A lot of you will have recognised some of those lines. ‘Peace for our time‘ is a paraphrasing of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s assurance in September 1938 that there wouldn’t be a war .. which, of course, there was. And ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more‘ is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V. But who is speaking them?
Well, I’ll tell you that in a minute. This posting is really in defence of all of us who love to spend a quiet Saturday afternoon as couch-potatoes sitting in front of the television, brains tuned down to just above a quiet hum, watching anything and everything with, of course, the necessary ‘suspension of disbelief‘ that you need not just to enjoy poetry (see Coleridge quotes!) but also to sink properly into a wintry Saturday afternoon in front of a crackling TV set.
Last Saturday I was watching television, all belief suspended, when my partner came into the room, took one look at the Klingon’s, Spock and Kirk on the television and accused me of being a ‘child‘ and watching ‘complete rubbish‘. I decided that I was not going to take it standing up so I started making some notes and soon managed to map out a pretty good defence showing that anything can be used as a learning experience and that pop culture can be used very successfully to learn about English literature and language.
Now, you’ve probably guessed from the references to Klingons and Spock that I was watching Star Trek. And that opening voice was, of course, the voice of the the Klingon bad-guy General Chang. Chang may be the bad guy but he knows his English literature and quotes Shakespeare until he prompts Leonard McCoy, the ship’s surgeon, to say ‘I’d give real money if he’d shut up.‘ And, fittingly, his last words are: ‘To be or not to be …‘, probably the most quoted of all Shakespearean lines.
It’s worth mentioning as well, just to get things in the right perspective, that Shakespeare’s plays were the Star Trek of the 17th Century – popular theatre that the masses went to see – not designed as high-brow culture for a small, educated elite. If TV had existed in the 17th Century it’s a good bet that King Lear would have been the sort of rubbish that I would have tuned in to on a Saturday afternoon.
Star Trek doesn’t stop at one character’s obsession with literary quotation though – there are so many references and allusions to English literature, politics, film, theatre that you soon realize that behind the film’s fairly basic plot there was a team of writers having a lot of fun with English. And much like a Shakespearean play you can enjoy the action in Start Trek without having to understand all of the writers’ literary references and allusions.