From one of the world's premier Shakespeare scholars, author of Shakespeare After All ("the indispensable introduction to the indispensable writer"-Newsweek): a magisterial new study whose premise is "that Shakespeare makes modern culture and that modern culture makes Shakespeare."
Shakespeare has determined many of the ideas that we think of as "naturally" our own and even as "naturally" true-ideas about human character, individuality and selfhood, government, leadership, love and jealousy, men and women, youth and age. Yet many of these ideas, timely as ever, have been reimagined-are indeed often now first encountered-not only in modern fiction, theater, film, and the news but also in the literature of psychology, sociology, political theory, business, medicine, and law.
Marjorie Garber delves into ten plays to explore the interrelationships between Shakespeare and twentieth century and contemporary culture-from James Joyce's Ulysses to George W. Bush's reading list. In The Merchant of Venice, she looks at the question of intention; in Hamlet, the matter of character; in King Lear, the dream of sublimity; in Othello, the persistence of difference; and in Macbeth, the necessity of interpretation. She discusses the conundrum of man in The Tempest; the quest for exemplarity in Henry V; the problem of fact in Richard III; the estrangement of self in Coriolanus; and the untimeliness of youth in Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare and Modern Culture is a tour de force reimagining of our own mental and emotional landscape as refracted through the prism of protean "Shakespeare."
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December 08, 2008
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Excerpt from Shakespeare and Modern Culture by Marjorie Garber
The premise of this book is simple and direct: Shakespeare makes modern culture and modern culture makes Shakespeare. I could perhaps put the second "Shakespeare" in quotation marks, so as to indicate that what I have in mind is our idea of Shakespeare and of what is Shakespearean. But in fact it will be my claim that Shakespeare and "Shakespeare" are perceptually and conceptually the same from the viewpoint of any modern observer.
Characters like Romeo, Hamlet, or Lady Macbeth have become cultural types, instantly recognizable when their names are invoked. As will become clear, the modern versions of these figures often differ significantly from their
Shakespearean "originals": a "Romeo" is a persistent romancer and philanderer rather than a lover faithful unto death, a "Hamlet" is an indecisive overthinker, and a "Lady Macbeth," in the public press, is an ambitious female politician who will stop at nothing to gain her own ends. But the very changes marked by these appropriations tell a revealing story about modern culture and modern life.
The idea that Shakespeare is modern is, of course, hardly a modern idea. Indeed, it is one of the fascinating effects of Shakespeare's plays that they have almost always seemed to coincide with the times in which they are read, published, produced, and discussed. But the idea that Shakespeare writes us-as if we were Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, constantly encountering our own prescripted identities, proclivities, beliefs, and behaviors-is, if taken seriously, both exciting and disconcerting.
I will suggest in what follows that Shakespeare has scripted many of the ideas that we think of as "naturally" our own and even as "naturally" true: ideas about human character, about individuality and selfhood, about government, about men and women, youth and age, about the qualities that make a strong leader. Such ideas are not necessarily first encountered today in the realm of literature-or even of drama and theater. Psychology, sociology, political theory, business, medicine, and law have all welcomed and recognized Shakespeare as the founder, authorizer, and forerunner of important categories and practices in their fields. Case studies based on Shakespearean characters and events form an important part of education and theory in leadership institutes and business schools as well as in the history of psychoanalysis. In this sense Shakespeare has made modern culture, and modern culture returns the favor.
The word "Shakespearean" today has taken on its own set of connotations, often quite distinct from any reference to Shakespeare or his plays. A cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan in The New Yorker shows a man and a woman walking down a city street, perhaps headed for a theater or a movie house. The caption reads, "I don't mind if something's Shakespearean, just as long as it's not Shakespeare." "Shakespearean" is now an all- purpose adjective, meaning great, tragic, or resonant: it's applied to events, people, and emotions, whether or not they have any real relevance to Shakespeare.
Journalists routinely describe the disgrace of a public leader as a "downfall of Shakespearean proportions"-as for example in the case of Canadian financier Conrad Black, whose plight was also called a "fall from grace of Shakespearean proportions," and who was described as the victim of a "betrayal of almost Shakespearean proportion." In a book on the U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, a former CIA officer describes the results as "self- imposed tragedies of unplanned- for length and Shakespearean proportions." Here the word "tragedies" makes the link between military misadventures and Shakespearean drama. The effect of a series of Danish cartoons that gave offense to Muslims was "Shakespearean in proportions"; the final episodes of The Sopranos were "a bloodbath of Shakespearean proportions"; and the steroid scandal in professional baseball was a plot that had"thickened to Shakespearean proportions."