Shakespeare and Modern Culture

Shakespeare and Modern Culture. That’s quite a title. A touch monumental, perhaps, for the mass market — the publishers might have preferred something along the lines of Desdemona’s Girdle: Why Shakespeare Will Never Go Out of Style — but then Marjorie Garber is a heavyweight (see below). More to the point, Shakespeare and modern culture happens to be exactly what she is writing about: how the complexes of modernity, the layers of self-awareness stacked wobblingly up and down like the turtles in the Dr. Seuss story, are addressed and illuminated by Shakespeare’s plays. The book’s title, in other words, honestly proclaims its theme: an event in publishing much rarer than the layman might imagine.

Garber, a Harvard professor whose Shakespeare After All (2004) was generally hailed as a triumph of accessible scholarship, sets out her stall in a businesslike manner with an examination of the word “Shakespearean” — swiftly revealed to be a clich? of our time, albeit a very versatile one. Picking with Garber over hasty heaps of journalism, we see that a thing is commonly deemed to be “Shakespearean” or “of Shakespearean proportions” if it is dramatic, romantic, ironic, long-winded, tinted with bombast, or simply complicated — if it is, as Polonius says in Hamlet, in his burbling encomium to the actors who have visited Elsinore, “historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited.” “Over time,” decides Garber simply, “the adjectival form of the playwright’s name has become an intensifier,” (a designation sure to tickle the bones of that eminent Shakespearean Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who invented the verb to intensify). Human experience cranked up: that’s Shakespeare, as we currently perceive him.

But how does he perceive us? is Garber’s question. Or perhaps I should call it her argument, the idea being that the Bard is squinting back at us through the prism of his plays, interrogating us, anatomizing us, and so on. Garber zooms in on Megan Fox?s shoulder — or rather, on some words that the young actress has tattooed there: We will all laugh at gilded butterflies It?s a half quote from King Lear. The original line, Lear?s desperate fantasy of an idyll of confinement with Cordelia, is ?So we?ll live / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh / At gilded butterflies.? Fox?s version transforms it into…something else, something hazily erotic and ambiguously collective and oddly consumerist and faintly religious, something modern: the distance between the two lines is revelatory. Thus is Shakespeare honored equally in the breach, ladies and gentlemen, as in the observance! (Storms of applause.) He watches us, the old wizard: that face, half Gioconda and half turnip, narrows its eyes.

If it were nothing else, Garber?s book would still be a compendious anthology of modern responses to Shakespeare. She begins her discussion of The Tempest with a reference to the extraordinary 2006 documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars — a chronicle of the play?s staging at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky, in which Caliban is played by a cop killer and Prospero by a man who murdered his wife by tossing a hairdryer into her bath. In the chapter on Hamlet we watch as the melancholy prince, hailed by Freud and his psychoanalytic apostles as ?the first neurotic,? becomes a cornerstone of the theory of the Oedipus Complex. Bertolt Brecht, meanwhile, used Coriolanus as a workshop for his ideas on epic theater and the dialectic. (The play itself was by no means inert in this process: Garber makes sure to remind us that ?Shakespeare revises Brecht just as Brecht revises Shakespeare?). And the crooked figure of Richard III retains ?a peculiarly insistent contemporaneity? — a fact that will be eagerly attested to by any journalist who ever interviewed Jello Biafra, lead singer of the Dead Kennedys. (The assassination of JFK, I should add, forms a large part of Garber’s take on regicide, modernity, and Macbeth. )

Garber does considerably more, however, than simply list the many ways in which we have tangled with Shakespeare. Her method is to look through the different readings and misreadings at “the imminent, all-pervasive, numinous play” that sustains and supplies them, considering then the refracted light it sheds upon we tricky moderns. Tracking the popularity of King Lear across the centuries, for instance, the varying estimations accorded it by Samuel Johnson (“I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play…”), by William Hazlitt, and then by the Victorians, she concludes that the ’50s and ’60s were “King Lear time,” when the play’s “bleak, bombed-out landscape of nihilism” and “Beckettian encounters” achieved their most profound cultural resonance. She is using, in effect, the X-ray of Shakespeare to write an interior history of modernity.

I’ll carp at one thing. Actually, I’ll carp at two. Garber’s tendency to dwell excessively on the adaptation under discussion slows the book down (five pages on MacBird?), and there’s also an occasional disunity of tone in Shakespeare and Modern Culture, betraying perhaps an uncertainty as to its intended readership: one minute we are muttering on in professorial code (“adequation,” “supplementarity,” things getting “mapped onto” other things), the next we are being loudly introduced, as if over a cocktail din, to “the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who thought that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Later, we learn of Macbeth that “actors call it ‘the Scottish play,’ refusing to mention its name.” Can it not be assumed that the purchaser of a book called Shakespeare and Modern Culture will have a clue about this stuff, some prior knowledge, if only a tiny bit? Perhaps it can’t. Perhaps, oh dear oh dear, that’s the problem with modern culture.