At a time when most Americans have never, arguably, been more ignorant about history, Shakespeare has never been more popular.1 At first glance this seems like a paradox; but on closer view it presents not so much a contradiction as a mutually constitutive logic. For the recent upswing of mass cultural attention to Shakespeare is inseparable from a revival of popular interest in what I would call, for lack of a better term, ‘the historical’. By ‘the historical’, however, I don’t mean historiography as the art of writing events into the reified form we call ‘history’, but rather a philosophical ‘structure of feeling’: that certain je ne sais quoi that lets us postmoderns feel as if we’re still living in a world marked by the passage of meaningful time. To understand Shakespeare’s remarkable cachet in the late twentieth century, we must try to grasp what within our culture signifies ‘historicity’. For whatever else Shakespeare may represent, he has come in the popular imaginary to stand for ‘History itself’. But it is a history that has become increasingly ‘apparitional’ rather than narratological, synchronie rather than diachronic, affective rather than chronological, and aleatory rather than positivistic, a history that has come to function as an unarticulated national philosophy. Of course, an apparitional Shakespeare is entirely appropriate in a culture that seeks ‘the historical’ not in narrative but in ‘appearances’—in the figures of famous persons ‘themselves’. A brief look at the 1992 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure easily demonstrates this phenomenon. Bill and Ted are two middle-class high school seniors in (where else?) Southern California, on the verge of flunking out. Unless they can present a successful history project, Bill and Ted will not graduate from San Dimas
High with their class.2 Faced with this ‘most heinous’ possibility and knowing nothing about history, Bill and Ted manage to attract the help of ersatz-Olympian powers, who equip them with a time machine in the form of a telephone booth (complete with a Dialing-for-Destinies Directory).