. Anne also abridged the copyright term for works to fourteen years from the originally prescribed perpetuity.[9]

Following the enacting of Anne, booksellers turned to the courts in order to secure a “natural right”[10] to copyright under common law. Millar v. Taylor (1769) granted booksellers this right, finding that the Statute of Anne in no way extinguished the common law rights of the public and, thus, no amount of time would cause a copyrighted work to pass into the public domain.[11] Ultimately, the issue was resolved and the notion of a finite term of copyright affirmed under English law in Donaldson v. Beckett.[12] In this 1774 case, the House of Lords eventually came to the conclusion that copyright was a statutory right rather than a natural and perpetual one.[13]

Like the members of Parliament, several of the framers of the United States constitution looked on monopolies with general abhorrence[14]—although, they did find temporary monopolies necessary as way for ideas to spread freely. [15] Thus, Congress—then and now—has decided itself responsible for “defining the scope of [its] limited monopoly”[16] for the purpose of incentivizing present and future artistic developments.[17] Thus, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the Copyright Clause in the United States Constitution. While this act applied exclusively to books, maps, and charts, it did specifically outlined the granting of copyright and patents as serving a strictly utilitarian function of Congress “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”[18] and for a limited period of time. After the minimal clause within the Constitution, the first federal copyright act was not passed until the Copyright Act of 1790—this document granted copyright for a term of “fourteen years from the time of recording the title thereof,”[19] with a right of renewal for another fourteen years if the author survived to the end of the first term. Modeled heavily after its English predecessor, the Statute of Anne,[20] this act covered not only books, but also maps and charts.[21]

Musical works were first recognized—or, at least, codified—federally as protectable copyrighted material with the passage of the Copyright Act of 1909.[22] The first update to copyright law since 1790, this document provided federal statutory copyright protection to original works as long as the works were both published and had an affixed notice of copyright.[23] Most notably, especially in relation to musical works, the 1909 Act created the first compulsory mechanical license to allow anyone to make a “mechanical reproduction”[24] of a musical composition without the consent of the copyright owner provided that the person adhered to the provisions of the license.[25]

This early US legislation, like the English legislation, was intended to be designed for the benefit of the public,[26] yet, inevitably, still favored an economic angle towards copyright.[27] The Copyright Act of 1976 effectively shut out any possibility of the permeation of auteur theory and displaced any and all previous copyright laws in the United States.[28]

Unlike the 1909 Act, the 1976 Act attached federal statutory copyright protection to original works whether or not they contained a notice of copyright or not.[29] In addition, the Act expanded its definition of musical works, in what it dubbed “works of authorship”,[30] to include any accompanying words, as well as include sound recordings.[31] In addition, the Copyright Act clearly spelled out the five exclusive rights available to copyright holders, including those for musical works and sound recordings:

  1. the right to reproduce (copy) the work into copies and phonorecords,
  2. the right to create derivative works of the original work,
  3. the right to distribute copies and phonorecords of the work to the public by sale, lease, or rental,
  4. the right to perform the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pantomime, motion picture, or other audiovisual work), and
  5. the right to display the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pantomime, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, motion picture, or other audiovisual work).[32]

In 1995, the Act was also amended to include the right to perform a sound recording by means of digital audio.

One of the most important aspects of the 1976 Copyright Act, especially for the purposes of this paper, was the codification of Fair Use doctrine[33]. This doctrine, based in common law, deals with the possibility that a copyrighted work is not copyright infringement, even if the use in question technically violates copyright law.[34] Furthermore, while fair use applies explicitly to comment, criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research purposes,[35] the defense has not been limited to these areas in court.

In determining whether or not a particular use of copyrighted material is fair use, as opposed to infringement, the doctrine delineates four primary factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.[36]

All four of these factors must be considered when determining whether or not a particular use is fair use. The Act was later amended to extend the fair use defense to unpublished works.[37]

Finally, the Sound Recording Act of 1971 was the first document to offer federal protection to sound recordings.[38] Dealing specifically with the advances in duplication technology that had the potential to induce phonorecord piracy, this act granted reproduction, distribution, and adaptation rights to sound recordings.[39] Exclusive performance rights were granted to sound recordings in 1995 with the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act.[40]


Sampling has a long history, especially when stripped down to the basic concept of “borrowing” musical content. The Medieval period of classical music[41] was marked by the church’s own utilization of existing songs, melodies and text, in order to pay tribute to or compete with said works.[42] This continued even on through the Romantic Age[43] with even such lauded composers as Beethoven manipulating past styles in order to create something that was considered new and innovative against its original.[44]

Continuing on through the 20th century, sampling appears again in the musique concrete[45] movement of 1940s-50s Paris. Here, the movement became particularly known for its use of analog tape machines to not only cut and loop pre-recorded sounds, but apply various manipulations such as changes in tempo and pitch.[46] Perhaps one of the more well-known examples of sampling comes in the form of disc jockeying, colloquially called DJ’ing. Tracing its roots to 1960s Jamaica, disc jockeyers—called, DJs—would perform with a variety of tools including mixers, turntables, and microphones.[47] Its particular prevalence in the hip hop movement that began in the mid-1970s made DJ’ing an even more ever-present force, where the mixers could be used to manipulate the physical records in order to create desired “breaks” in the music.[48] It was these “breaks” and “riffs, solos, traps, and thousands of other snippets of sound”[49] that DJs collected to create their record crates.

Finally, in the modern landscape of the 21st century, as sampling became more and more digital, the greatest influence upon the world of sampling was the creation of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface—or MIDI—synthesizer.[50] Not only did this software push the realm of digital sampling further, but it made the process significantly simpler, allowing for a single person to alter a track—change pitch or tempo—themselves, as opposed to “ten machines with people holding pencils on the loops—some only inches long and some a yard  long.”[51]


With a history and musical history and tradition as rich as sampling—also called “quotation” or “borrowing”—it could be argued that the art of digitally reproducing and manipulating previously existing sounds and melodies is nothing more than an advance in the realm of musical creation. The courts of the United States would not very likely agree. The main problem with the licensing regime that currently exists in the United States is that the particular federal documents, namely the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Sound Recording Act, were not written with the intent of addressing sampling. Again, this is puzzling given sampling’s long-standing history as a part of musical composition. Nevertheless, if one were to follow the exact laws espoused by the aforementioned acts, any person seeking to sample even a mere three-note guitar riff[52] from a song, would need a “master use” license and a “synchronization” license.[53] It is in the event that one does not acquire the aforementioned licenses that there arises multiple cases of litigation involving the practice of digital sampling—and the courts have remained, ultimately, mixed.

Of the multiple cases that have arisen dealing with digital sampling, this paper shall focus specifically upon one piece of litigation: Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films.[54] The significance of this case comes from the final decision reached by the courts and features what could be aptly described as a case of “a ‘good guy’ copyright owner [against] a ‘bad guy’ (‘pirate’) copyist.”[55]

In the final decision of Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films,[56] the courts chose the economic system of collecting royalties on copyright over the free flow and availability of various creative products and ideas. Prior to this case, the federal courts had conducted a de minimis analysis[57] as way of determining whether or not sampling amounted to actionable infringement.[58]

The litigation in Bridgeport was brought about as a result of three-note, four-second guitar riff featured in the song “100 Miles and Runnin’” by Niggaz Wit Attitudes (N.W.A.) on the soundtrack to the film I Got the Hook Up. Bridgeport Music, Inc. brought suit against the distributors of the film and its soundtrack, Dimension Films, claiming that infringing section of “100 Miles and Runnin’”—henceforth referred to as “100 Miles”—was sampled from the 1975 song “Get Off Your Ass and Jam”—henceforth referred to as “Jam”—by Funkadelic.[59] Dimension Films assumed an affirmative defense, claiming that, while “100 Miles” did make use of a sample from “Jam”, the sample was not protected because it was a) not original and, b) the sample in question was de minimis, and, thus, did not constitute infringement.[60]

While the court did dismiss all claims arising from infringement of the musical composition,[61] the primary issue was the use of the sampled sound recording. Despite the fact that the district court stressed the importance of balancing the interests and rights of whom copyright law protects with the potential of stifling creativity that is caused by “overly rigid enforcement of copyright laws,”[62] the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court ultimately found Dimension Films guilty of copyright infringement.[63]

This ruling by the Sixth Circuit became a landmark ruling due to its interpretation of the 1976 Act: that any use of a copyright sound recording in sampling without proper authorization was strictly prohibited,[64] thus setting a standard for an anti-sampler courtroom. As a result of this ruling, the courts stripped away a sampler’s ability to make use of a de minimis defense,[65] establishing a “get a license or don’t sample” policy.[66] In the courts own words, “a sound recording owner has the exclusive right to ‘sample’ his own recording.”[67]

Despite this setback for digital sampling, the decision reached in the Bridgeport case has potentially left open the possibility of a fair use defense.[68]


Thus, it is here that this paper shall detail out its own proposition for a potential and limited fair use harbor, of sorts, for instances in which digital samples are affirmed to have been used without license from the original sound recording’s copyright owner.

As stated within Section I of this paper, the Fair Use Doctrine[69] of the Copyright Act of 1976 provides an exception to established copyright law for a nonexclusive list of purposes that are deemed what it calls ‘fair use’: “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.”[70] The ultimate question is: how does sampling fit within this list, if at all? That would, in the end, depend upon the nature of the sampling itself.

While it is true that, in the past precedent in the context of sampling, courts have seldom granted a fair use defense, it can be argued that the transformative nature of sampling—of re-harnessing and re-tooling a preexisting sound or melody to the point that it could be indistinguishable from its source—is its own form of comment, perhaps even criticism, upon a sample’s derivative work.[71] By taking, as with Bridgeport, a three-note guitar riff and completely repurposing it from its original intent and making it almost indistinguishable from its origins, the sampler has made a statement, or a comment: that the transmutability of the musical medium, especially within the digital realm, offers a seemingly endless number of possibilities for even one melody—in effect, that music is utterly ephemeral and manipulatable.

As stated in Part II, it was frequent practice in the past for composers to simply create variations on preexisting themes—so does every little change therefore constitute transformative fair use? This is where the concept can become rather gray because, yes, there should be imposed limits upon what is or is not considered transformative in relation to sampling. This proposal for a transformative fair use argument has two possible scenarios for which it would apply: to either a) a sample that has been quantitatively or qualitatively altered to the point that a casual listener cannot recognize its source[72] or b) a sample that has been sufficiently transformed to the point that, while a casual listener may have the potential to recognize the original work, the originality of the piece in which the sample exists has superseded its origin and created something as a derivative[73] that is, thus, wholly original unto itself.

Bridgeport provides perhaps one of the best examples. In that case, the pieces of music in question were two aesthetically different songs: one, a funk-based dance number in which the arpeggiated riff of note was used as a wild, intense introduction to the piece; the other, a rap song in which the pitch-shifted and low-leveled[74] version of the riff is laid under the beat track in order to create the effect of a police siren. While in “Get Off”, the descending notes produced “a rising sense of anticipation” at the beginning of the song, the sample in “100 Miles” had the effect of creating “tension and apprehension at the sound of pursuing law enforcement,” thus resulting in a qualitative—as well as a quantitative—difference.[75]

“100 Miles”’ use of the sample resulted in the creation of something that was original unto itself and, thus, would qualify under the previously set forth requirements for a transformative fair use defense.

In order to be fair, on the contrary side of this proposal, should the use of a sample not be considered “sufficiently transformative” in accordance with the previously stated requirements, then, yes, the current standard of negotiating the ability to use the original sound recording with rights holders would have to apply. Additionally, rights holders would not be barred from launching suit against potential infringers, but the courts would be expected to take this transformative fair use defense into consideration, in addition to the de minimis defense—in effect, they should disregard the outcome of Bridgeport.


Sampling, as a musical practice, dates back to before the days of written copyright law. It demonstrates the seemingly limitless potential for music’s own transmutability. The courts, however, have failed to foster such creativity, flying in the face of all the copyright law stood for: to encourage the creation of creative works. Creativity has been sacrificed on the altar of the income gained from the licenses ascribed to sound recordings, facilitated by the courts, whom have chosen to destroy de minimis and restrict a fair use defense for samplers.

The current practices and views on sampling are archaic and in need of an update. An amendment for some sort of transformative fair use defense for sampling, in addition to reconsideration and reinstitution of the de minimis defense, would allow for the dissemination of more creative ideas, just as the laws intended from their inception

[1] International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215, 250 (1918) (Justice Brandeis, dissenting)

[2] “Digital Sampling: Legal & Law Definition.” (2012) at

[3] Ashtar, Reuven; Note, Theft, Transformation, And The Need of the Immaterial: A Proposal For A Fair Use Digital Sampling Regime, 19 Alb. L.J. Sci. & Tech. 261 (2009)

[4] “No international copyright law exists that will protect a work in every country of the world. However, several key international treaties that the United States has signed protects [sic] works from and within member nations. Cases that could have clarified the international scope of copyright have been settled out of court.” International Copyright Law. (2012) at

[5] “N5. The terminology is inconsistent throughout the literature. Carl A. Falstrom, Note, Thou Shalt Not Steal: Grand Upright Music Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc. and the Future of Digital Sound Sampling in Popular Music, 45 Hastings L.J. 359, 359 n.2 (1994) (stating that “borrowing” is a loaded term with pejorative connotations to theft and piracy). Here, I consider “quotation” the use of compositional elements rather than parts of actual sound recordings, and I use the term “borrowing” for the reuse of recorded sounds, i.e. sampling.” Ashtar, Reuven; Note, Theft, Transformation, And The Need of the Immaterial: A Proposal For A Fair Use Digital Sampling Regime, 19 Alb. L.J. Sci. & Tech. 261 (2009)

[6] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005)

[7] Tyler T. Ochoa & Mark Rose, The Anti-Monopoly Origins of the Patent and Copyright Clause, 49 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 675, 677 (2002), cited in: John Tehranian, Et Tu, Fair Use? The Triumph of Natural-Law Copyright, 38 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 465, 467 (2005)

[8] Statute of Anne, 1710, 8 Ann., c. 19 (Eng.)

[9]There also existed a special clause that allowed for the possibility of a one-term extension for living authors and a 21-year term for works already in print. Ibid

[10] “The unwritten body of universal moral principles that underlie the ethical and legal norms by which human conduct is sometimes evaluated and governed. Natural law is often contrasted with positive law, which consists of the written rules and regulations enacted by government. The term natural law is derived from the Roman term jus naturale.” Natural Law. (2012) at

[11] Millar v. Taylor, 4 Burr. 2303, 98 Eng. Rep. 201 (H.L. 1769)

[12] Donaldson v. Beckett, 98 Eng. Rep. 257 (H.L. 1774)

[13] Ibid

[14] “The saying there shall be no monopolies lessens the incitements to ingenuity, which is spurred on by the hope of a monopoly for a limited time, as of 14. years; but the benefit even of limited monopolies is too doubtful to be opposed to that of their general suppression.” Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (July 31, 1788).  The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Paul Leicester Ford ed., 1904.

[15] “Monoplies tho’ in [sic] certain cases useful ought to be granted with caution, and guarded with strictness agst [sic] abuse. The Constitution of the U. S. has limited them to two cases, the authors of Books, and of useful inventions, in both which they are considered as a compensation for a benefit actually gained to the community as a purchase of property which the owner might otherwise withhold [sic] from public use. There can be no just objection to a temporary monopoly in these cases but it ought to be temporary, because under that limitation a sufficient recompence and encouragement may be given.” Madison, James. An Excerpt from “Detached Memoranda”. available at

[16] Sony Corp. of Am. v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417, 429 (1984)

[17] “‘The copyright law, like the patent statutes, makes reward to the owner a secondary consideration.”United States v. Paramount Pictures, 334 U.S. 131, 158. However, it is “intended definitely to grant valuable, enforceable rights to authors, publishers, etc., without burdensome requirements; ‘to afford greater encouragement to the production of literary [or artistic] works of lasting benefit to the world.’” Washingtonian Co. v. Pearson, 306 U.S. 30, 36.” Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201, 219 (1954)

[18] U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8 (1788)

[19] The Copyright Act of 1790. 1 Stat. 124 (1790)

[20] With exception of the provision for maps and charts, the Copyright Act of 1790 is copied almost verbatim from the Statute of Anne.

[21] The Copyright Act of 1790. 1 Stat. 124 (1790)

[22] The Copyright Act of 1909 §5, 35 Stat. 1075 (1909)

[23] §9, Ibid

[24] This phrase is more commonly referred to as ‘phonorecords’ and refers not only to direct physical copies of the original musical work in question, but also to what are commonly known as ‘cover versions’ of said musical works.

[25] The Copyright Act of 1909 §1(e), 35 Stat. 1075 (1909)

[26] “This is undoubtedly one of the most significant reports in the history of the U.S. copyright legislation and is quoted in American copyright literature and jurisprudence, particularly for its statements to the effect that copyright is purely a statutory right and that it is conferred “Not primarily for the benefit of the author, but primarily for the benefit of the public.”” Copyright Law Revision: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights of the Senate Comm. on the Judiciary, 89th Cong., 1st Sess. 63, 65 (1965) (statement of Abraham L. Kaminstein, Register of Copyrights, accompanied by Barbara Ringer, Assistant Register) (copyright is primarily meant to benefit the “public interest”), reprinted in 8 George S. Grossman, Omnibus Copyright revision Legislative History, at 65 (2001); H.R. Rep. No. 60-2222, at 7 (1909), reprinted in 8 Melville B. Nimmer & David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright, app. at 13-11 (Lexis Nexis 2008)

[27] These demanding of the notices and fixation of copyright in the 1909 Act separated the U.S. from the foreign market. The Berne Convention of 1886 prohibited the requirement of formal notice for copyrighted works, instead stating copyright as automatic (1 B.D.I.E.L. 715)

[28] This included prior federal legislation, such as the Copyright Act of 1909, and extended to all relevant common law and state copyright laws.

[29] Under the 1976 Act, however, section 102 says that copyright protection extends to original works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Thus, the 1976 Act broadened the scope of federal statutory copyright protection from “published” works to works that are “fixed”. The Copyright Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (1976)

[30] Ibid

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] §107 Ibid

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Sound Recording Act of 1971, Pub. L. No. 92-140 (1971)

[39] This protection did not include performance rights. This limited copyright protection was incorporated into the 1976 Copyright Act.

[40] Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act, Pub. L. No. 104-39, 109 Stat. 336 (1995)

[41] Generally accepted as the period between 500–1400. Hoppin, Richard H. (1978) Medieval Music, New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

[42] Brandes, Lauren Fontein; Comment, From Mozart to Hip-Hop: The Impact of Bridgeport v. Dimension Films on Musical Creativity, 14 UCLA Ent. L. Rev. 93, 119 (2007)

[43] Generally accepted as the period between 1815-1910. “Romanticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2012-04-24.

[44] The practice of “looping” music can trace its roots here, where it was conceived before it was technologically feasible in relation to today’s practice. Newton v. Diamond, 204 F. Supp. 2d 1244, 1259 (C.D. Cal. 2002) (Newton), aff’d, 349 F.3d 591 (9th Cir. 2003)

[45] Musique concrete (“concrete music”) is a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource. The aesthetic’s theoretical underpinnings began developing in the early 1940s. Holmes, Thom. Electronic and experimental music: technology, music, and culture, 3 ed. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 04-25-2012.

[46] Francis Preve, Power Tools: Software for Loop Music: Essential Desktop Production Techniques 1-2 (Backbeat Books 2004)

[47] Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture 6 (William Eric Perkins ed., Temple University Press 1996)

[48] Supra note 5.

[49] Ibid

[50] This device allowed musicians to digitally record, alter, and play back sounds. Loy, Gareth. Musicians Make a Standard: The MIDI Phenomenon. 9 Computer Music J. 8, 8 (1985); Michael Chanan, Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music 161 (Verso 1995)

[51] Supra note 45.

[52] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005)

[53] The Copyright Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (1976)

[54] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005)

[55] Ashtar, Reuven; Note, Theft, Transformation, And The Need of the Immaterial: A Proposal For A Fair Use Digital Sampling Regime, 19 Alb. L.J. Sci. & Tech. 261 (2009)

[56] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005)

[57] The de minimis defense in digital sampling cases has been reduced, by the courts, to a single question: “whether the defendant appropriated, either quantitatively or qualitatively, ‘constituent elements of the work that are original.’” Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991), qtd. in Jarvis, 827 F. Supp. at 291

[58] See Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005); Grand Upright Music Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, 780 F. Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1991)

[59] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005)

[60] Ibid

[61] The court determined that the licenses the defendant, Dimension Films, claimed to have received were, indeed, valid. Id.

[62] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 230 F. Supp. 2d 830, 842 (M.D. Tenn. 2002)

[63] Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 6792 (6th Cir. 2005)

[64] Ibid

[65] The court came to the decision that the language of the Copyright Act of 1976 precluded any use of a substantial similarity test in relation to digital samples in sound recordings. Id.

[66] Id.

[67] Id.

[68] Id.

[69] The Copyright Act of 1976 §107, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (1976)

[70] Ibid.

[71] §107 does not provide specific, written instruction as to what defines a work as a “comment” or “criticism”, thus allowing for some degree of malleability with the terms.

[72] Such an instance as this would qualify under de minimis as non-infringing and thus require no license. See Amanda Webber, Note, Digital Sampling and the Legal Implications of Its Use After Bridgeport, 22 St. John’s J. Legal Comment. 373, 395-97 (2007) (citing Grand Upright, 780 F. Supp at 184

[73] “A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.” The Copyright Act of 1976 §101, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (1976)

[74] Pitch-shifting a song either raises or lowers the tone of the notes in question and levels, in recorded music, refer to a piece’s volume.

[75] Bridgeport Music I, 230 F. Supp. 2d at 841.


Descartes’ Meditation III: Examining the Causal Argument for the Existence of God

© 2011

As Descartes closes his Second Meditation, the only thing he is certain of is that he is “a thing that thinks” and also, therefore, exists (Med II, paragraph 8). Now, in the Third Meditation, Descartes hopes to deduce and prove the existence of something greater than himself—in this case, God. In order to do so, Descartes establishes two different arguments for the possible existence of God. In his first attempt, known as the “Causal Argument”, he examines what exactly is necessary for something to be the cause of its own effect; his theories on the origin and conception of ideas are used to try and not only proving that God exists, but that he is the cause of himself. Something in this logic does not sit well with this writer: namely the belief that “no idea is in and of itself truer and has less of a basis for being suspected of falsehood” (Med III, paragraph 25). By stating that an idea cannot be conceived of by any being less than itself, Descartes limits the potential of the human mind and seemingly creates a circle of doubt and questioning; it is this circle which I challenge: the reasoning of the causal argument and the beliefs on conception of ideas can be called into question. First, I shall examine and define the terms which Descartes uses to create the base foundation for the causal argument and, second, I shall attempt to challenge the “Causal Argument” by examining the logic of the Cartesian Circle of Doubt within the definition of ideas.

The main point, or power, of the causal argument lies in Descartes assertion that whatever is contained objectively in an idea must be contained either formally or eminently in the cause of that idea. In layman’s terms: one cannot create the idea or truly conceive of anything that is greater than his or herself. Hence, Descartes states, it perfectly plausible that God must exist by that count as “[man] should not, however, have the idea of an infinite substance, seeing [he is] a finite being, unless it were given [him] by some substance in reality infinite” (III, 23), aka: God. This is the first place in which I am displeased with Descartes argument and assertions.

However, before any of the argument is to be examined, definitions must be made clear, starting with the very title of Meditation III: “Of God, That He Exists.” While Descartes constantly refers to God in most, if not all, of the meditations, he does not specify what exactly he means by the title: could God be no more than a metaphor or symbol of inexplicable phenomenon? Is it just the belief of something and/or anything that is greater than man itself? Whatever one might speculate, it is this title which allows for “God” to be, while not explicitly, at least implicitly defined: Descartes is dealing with the God of the Christians; the God of Aquinas and Pascal and the most powerful organization of the time, the Catholic Church. This is whom Descartes argues not only exists, but exists as “a substance infinite, independent, all-knowing, all-powerful” (III, 22).

What exactly is a substance to Descartes? A substance is essentially any particular thing that can exist by itself; therefore, a human body, a rock, or a pencil would all be substances—what he called “material substances” (II, 5). However, and here is where Descartes starts to get specific, these are only one type of substance; the other form of substances, known as “thinking substances”, can be demonstrated by such aspects as the human mind. What highlights the difference between these substances are the contrasting modes which “thinking substances” and “material substances” possess. The modes of any physical object—aka, “material substances”—would include aspects such as its location in space and time, its shape, and its volume; whereas the modes of a mind—aka, “thinking substance”—would include things like the specific ideas, judgments, and desires of the subject.

Descartes further organizes substances by saying that such things as human bodies, rocks, and pencils are not only material substances, but finite material substances. Similarly, human minds are not only thinking substances, but finite thinking substances. However, someone such as God would be, according to Descartes, considered an infinite substance. Infinite substances are utterly independent whereas finite substances are independent except for one dependence on an infinite substance. If there is to be a God, which Descartes asserts that there is, then God would be considered an infinite substance, and therefore also superior to finite substances (III, 23).

In order for substances to be substances, they must exist somewhere; this is where Descartes’ definitions of “reality” become important. There are two forms of reality: objective and formal reality. Objective reality contained in an idea is just the said idea’s representational content; essentially, it is the “object” of the idea or what that idea is about. For example, an idea of a pencil contains the reality of that pencil in it objectively. The formal reality contained in any one thing is a reality actually contained in that thing. This pencil, for example, has the formal reality of extension since it is actually an extended thing or body. In addition, reality is contained in something eminently when said reality is contained in it as a higher form such that not only does the thing not formally possess this reality, but it has the ability to cause that reality formally in something else. Not only do ideas represent things or substances, but they are themselves things; they are, in particular, modes of thinking substances. Thus, as every idea is a mode, every idea has some degree of formal reality.

Finally, one must have an understanding of what exactly Descartes’ definitions for ideas are. He separates them into two categories: “clear” and “distinct.” In his Principles of Philosophy, Descartes states that:

“A perception that can serve as the basis for a certain and indubitable judgment needs to be not merely clear but also distinct. I call a perception ‘clear’ when it is present and accessible to the attentive mind – just as we say that we see something clearly when it is present to the eye’s gaze and stimulates it with a sufficient degree of strength and accessibility. I call a perception ‘distinct’ if, as well as being clear, it is so sharply separated from all other perceptions that it contains within itself only what is clear” (45).

Between the two, a “distinct” idea appeals more to the particulars and details of any given object or substance, whereas “clear” refers mainly to its state of being. For example, say that I do not have my contact lens in—which hampers my ability to see distant objects real well—and there is a dog just far enough out of my vision that it appears blurry. I can have a “clear” idea that the object I see is a dog, however, I cannot have a “distinct” idea as to what breed the dog is until either (A) it moves closer to me, thus more sharply defining the image or (B) I place my contact lens back in and thus correct my inability to discern details.

But how exactly does one exactly have a “clear” and “distinct” idea of God? I cannot, with my very eyes, discern any “clear” or “distinct” idea of God as his form is not within my vision. If then, God is to be something which cannot be physically perceived, how can he at all be “clear” or “distinct” without being mere illusion or fabrication? Descartes would most likely cite my inability to perceive God as a result of the fact that I am a mere “finite” substance, whereas God is an “infinite” substance who exists beyond the realm of anything else and, as he states in paragraph 23 of the Third Meditation, “For though the idea of substance be in my mind owing to this, that I myself am a substance, I should not, however, have the idea of an infinite substance, seeing I am a finite being, unless it were given me by some substance in reality infinite.” As a result of being a finite substance, I am not only unable to fully perceive God’s existence, but there is no way he could be a fabrication of my own mind as I am unable to conceive of the idea of an infinite being on my own: it has to have been implanted by an infinite being.

If that is to be the case, then I have one question: what about the Ancient Greeks? They believed in and, as we now know, conceived of the idea of a great pantheon of gods and goddesses—as well as minor gods and goddesses which, for the sake of argument, shall be paralleled to the Christian hierarchy of angels—all of which can be determined to be greater than mere humanity. As humans, we are unable to perform the tasks which these beings accomplished: changing shape at will, controlling the weather, life and death, etc etc. Therefore, it can be affirmed that these beings were greater than that of humans. They existed beyond the realm of anything else and, thus, could be considered “infinite” substances. However, as was known by Descartes’ time: the Greek pantheon was not only declared false, but heretical. So, how is it that Ancient Greeks were able to conceive of these gods and goddesses? According to Descartes’ logic, if these beings are “infinite” substances, then humans cannot have conceived of these gods and goddesses on their own.

As no idea can have “nothing” as its cause, and, as “finite” substances, the Ancient Greeks themselves could not have conceived of their pantheon on their own, it can only be concluded that God is the cause of this idea. In that case, would that not make God a deceiver? Descartes already spent almost two and a half different meditations reiterating and reaffirming that God, should he exist, is not some “evil demon” or “evil genius” bent on creating mischief (I, 9-12). Therefore, there must a flaw in the logic of his argument. Consider the possibility that man could actual strip away all the restrictions that comes from being a “finite” substance and was able to conceive of things that could be considered “infinite” substances: man would have a plethora of original, larger-than-life ideas which were created from his very own mind; man would be able to be the cause of the belief in the existence of God. In a sense: man will have created God from his own mind.

Descartes’ “Causal Argument” for the existence of God, while long and detailed, lacks in it a faith in man’s own imaginative power and ability to perceive and conceive beyond himself and his own existence. It is this lacking and Descartes’ almost aggressive insistence that there is no possible way that God could not exist which creates small holes in his own Cartesian circle of doubt. If he simply allowed for man to conceive of “infinite” substances or even accept that perhaps there is a God out there who wishes to deceive mankind on some level, this passage might hold more weight.



Descartes, Renee. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Ed. Roger Ariew & Eric Watkins.  IN: Hackett, 2009. 35-68.

—. “The Principles of Philosophy, Part I.” The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 1. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1985.

“Descartes’ Ontological Argument.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. <;

Flage, Daniel E. and Clarence A. Bonnon. “Meditation Three: Reaching the peak, or variations on the existence and idea of God.” Descartes and Method: A Search for Method in Meditations London: Routledge, 1999. pp. 166-202 and 280-284.

Does “Liking” a Novel Affect Its “Greatness”: An Examination of ‘Quicksand’

© 2010

W. E. B. Du Bois hailed it as “the best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of Chesnutt” (qtd. in Shockley 432); the Amsterdam News classified it ultimately as “a disappointment” (16). Since its initial publication in 1928, Nella Larsen’s Quicksand has seen mixed reviews from the literary world, receiving equal amounts of praise and disdain. Is this the mark of a “great” novel? In the article from Bitch magazine, Anna North made a point that most compilers of “Great Literature” lists tend to “defend [their choices] with the argument of ‘this is just what we like’” (qtd. in Frochtswajg 58). So, must a novel be universally liked or disliked in order to be considered great? Does whether or not I “like” a novel influence my own opinion as to whether or not it is great? In the end, the answer appears to be both yes and no.

At the time of Quicksand’s publication, most critics praised Larsen’s style and mastery of language and nearly-consistently criticized the abrupt ending of the first-time author’s novel. The Amsterdam News, in particular, focused upon what its critic considered the weakest point of the novel. In his review, the writer states:

“The last part of the story, though interesting, is a disappointment. The reader has not been artistically prepared for it. Given such a character as Helga, he finds it hard to fit her into such a picture…If the plot were as good as the style, it would raise the story considerably.”

His opinion seems fairly harsh, yet, bears a relative amount of merit: within the span of ten pages and two chapters, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, regresses from an independent and cultured woman to the submissive wife of the backwoods preacher, Rev. Pleasant Green. In comparison to the rest of the novel, in which Larsen will often spend paragraphs and even pages delineating how circuitous and complex Helga’s thoughts are. For example, on page 77, when Helga internally begins weighing the differences between Denmark and America, Larsen spends a good deal of the page simply detailing her protagonist’s thoughts (“At first she missed…pricked her self-assurance.”). In sharp contrast to this already-established style, Helga’s decision to give up her independence and sign her life away into the contract of marriage is decided in a single sentence: “And she meant, if she could manage it, to be married today” (Larsen 117). It is because of this that I must agree with McDowell when she stated in the introduction to Quicksand that Larsen’s novels “sacrifice [their] heroines” as well as the Amsterdam critic for his disappointment in the novel. The author does not properly set up this sudden character change, therefore impairing the novel; the unexpected ending feels rushed in comparison to the already-established pace and manner of the story.

Despite this criticism in its time, Quicksand took second prize in literature in 1928 from the Harmon Foundation (McDowell ix), which had been established six years prior in order to create an awareness of African-American art (National Archives Online). However, Larsen did meet with a similar response when her second novel, Passing, was published in 1929: a creative style which becomes overshadowed by an abrupt and “melodramatic” (Chandler 106) ending. While many critics believed that the trouble Larson had with convincingly rounding off her narrative (McDowell xi) in Quicksand was due to inexperience—it being her first novel—the publication of Passing turned Quicksand’s plot problems from mere inexperience to a visible pattern: discontinuity. While in her own commentary on the book, modern critic Karen Chandler claims that this very discontinuity fits the realm of literary melodrama, she admits that the ending tends to have the reader feel “disengaged from Helga” (110).

Both Quicksand and Passing fell out of print and into obscurity for many years—most likely due to a plagiarism scandal which Larsen suffered in 1930 involving a story she wrote entitled “Sanctuary” (McDowell x). Criticism for her novel Quicksand disappeared as well; after the initial reviews in 1928 and an errant essay written in 1948, the next-earliest critical commentary I found on the novel was written in 1973. Operating under the hypothesis that the critics and their commentary shape whether or a not any particular novel is considered “great,” does their own lack of commentary delineate a lack in “greatness?” If a novel truly is considered “great,” should it be allowed to fall into utter obscurity? As I already stated, I do not believe Quicksand to be a “great” novel, but I do not believe the lack of commentary plays a role in this. After all, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is often considered a “great” novel received mixed reviews upon publication and also disappeared into obscurity until 1975 when Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston’s literature (Boyd 14).

Unlike past critics, modern examiners of Larsen’s works such as Barbara Johnson, Karen Chandler, and Jennifer Brody have a tendency to look at Quicksand more through what could be called a “feminist” lens; in fact, Brody states that any review of Quicksand (and Passing) must examine the issues of sex/gender in addition to the issue of race in order to properly analyze it (46). However, even so, the nature of the novel’s final third biases critics and readers alike by swiftly and suddenly changing the very nature of Helga Crane’s character. In her own examination of the book, Barbara Johnson asserted this by stating:

“Helga repeatedly reaches states of relative contentment—in Harlem, in Denmark, in Alabama—only to fall into depression again for no obvious reason. Chapter breaks often occur where psychological causation is missing. It is the lack of precipitating cause that calls for question.”

In particular, this quote, I believe, helps to illuminate some of the problems and differences of opinion I had with what some of Larsen’s contemporaries and even modern critics had to say about Quicksand. Larsen’s contemporaries in particular agreed that, while the novel had some problems in relation to its plot, its style and overall writing was mature and well done. However, I believe that the problems of Quicksand are not of the plot, but of style. The passages which Larsen writes are wordy, often containing sentences which make up almost an entire paragraph on their own—the first few pages of the novel are good examples. This writing style sets precedence for how the novel and both the narrator’s and Helga’s thought process are going to proceed. However, as Johnson states, once Larsen decides to uproot Helga to Alabama in the last third of the novel, the writing becomes much more sporadic and erratic in its construction.

Despite the fact that I disagreed with much of what Kantor had to say in her article, her point that literature should contain beauty (208) seems appropriate here. To me, a novel’s beauty should be apparent in its construction and overall written cadence. Larsen fails to maintain her own-established written cadence with the brusque nature of the final five chapters, thereby jading me, the reader, as to whether or not I believe this novel to be great. I think Jeffery Gray states this best (and most simply) in his 1994 essay, where he wrote:

“Criticism of Quicksand has seldom failed to mention the problem of its ending. The transformation of Helga from strong, independent, and charismatic world-traveler to born-again, rural, baby-making drudge is abrupt if not incredible.”

The discontinuity did not fit this novel, which seemed, to me at least, to originally fashion its writing in a style reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s descriptive-heavy prose in The House of Mirth; as well as its heroine’s plight of finding a place to belong and call home seemed similar to Lily Bart’s own quest. In comparison of the two, however, Larsen’s writing lacks the maturity and mastery of language which Wharton’s possesses. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I enjoyed The House of Mirth a great deal more than I did Quicksand; in fact, I did not enjoy the latter at all.

But does that dislike affect whether or not I consider this a great novel? It certainly jades my perspective with a negative bias, but my own dismissal of this novel as being considered “great” has more to do with its issues of written cadence, style, and, as already stated, the abrupt final third. In categorizing this book, I would certainly place it as wholly and uniquely American literature, as the narrative poignantly and aptly deals with, as Hugh Gloster wrote in 1948, “the disintegration and maladjustment wrought by miscegenation.” This issue in particular is unique to America (and its literature) as compared to other countries—particularly in Europe in which more standardized “great literature” repertoires seem to base themselves—for they have not had to deal with miscegenation at the level at which America, as a country and a people, has. Therefore, I will agree to categorize Quicksand as wholly and uniquely American.

However, in categorizing literature as “great” or “not great”, I believe that a piece needs to have something more than being merely unique to its home country; there must be, as Kantor argued, a beauty to the writing itself. A “great” novel should possess the three main components which Kantor describes:

“We come upon the truths and beauties we find in great literature as…glimpses that shine out from the particular incidents or words—a turn in the plot of a play, an arresting image in a poem. But any argument that a work of literary art is great inevitably appeals to one or another of these three qualities: to the work’s superior truth, or its moral value, or its piercing beauty—or to some combination thereof.”

Moral truths within Larsen’s novel seem scant, considering that one of the many “things” that Helga craves as a character is sex; this can be evidenced by the “riotous and colorful dreams” (Larsen 105) which she experiences after kissing Dr. Anderson. While this seems fairly innocuous, it is what she does next that seems to refute any sense of moral value that Helga, as a character, might have had: she very seriously considers having an affair with the now-married Anderson, going so far as to give an unspoken offer of her own body to him (Larsen 107). While Quicksand may not possess what could be considered “superior truth”—although Kantor does not efficiently define this term within her article—the first two-thirds of the novel seem to accurately describe and portray a young woman’s struggles with the overwhelming effects of miscegenation in both America and Europe.

Whether it was Larsen’s own inexperience as an author or simply a pattern and style of writing, the narrative does not possess a whole beauty to it. Within the narrative there is blatant discontinuity in the cadence of the writing, made most apparent in the last several chapters of the book. It is primarily for that egregious departure from Larsen’s earlier-established style and narrative flow that I cannot personally categorize and consider Quicksand as a piece of “great” literature.

Subtle Confessions of a Subversive Mind: A Tribute to William Blake

© 2009

            One of the most outrageous poets and artists of his own time, William Blake (1757-1827) was regarded by his own contemporaries as a madman. He rebelled against society, government, established forms of poetry, and, above all, religion (Munson 30). His seditious and heretical ideals made him one of the most subversive writers of the Romantic and Pre-Romantic era. Although once briefly tried for uttering seditious remarks (Munson 29), he never experienced incarceration due to the uncanny ability he possessed to subtly transform such notions into poetry. Here, in this realm of subtlety and abstraction, Blake utilized poetry to express his own subversive ideals.

Eighteen at the time of the American Revolution and thirty-two by the time of French Revolution, Blake became immediately inspired and drawn to the fervor and spirit of the patriots, forming the roots of his dislike for his own government, in particular, King George III (Munson 20). This lifelong vendetta fueled the only poems he actually titled as “prophecies”: “America a Prophecy” and “Europe a Prophecy.” These poems were meant merely as warnings to the people and government of England, not actual prophecies, for Blake himself defined the nature of the prophecy as “if you go on So, the result is So” (Ederman 60). Both poems open with “Preludiums” centering on an unnamed female character, most likely representing personifications of the titled lands. In “America,” the woman character is almost consumed by the dominant male, but then proves to possess too strong a hold upon the male’s mind and conscious. So the male, in turn attempts to destroy the female. Using “America,” with its provocative and violent images of fire, black clouds, and blood, Blake neither pleas nor demands any action of the English government, nor of its people. Instead, Blake offers the image of an England where “The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning / And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night; / For Empire is no more” (Blake 304). As opposed to making requests or demands, Blake reverts to a visual possibility. However, Blake warned not of England’s interference with the American quest for liberty, but of the impending possibility that history would itself. In simple terms, he warned “if kings such as Albion’s Prince repeat against the Republic of France, in 1793, the crusade that failed against the Republic of America, they will reach the end of their rule over…the strong” (Ederman 67).

Similarly, in “Europe,” the “Preludium” section focuses upon the power of the divine female. However, the focus of the power struggle shifts so that the intended target is not just Europe, but the entire world. The Queen of Heaven summons her children and Orc to “reimpose the cult of external reality” (Frye 122). Blake’s warning pertains to a greater destruction than merely the fall of England or France: Armageddon. Blake himself loved the “green and pleasant land” of England (Ederman 60), but not, as he said in “Vala or The Four Zoas,” the “turrets & towers & domes / whose smoke destroy’d the pleasant gardens, & whose running kennels / Chok’d the bright rivers” (Blake 400). This grim and violent view of the end of days distinguishes itself as the driving force of the poem Europe through Blake’s use of fire imagery and the theme of the bloody sun in the form of Orc.

Blake did not restrict himself merely to slightly seditious beliefs, but heretical ones as well. While not against the idea of religion per se–Blake was raised as an English Roman Catholic (Munson 28)–Blake disagreed with the doctrines of the Christian religious institutions. Most eloquently expressed in his poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake applies his own religious and spiritual ideals as “The voice of the Devil,” thereby camouflaging what he feels as no more than fiction. He believed that there was no such thing as “two perceivers in man, such as a soul and a body, which perceive different worlds” (Frye 126), which was the polar opposite of what the church proselytized. In “Marriage,” Blake states:

            “All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.

2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.

3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul            discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Such blatant questioning of the church’s authority and the truth of its doctrine greatly reflects his own personal beliefs. Blake saw only one world, but two different things to be done with it, emphasized by natural vision and human vision. Natural vision focused upon the objective world, independent from man, while human vision took the objective world and made it to be the “starry floor,” or, the bottom of reality (Frye 130). Therefore, people’s eyes had to be the same as the eye in “Auguries of Innocence” which could “see a World in a Grain of Sand” (Blake 150), thereby making it a “determinate organ” (Weiskel 140), allowing the people to perceive the mindless mechanisms of the natural world and, ultimately, infinity. To Blake’s contemporaries, his insistences that only when one’s vision is minute and particular does it conduct or contain infinity was perverse. As a result he was, for the rest of his life, stigmatized as a madman.

In poems such as “The Tyger,” Blake again subtly disguises his dissident beliefs. Through the use of increasingly crushingly rhetorical questions, Blake’s cruel sarcasm and bitterness becomes directed towards the hand that dared “seize the fire” (Blake 109), thus creating the Tyger itself. However, the speaker is “incapable of deliberate irony” (Bloom 17), for every single question is a gross hyperbole. Each hyperbole grows greater and greater, while the speaker becomes more cynical and harsher, demeaning the Tyger further and further, until everything reduces to the cruelty of the pinnacle lines, “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Blake 109). The entire work–modeled upon a particular passage in The Book of Job where God hurls down insults at Job–questions the origin of the divine, inversing its own inspiration. By confronting the Tyger, Blake has confronted the ultimate force, which he would have stated to be his own Imagination (Bloom 26). Thus, the only particularly profound repression that comes up against the will of the “daemonizing speaker” (Bloom 25) is Blake himself, challenging the origin of the divine and its place within the world. Blake did not hold with the doctrine that God was an entity who was separate from mankind (Bentley), which is highly exemplified by both “Tyger” and “Marriage,” wherein he states that “men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast” (Blake 256), portraying the Church as the ultimate con-artist for the whole world.

Blake’s views on sexuality tie in greatly to his subversive religious ideals. In particular, he found some of his greatest distaste for the Church stemmed from their belief in the suppression of natural desires and discouraging of earthly joy, as found in “Proverbs from Hell” in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion. / As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys” (Blake 253). Furthermore, in his poem entitled “Abstinence,” the personified idea of Abstinence itself did no more than destroy life by “sow[ing] sand all over” as opposed to Desire’s “plant[ing] fruits of life and beauty” (Blake 134). Since, in Blake’s mind, the body and soul were not separate, the body itself was merely an extension of the soul; the emphasis of the orthodoxy in the denial of bodily desires, therefore, stemmed from the Church’s own misapprehension of the relationship between the body and the soul. The Church thrived on the doctrine that a person had maintain his or her own personal virtue in order to enter Heaven; Virtue by itself meant nothing to Blake “unless clarified and qualified by context” (Gleckner 83). In “The Divine Image,” virtue is exemplified as the state of innocence through Blake’s use of repetition of the words Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love. However, in “A Divine Image,” virtue is perverted to experience. The sexually provocative imagery of iron, forges, fire, furnaces, and gorges all demonstrate the power of passion and desire as well as its ability to quickly turn to Cruelty, Jealousy, Terror, and Secrecy.

Within the lines of his poem “Night,” Blake weaves together constant streams of gold, nature, and flower imagery. The flower–usually a representation of fertility–and its allegorical uses are extended further, applied to the overall comparison and relationship between a lion and a lamb. The lion, an ultimate symbol of masculinity, lies down beside the feminine lamb, stating, “And now beside thee, bleating lamb, / I can lie down and sleep” (Blake 94), thus joining the two sexes and forms together in a soft and gentle union. According to David Wagenknecht, this final act, along with the other various images contrasting and joining the male and the female offer “confirmation of the suspicion that “Night” is about sexual experience” (155). This thought, however, appears incomplete. “Night” is not only about sexual experience, but about a gentle, consensual sexual experience, as opposed to the violent and brutal destruction which “The invisible worm” (Blake 107) brings upon the rose in Blake’s more well-recognized, “The Sick Rose.” In this poem, the act of sex is not only surrounded by a “howling storm” (Blake 107), foreshadowing the eventual demise of the rose, but utilizes the “dark” imagery to vividly present the destructive effects of rape.

A religious and political rebel for his time, Blake’s prolific work subtly expresses his own heretical and seditious beliefs. Here, in the realm of poetry, Blake found the perfect means by which he could publicly express his subversive ideas.


Works Cited

Bentley, Gerald Eades. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K.     Paul, 1975. 34-35.

Blake, William. The Portable Blake. Ed. Alfred Kazin. New York: Penguin Group Inc.,    1946. 91-94, 107, 109, 120, 134-135, 150-154, 249-266, 300-327, 369-410.

Bloom, Howard. “Introduction.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard       Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 1-55.

Ederman, David V. “Blake: The Historical Approach.” Modern Critical Views: William    Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 56-80.

Frye, Northrop. “The Keys to the Gate.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed.         Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 116-135.

Gleckner, Robert F. “Point of View and Context in Blake’s Songs.” Modern Critical         Views: William Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 81-115.

Munson, Amelia. “Introduction.” Poems of William Blake. Ed. Amelia Munson. New       York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1964. 1-32.

Wagenknecht, David. “Transformations.” Modern Critical Views: William Blake. Ed.       Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 151-175.

Weiskel, Thomas. “Blake’s Critique of Transcendence.” Modern Critical Views: William   Blake. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. 136-150.

The Apocalyptic Tragedies: An Examination of ‘Hamlet’, ‘King Lear’, and ‘Oedipus Rex’

© 2009

            Death: the inevitable end to man’s existence. Judgment Day: the end of the world. These intertwining forces weave themselves through the texts of Hamlet, King Lear, and Oedipus Rex, allowing a glimpse of three instances in which the destruction of the macrocosm of the world is brought about and personified by the microcosm of the tragic hero. These so-called heroes are the paragon of all that is worst in man and wantonly destroy themselves, fulfilling man’s “debt owed to God,”[1] thus plunging their worlds into Armageddon. In this delicate and harmonious struggle, man plummets to his lowest, standing powerless as the inescapable end, Judgment Day, comes to fruition.

Hamlet’s poisonous madness, “like acid eating into metal,”[2] spreads outwards until it envelops all of Denmark within its grasp, smothering and choking it until it collapses into chaos. Throughout the play Hamlet truly believes that Claudius is the snake which lies in the “unweeded garden”[3] of Denmark, distorting a once honorable kingdom into a land of drunkards and debauchers.[4]  Yet what is it that truly comprises the weeds? Many critics believe the weeds represent Claudius’ corruption of the accepted World Order. This is evident; Claudius manipulates and cheats the system, thereby elevating himself to the position of king. However, Claudius is not the true and rightful ruler of Denmark; his own personal defects should not bear any weight upon the downward spiral into which Denmark has plunged. Hamlet, as the rightful heir to the throne, holds the power of his kingdom’s success. Therefore Hamlet is the poison which “[rots] the state of Denmark,”[5]  leading to its destruction.

The darkness which shrouds Denmark first becomes evident after the introduction of the Ghost in Act 1. A “devil of the knowledge of death,”[6]– this apparition- forces upon Hamlet the woes and responsibilities of death and spiritual matters, cursing him to set right all the sins of Denmark.[7] From this point forth, Hamlet, bears the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Instead of rising to the challenge, the tragic hero wallows in the quagmire of his own shattered belief in the world, the state, and the individual,[8] knowing that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will-”[9] and allows Denmark to slip into inextricable chaos. As Hamlet becomes man as he truly is- “full of darkness and chaos,”[10]– Elsinore has no chance of hope. As the true head of the state, Hamlet’s fall is reflected in the destruction of Denmark into the “quintessence of dust.”[11]

Ellsinore’s Judgment Day arrives in the last scene of the play: Hamlet’s death and Fortinbras’ ascension to the throne. Like the tragic Greek hero, Orestes, Hamlet works in what he believes to be the best interest of the state and murders his mother and her lover. However, he was driven only by his own revenge and madness, thus committing matricide, a profound offence. Yet unlike with Orestes and Mycaene, Denmark- already torn apart by Hamlet’s “antic disposition,”[12]– simply falls without warning[13] in a climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet. As he lies wounded, he can feel the “fell sergeant, Death”[14] come to collect his due. Yet to Hamlet, this end seems premature[15] for he cannot “tell [his] story”[16] or rule his rightful kingdom. Instead, Denmark falls into the hands of Fortinbras who- while still a prince- is not the rightful ruler of Denmark. His claim is staked in an old battle between Hamlet’s father and his own, in which Old Hamlet killed Old Fortinbras and thus, by the rightful code of war, seized Norway’s lands.[17] Fortinbras, in turn, calls upon the same code in order to seize Denmark,[18] however, as he has not rightly fought Hamlet in battle, his claim is rendered null and void. Order and justice are not truly restored at the end of Hamlet; instead, the fate of Elsinore still remains in the darkness, a bloody picture of the eventual end to the world as Denmark lies in ruin, a reflection of the remains of Hamlet himself.

In King Lear, the catalyst for the apocalyptic plot is Lear’s fatal “act of uncreation”[19]: the division of his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1. As a result, like a re-creation of Pandora’s Box, “everything is turned loose,”[20] and the “kingdom of Albion [comes] to great confusion.”[21] Lear’s overweening hubris triggers his fall into madness; the state, as a reflection of him, collapses into chaos as well. As the tempest rages in the background,[22] Lear’s mind deteriorates rapidly and only his Fool attempts to help him return to what little sanity is left. This is the base state to which Lear has been reduced: a former king receiving and acknowledging advice from a court jester. More of a metaphor for a conscience than an actual character, the Fool, in the voice of prophecy, tells of a paradoxical world where the natural order has been inversed. The irony of the situation is that this apocalyptic paradox is occurring in England as he speaks because Lear’s pride blinded his judgment

The kingdom of England has no escape for descent into darkness either. In perfect sync with Lear himself, England’s own nature begins to change and a terrible storm while Lear’s mind burns in madness, reflecting how the spheres of the world, the state, and the individual are so strongly bound that “to destroy one was to destroy the others as well.”[23] This destruction which Lear inflicts upon his own nation and which he “invokes the elements to accomplish in the macrocosm [of England]”[24] is in direct correlation to the devastation transpiring within his own psyche. His ritualistic descent into darkness- his deep sleep in Act 4- sends the world into a moment of stillness, where while nothing moves forward there is a brief glimmer of hope for England. Nevertheless, these hopes are dashed by the destruction of innocence in the denouement of the play. Lear loses his true Angel of Mercy, Cordelia, to the cruel reality which was born of his own folly. She represents light and purity in the play, consistently described with celestial or “glimmering” images.[25] Her fragile illusion cannot exist in harsh reality because, by this time, England is too corrupted to be saved.

At the conclusion of Lear, Albany, Kent, and Edgar stand amidst a Pyrrhic victory. Although the side of light and goodness has championed over the base, brutish dark, the costs are heavy. All three express only remorse and there is “no elation in the voice of anyone,”[26] just as Kent remarks, “All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.”[27] The costs of the war and chaos wholly outweigh the rewards. England has now become “an image of that horror”[28] which is “the promised end”[29] or Doomsday. Like survivors of some great holocaust, Albany, Edgar, and Kent stand amidst death and despair; instead of attempting to move beyond it, they drown in it. Even Kent decides to follow his master (Lear) to the grave.[30] There is no future in sight for England because of the havoc Lear wreaked upon his kingdom and himself.

Oedipus Rex offers a slightly different situation than either Hamlet or Lear in that the Judgment Day for Thebes takes place in the legacy that Oedipus leaves behind. As in Hamlet, order is not restored to the kingdom, even after the truth is revealed and Oedipus banished. The cycle of the fall from grace has begun once the play opens as Thebes is ravaged by a horrific plague.[31] The city itself is described as “tossed on a murdering sea,”[32] reflecting the murderous and wrath-filled spirit of Oedipus. His explosive and violent reaction to Teiresias’ revelations exhibit a moody and choleric temperament which constantly blinds his reason. The situation is so fantastical that ignorance is hard to pin as the tragic flaw which brings about the end of Thebes. It lies more in his denial and inability to accept those truths that are before him that leads to his downfall and ultimately, the end of Thebes.

Oedipus continues in his consistent state of denial until he has literally shred every bit of evidence before his eyes. It takes not just the word of Teiresias, but the words of Iokasate, Kreon, and the shepherd who saved him as an infant in order for him to have his final epiphany. To do what he thinks is right, he carries out the malediction which he “pronounced…upon [himself]!”[33] At the very disgust of his own blindness and the havoc which he has wrought upon his true homeland, Oedipus withdraws inward, no longer the emotional individual, but the stoic and pious martyr to divine will and fate. His self-mutilation is an attempt at purging himself of his sins and castrating the very organ(s) which caused his tragic downfall: his eyes. By rejecting the truth at every turn, Oedipus created more misery for Thebes instead of relieving it and ended by “serving [his] own destruction.”[34]

At the conclusion of the play, Oedipus wanders off alone, away from the Thebes and the chaos he has caused. While Kreon is in power, he is not the rightful ruler. As the brother of Iokaste, he has some claim, but Oedipus- as her son- is the heir and, after him, it is his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, who have the rightful entitlement to the throne. Oedipus leaves behind what he believes to be order, but it is merely a violent blood-feud between his sons. Had Oedipus been forced to make this decision at the start of the play, he would have realized the snag in this conclusion and would have named one son his heir. However, because he has been so distorted from his original, regal character, he has no sanity left to consider the weight of his decisions. Thebes falls because of the bloody legacy Oedipus leaves for future generations.

Each tragedy offers a plot about the end of the world. The macrocosm of the environment falls in tandem with the microcosm of the tragic hero himself. Each hero’s own flaws brings him to man’s lowest, making him the paragon of all that is worst in the world. Like God does in Genesis, the hero’s divide land from sea, the sky from the earth, the day from the night, and the sane from the insane.[35] However, each hero contributes to the very cataclysmic spiral which brings each realm (Denmark, England, Thebes) into chaos, bringing about Armageddon for all.

[1]  Spurgeon, Caroline F.E. Shakespeare’s Imagery, and What it Tells Us. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935. Pg. 184 “Shakespeare does not rebel against death, but accepts it as a natural process, a debt we owe to God…”

[2]  Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968. Pg. 110 “The poison of [Hamlet’s] mental existence spreads outwards among things flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.”

[3]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 29 (1.2, 139-140) “Hamlet: ’Tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed.”

[4]  Ibid. Pg. 49 (1.4, 20-25) “Hamlet: Makes us traduced…pith and marrow of our attribute.”

[5]  Ibid. Pg. 55 (1.5, 100) “Marcellus: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

[6]  Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968. Pg. 110 “It was the devil of knowledge of death, which possesses  Hamlet and drives him from misery and pain to increasing bitterness, cynicism, murder, and madness.”

[7]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 69 (1.5, 210-211) “Hamlet: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!”

[8]  Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 95 “…these shatter his belief into ruins, and the world, the state, and the individual are to him suddenly corrupt.”

[9]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 259 (5.2, 11-12)

[10]  Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 94 “On the other was the picture of man as he is- it was full of darkness and chaos.”

[11]   Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 103 (2.2, 332) “Hamlet: what is this quintessence of dust?”

[12] Ibid. Pg. 67 (1.5, 192) “Hamlet: To put an antic disposition on.”

[13]  Kott, Jan. “Orestes, Electra, Hamlet.” The Eating of the Gods. Trans. Boleslaw Toborski and Edward J. Czerwinski. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987. “In Shakespeare’s treatment, all the predictions are also fulfilled, but for the first time Orestes-Hamlet dies.”

[14]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Pg. 281 (5.3, 368-369) “Hamlet: as this fell sergeant, Death, / Is strict in his arrest.”

[15]  Neill, Michael. “To Tell My Story: Unfinished Hamlet.” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Shakespeare. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg.320 “Instead, [Hamlet] faces his end tormented by a sense of incompleteness, of a story still remaining to be told.”

[16]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 283 (5.2, 384) “Hamlet: To tell my story.”

[17]  Ibid. Pg. 13-15 (1.1, 91-107) “Horatio: That can I…His fell to Hamlet.”

[18]  Ibid. Pg. 285 (5.2, 431-433) “Fortinbras: For me, with sorrow…my vantage doth invite me.”

[19]  Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Modern Critical Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Pg. 122 “With this mind, let us glance again at Lear’s act of uncreation, his division of an ordered…kingdom.”

[20] Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 141 “That is what happens in King Lear: everything is turned loose.”

[21]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Pg. 133 (3.2, 98-99) “Fool: Then shall the realm of Albion / Come to great confusion.”

[22]  Ibid. Pg. 127 (3.2, stage direction) “Storm still. Enter Lear and Fool.

[23]  Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 95 “…in Shakespeare’s day the three spheres were so closely related that to destroy one was to destroy the others as well.”

[24]  Ibid. Pg. 140 “The destruction which Lear invokes the elements to accomplish in the macrocosm…actually occurs in the microcosm of Lear himself.”

[25]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Pg. 187 (4.3, 24-25) “What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence / As pears from diamonds dropped.”

[26]  Harbage, Alfred. Conceptions of Shakespeare. Massachusetts: Harvard College Press, 1967. Pg. 97 “There is no elation in the voice of anyone…the poetry tells us the war is not yet over.

[27] Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Pg. 259 (5.3, 351) “Kent: Nor no man else. All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.”

[28]  Ibid. Pg. 255 (5.3, 317) “Edgar: Or image of that horror?”

[29]  Ibid. Pg. 255 (5.3, 316) “Kent: Is this the promised end?”

[30]  Ibid. Pg. 261 (5.3, 390-391) “Kent: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me. I cannot say no.”

[31]  Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald and Dudley Fitts. Massachusetts: Thomson and Wadsworth, 2002. Pg. 1313 (Prologue,  28-30) “Priest: A rust consumes…and labor is in vain.”

[32]  Ibid. Pg. 1313 (Prologue, 25-26) “Your own eyes / Must tell you: Thebes is tossed on a murdering sea.”

[33]  Ibid. Pg. 1337 (Scene 1 Antistrophe 2, 777-778) “Oedipus: And I myself / Pronounced this malediction upon myself!”

[34] Ibid. Pg. 1358 (Scene 2 Antistrophe 2, 1466) “Kreon: How, when you were, you served your own destruction.”

[35]  Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Modern Critical Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Pg. 122 “…remind us of God’s creative divisions in Genesis when, beginning with chaos, he divided land from sea, the sky from the earth, the day from the night…”


Works Cited

Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Modern Critical Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Harbage, Alfred. Conceptions of Shakespeare. Massachusetts: Harvard College Press, 1967.

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968.

Kott, Jan. “Orestes, Electra, Hamlet.” The Eating of the Gods. Trans. Boleslaw Toborski   and Edward J. Czerwinski. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Neill, Michael. “To Tell My Story: Unfinished Hamlet.” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Shakespeare. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine.     New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

—. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.

Sophocles. Oedipus RexPerrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 8th ed. Eds.   Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Massachusetts: Thomson and Wadsworth, 2002.

Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’: Postmodern Artifice

© 2013

“…what I wanted to do was to look at the way in which Shakespeare might make a movie of one of his plays if he was a director. How would he make it?” (Luhrmann)

The auteur theory and potential for a director producing his singular vision, according to Milovanovic, guided the concerns of postmodernist film, with it going so far as to “undermine” the investigations of the transparency of the image. Luhrmann frequently seeks to record, in a non-linear and unconventional format, the tragedy’s language and stagecraft in order to construct his own film, particularly through use of interpolation. This use of interpolation may be divided into four primary categories: (a) the visual articulation of spoken dialogical imagery; (b) extra textual invention; (c) alterations dependent on the reconceived modern setting; and, (d) most importantly, flashfowards. These four different, yet overlapping, uses and styles of interpolation serve to enhance, emphasize, and further illuminate the content of Shakespeare’s text; the frequently-referenced finale sequence draws even more from the text than is usually possible not only because of the filmic medium, but Luhrmann’s ability to manipulate the original text and mold it to this new medium.

An examination of Baz Luhrmann’s highly postmodernist 1996 approach to Shakespearean tragedy can begin neither with Luhrmann, Shakespeare, nor even post-modernism: first, there is the exact definition and nature of filmic adaptation, especially as it applies in a stage-to-screen context. Is a successful adaptation merely the process, as scriptwriter Craig Pearson stated, of “decoding or unlocking language for the audience,” or, to be argued here, a visualization of the source text’s thematic content. This visualization may take whatever form the director may choose, reaffirming the postmodernist slant towards auteur theory, however, in order to be successful, this approach much, in no way, threaten the integrity of the source material.

Stage and screen, while similar in their existence as physical performance arts, are not to be approached correspondingly—even less so when the source text of the stage is that of poetry. In his Republic, Plato examined the very nature of poetry, art, and drama, dividing it out into two primary aspects: diegesis (narration) and mimesis (imitation): diegesis is what storytellers and poets express: they tell stories aloud to their audience; mimesis, by nature, is therefore considered a branch of diegesis. Here, the original text is paramount, as Romeo and Juliet is a play about poetry and art—in the postmodernist filmic context, it’s a film about artifice and exhibitionism. Here, it is vital to move past the theory, and examines all different aspects of the filmmaking process and film semiotics in order to not only illuminate Luhrmann’s choices in transitioning from literary to film narratology, but to analyze how his transformative efforts have resulted in, as this paper has suggested, a successful adaptation.

The now infamous doubled-prologue sequence which opens the film best presents the very “cunning” of Luhrmann’s cinematic scene—its numerous virtues and isolated infelicities that are directly related to his directorial style and auteur status. Twice Luhrmann has the text of the prologue spoken to the audience, firstly via a mise en scene television set, and secondly via voiceover narration which accompanies a barrage of frenetic edits which, in true Shakespearean fashion, reveal the narrative’s ending: Rome and Juliet must die, thus ending their “parents’ strife” (Prologue, 8). Whereas Shakespeare accomplished this with words, Luhrmann relies upon imagery, actually utilizing, and frequently revisiting, visuals from the film’s conclusion. Why? Firstly, to properly adapt Shakespeare—taking his intent and molding it into cinematic language—and, secondly, to remain true to the core of the play: art, oftentimes poetry, and, by extension, artifice.

Not only is this awareness of the world of the narrative’s falsity an element of the original Shakespearean text, but it forms part of the groundwork of postmodernist film. In his examination of the filmic movement, Tim Woods claimed that postmodernist cinema both “explored and exposed the formal concerns of the medium by placing them at the forefront of consciousness.” Instead of hiding its very nature as art, postmodern cinema instead highlights, and, indeed, celebrates its own ephemeral existence via deconstruction and fragmentation of linear time, just as Shakespeare reminds his audience that Romeo and Juliet is nothing more than “the two hours’ traffic of [a] stage” (Prologue, 12). By paying close attention to the film’s textual sensitivity—particularly its preservation of Shakespeare’s verse—while simultaneously also concentrating upon the “cunning” (or “art”) of its “scene” (or representational devices), the interpolation of the text through extra visuals within the film’s framework validate Luhrmann’s acute cinematic and adaptive intelligence, as well as his auteur style as a postmodern director.

Postmodernist film, again according to Woods, has three primary characteristics that help to separate it from other film forms:

“…(a) The pastiche of many genres and styles; (b) a self-reflexivity of technique that highlights the construction and relation of the image to other images in media and not to any kind of external reality; and (c) an undoing and collapse of the distinction between high and low art styles and techniques and texts.”

Thus, postmodern films, on a technical level, often combine together many disparate ways of film-making together into the same movie—in the case of this film, for the purposes of both illuminating the text and visually emphasizing the narrative’s thematic content as well as the characters’ motivations. Returning, again, to the opening sequence and extending it through the prologue to “Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground” (Act I, 7), Luhrmann exhibits multiple genres and shooting styles in his introduction of the Montague Boys and the Capulet Boys, particularly Tybalt. The introduction of the “Montague Boys” caters very much to the glitzy, wild, image-bombarded MTV generation: the boys drive in a gas-guzzling convertible down a strip-like road, listening to beat-driven music, screaming out the Shakespearean text like hellions in Miami. Tybalt’s introduction, however, pays direct homage to the “spaghetti westerns” of Sergio Leone, down to his all-black attire and steel-heeled boots that clink metallically as he walks, grinding smoked cigarillos into the pavement. Here also, the edit-count and frame-rate of the picture slow down as well, adding to Tybalt’s visual presentation as a Western gunslinger: stylish and dangerous.

Luhrmann’s homage to the Western genre is one of many instances within his adaptation where he sought to “illuminate the text” (Luhrmann), especially in relation to characters, in both visuals and varying genre styles. While this does, admittedly, lead to a lack of visual cohesion from character to character, it more than adequately interpolates each character to a meta-level onscreen. Tybalt’s entrance also introduces another aspect of postmodernism with the presence of intertextuality that incorporates or references other media and texts, in this case a sign reading “Add more fuel to your fire”, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Act V, Scene IV). By extrapolating extraneous dialogue from other Shakespearean works, Luhrmann is, again, highlighting the constructed nature of the image onscreen as well as the narrative: the suspension of disbelief is not merely an inherent social contract, but a visual, even physical manifestation.

Updating, or transferring Shakespeare is not an uncommon practice. The bard, after all, was:

“…a player. We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England – and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer and a user of incredible devices and theatrical tricks to ultimately create something of meaning and convey a story” (Luhrmann).

Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that were devised to be both accessible and malleable—Tybalt is a gunslinger; Mercutio is an angry drag-queen; and Romeo is a James Dean-meets-Byron antihero. All within a single film and all of which supported by the art of the original text. Therefore, when Janet Maslin described Luhrmann’s adaptation as “a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train,” her words potentially lose their scathing effect. The mark of a successful adaptation is the maintenance of the integrity of the source material; in the case of Luhrmann, he chose to keep the thematic intact visually as opposed to a more traditional textual approach. His style exemplifies postmodernism at some of its finest and, most certainly, at some of its most daring. Thus, when the bard is thrown in the path of a cinematic subway train like postmodernism, he is not failed, but shaped for the medium and given the chance to be explored in visuals as a method of interpolating the original material.



Luhrmann, Baz. “Commentary Track.” qtd. in Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 20th Century Fox.

—. “Interview with Baz Luhrmann.” Signet. 19 December 1996. Available at:

Maslin, Janet. “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet Review.” NY Times. Available at:

Pearson, Craig. “Commentary Track.” qtd. in Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 20th Century Fox.

Plato. The Republic. qtd. in Hatchuel, Sarah.  “From theater showing to cinema telling.” Shakespeare, from Stage to Screen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print. (p. 33-65)

Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 20th Century Fox.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992.

Milovanovic, Dragan. “Dueling Paradigms: Modernist v. Postmodern Thought”. Postmodern Criminology. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Fifty Shades of Tobacco: Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of the ‘Fan-fiction’

© 2013

In December 1893, select citizens of London gathered together in their grief, donning black armbands in a state of respectful mourning (Brown); for, in the eyes of these Londoners, the world had lost a great man. His name was Sherlock Holmes. To this select group—known by anything from “Sherlockians” to the “Sher-flock”—Conan Doyle’s deductive detective existed as more than a mere fictional creation, but as a pseudo-god and, even more than that, a lifestyle. A new, still-enduring subculture had emerged: the fandom.

Before, however, the specificities of the “fandom” as a subculture may be examined, it is vital to (a) define the very nature of a subculture, and (b) analyze what it was and still is about Sherlock Holmes, as a character and creation, that inspired such a subculture to come into existence.

At the most basic level, a subculture is a microcosmic group of people that differentiates themselves from the macrocosmic culture to which they belong (Nanda 62). A “minority style” (Riesman 155), subcultures are not only interpreted as being in accordance with subversive values, but often as a pure subversion to dominant hegemonic ideologies—colloquially referred to as “normalcy” (Hebdige). As a result, subcultures, according to Dick Hebdige, bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity (108). In order to establish this identity, members of a subculture will signal their membership through a distinctive and symbolic use of style, including anything from fashion, gestures, and specific jargon—what Hebdige refers to as “argot” (109).

Within that framework, a fandom is a subculture of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest; its center of focus or interest can be narrowly defined, often focusing upon something such as an individual celebrity, real and, as in the case of Holmes, imagined. The very word, its usage traced by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary to as early as the turn of the 20th century, and its inception is traced back to the fans of Conan Doyle’s literary detective not only by their holding public demonstrations of mourning after Holmes was “killed” off in 1893, but also by their creation some of the first fan-fiction in as early as 1887 (Brown).

Fan-fiction refers to stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator and are almost never professionally published. Because of this, fan-fiction is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe (Schulz). However, the importance of fan-fiction within the fandom subculture is not only the creative expression, but that it stems from the individual’s devotion to its fandom’s focus; a veritable labor of love. Despite the implied good intentions of such fan-related works, like most subcultures, these works are met with a degree of negativity and degradation from accepted society. Lev Grossman, writing for Time in 2011 described fan-fiction as:

“… what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound[sic] consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”

While modern society embraces the notion of ars artia gratis (“art for art’s sake”), it could very likely be the perceived lack of originality within fan-fiction which leads to its existence outside the dominant hegemonic ideology, especially in relation to art and treatment of someone’s creative work. While within United States law fan-fiction is protected as a derivative work (The Copyright Act of 1976), it is not necessarily guaranteed societal acceptance. Prominent fiction authors such as Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin are strongly opposed to the idea of fan-fiction, believing it to be not only a form of copyright infringement, but also a “bad exercise for aspiring writers” (Martin). Therefore, fan-fiction and, by extension, the fandom subculture from which it stems, appears to disrupt the hegemony that has been

As for Holmes, the early Sherlockians wanted to, potentially literally, enter the world Conan Doyle had created by puppeteering his characters and designing their own mysteries for Holmes to solve. Thus, they wrote stories. These initial “fan-fics” appeared within 10 years of the first Holmes 1887 novella, A Study in Scarlet—though, back then, Sherlockians did not use the phrase fan-fiction, instead calling these stories parodies and pastiches (Brown).

Thus, the next logical inquiry to address is: why Sherlock Holmes? What is it about the fictional resident of 221B Baker Street that has inspired such a long-lasting, devoted following? Simply put: Holmes is a hero for the eccentrics—those who exist on the fringes of the hegemonic norms. Despite the fact that he is a famous consulting detective and utilized frequently by law enforcement, Holmes is not associated officially with any form or police. Within the novels, Holmes is described as “bohemian” in habits and lifestyle; an eccentric, with no regard for contemporary standards of tidiness or good order. For example, in The Musgrave Ritual, Holmes is described as such:

“Although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind … [he] keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece … He had a horror of destroying documents…. Thus month after month his papers accumulated, until every corner of the room was stacked with bundles of manuscript which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner” (Doyle 354-55).

Holmes is a loner on the fringes of society, yet he does not strive to make himself a part of the hegemonic norm. He keeps his flat in a state of chaos, with papers and artifacts strewn about his office; has erratic eating habits, even going so far as to starve himself during moments of particularly intense intellectual and mental activity (Doyle, “Norwood Builder”); habitually smokes a pipe at levels that create a “poisonous atmosphere” of tobacco smoke (Doyle, Baskervilles); willingly bends the truth and laws (e.g., lying to the police, concealing evidence or breaking into houses) on behalf of clients; and, what is described as his “only vice” (Dalby, 75) occasionally uses addictive drugs, particularly cocaine. Despite the fact that Holmes is engaged with the hegemonic norm, upholding “law and order” by solving cases and righting wrongs, on the level of the individual, he is very much a member of the fringe, indulging in habits which would not, to a Victorian society, been considered acceptable. In other words, Holmes is the champion of the subculture, therefore, an ideal character for whom a subculture—a ‘fandom’—would develop.

Continuing in that vein, fan-fiction had the perfect environment for development due to Conan Doyle’s lack of continuity within the Holmes stories. Media scholar Henry Jenkins explains the correlation between this “transmedia” storytelling and fan fiction:

“The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia[sic] texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which cannot be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material.”

Thus fan-fiction and the culture of the Sherlockians as a fandom lives on— currently lists a collection of over three thousand Sherlock Holmes stories written by members of the detective’s fandom.

Christopher Morley, founder of the “The Baker Street Irregulars”—a 75-year-old society within the fandom that playfully regards Holmes and Watson as more than fiction—wrote in his 1930 forward to The Complete Sherlock Holmes, “Endless delicious minutiae to consider!…The whole Sherlock Holmes saga is a triumphant illustration of art’s supremacy over life.”


Works Cited

Brown, Scott. “Sherlock Holmes, Obsessed Nerds, and Fan Fiction.” April 20, 2009. <;

Dalby, J.T. “Sherlock Holmes’s Cocaine Habit.” Irish Journey of Psychological Medicine. 8th Edition, 1991: 73-4.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”, Strand Magazine, 1893.

–. The Hound of the Baskervilles & The Valley of Fear. Ware, England: Wordsworth, 1999. Available at <;

—.The Original Illustrated ‘Strand’ Sherlock Holmes (1989 ed.). Ware, England: Wordsworth, 1989. pp. 354–355

Grossman, Lev. “The Boy Who Lived Forever.” TIME. July 2011.  <,8599,2081784-1,00.html&gt;

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1981. qtd. in Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Wesleyan University Press, 1996.  pp.106-112

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication). New York: Routledge, 1992


Morley, Christopher. “Foreword.” The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1930. qtd. in Brown, Scott. “Sherlock Holmes, Obsessed Nerds, and Fan Fiction.” April 20, 2009. <;

Nanda, Serena (1994). Cultural Anthropology (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning. p. 62.

Riesman, David (1950). “Listening to Popular Music”, American Quarterly, 2, p. 359-71. qtd. in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music, p. 155. Philadelphia: Open University Press

Schulz, Nancy. “Fan Fiction – Literature.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2013-03-28.

“Story Archive: Sherlock Holmes” <;

The Copyright Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541 (1976)