Thursday, January 28, 2010

King Lear and Holden Caufield

JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, has died.  He was 91.

When a celebrity dies (be they famous for movies, television or even literature!), I go poking around to see if there’s any Shakespeare connection to make.  Other than a funny non-starter on WikiAnswers looking for a comparison between Hamlet and Holden Caufield, I found a larger story about Salinger’s position on copyrighting of specific characters…

http://blogs.geniocity.com/friedman/2009/06/doesnt-art-require-the-use-of-symbols-that-resonate-with-the-culture-jd-salinger-and-his-ownership-of-holden-caulfield-compared-to-shakespeare-and-his-theft-of-king-lear/

(Big link!)

The gist of the story is that if you can claim ownership of a character like JD Salinger attempts to do with Caufield, then Shakespeare would never have been able to write King Lear.  The article does an admirable job of tracing back the “ownership” of all Shakespeare’s ideas in that play, at least as far as characters are concerned.

I wonder if this is perhaps making a mountain of a molehill.  Isn’t this what we have public domain for, and the whole “past the life of the author” thing?  If you create a character, and you are still alive to speak for that character, then aren’t you allowed to determine who uses that character?  Am I missing something?  Once the author has died, and time has passed (presumably allowing his estate to continue to receive benefit from his work?), then you can use his creation as you will.

The Shakespeare case is not really comparable, what with Lear being based on a “semi-legendary” figure.  I think that multiple interpretations of a fairy tale are of a different nature than taking the specific creation of one author and trying to appropriate it for yourself.

6 comments:

Stacie said...

Not to mention that Hamlet was also an ancient story, Romeo and Juliet based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, etc.

I love Salinger, but Shakespeare always wins. There's obviously a history behind copyright laws and how and why they've developed.

American Delight said...

"If you create a character, and you are still alive to speak for that character, then aren’t you allowed to determine who uses that character?"

But authors' relatives are carrying it even farther than that. I think Margaret Mitchell's estate--and even Hitler's nephew--have sued for copyright infringement or for book royalties.

Maybe we should have character "patents." You get to invent a character and profit from it for 10 or 20 years, but then anybody has a right to replicate your character in whatever form they like after that. Just a thought!

Sam Wood said...

Thanks for this really stimulating post. It set me off on one at The Shakespeare Standard. I think that characters are copyright. In fact, it would seem that it was on this basis that Salinger won. His antagonist didn't do anything with Caulfield. With respect to Shakespeare, he did a lot with his characters, however much his stories derive from other sources.

http://theshakespearestandard.com/2010/01/29/shakespeare_and_salinger/

Brian said...

All stories are the same.
Man vs Man
Man vs Nature
Man vs Himself
and maybe in the first part of the 21st century
Man vs Technology

Ray Eston Smith Jr said...

Shakespeare seems to have been the originator of a lot of common English words. If Will had been more like Bill (Gates), we'd still be paying royalties on those words four centuries later. You'd have to add to the Bard's billions every time you ordered "anchovies" on your pizza.

See http://www.pathguy.com/shakeswo.htm Words and Phrases Coined by Shakespeare

Joel said...

I realize that you are talking about "ownership" of character, but I couldn't resist the following observation.

I just read Catcher in the Rye. Salinger weaves Hamlet into the story when Holden is discussing literature. I believe in this part of the story Salinger is trying to suggest that Holden's coming of age is akin to Hamlet's dilemma with justice. At the very least each character is bewildered about how to extract himself from a situation with no apparent exit. One must compromise, lie and dissimulate or be compromised.

Given this kinship with Shakespeare's Hamlet (who is also borrowed from previous works), it seems that ownership of a character is impossible, but its motivation is understandable. It is a desperate attempt to keep the publications of 'phony' and copycat authors out of the hands of a reading public that is too feckless to know the difference between works of art and mass entertainment.