Click here to read reviewer Alan Elsner's take on Shakespeare and Modern Culture.
Our current president, George W. Bush, didn’t take any college courses on Shakespeare. Some CEOs are required to. A generation ago, Shakespeare was commonly taught in high schools. Now his works are seen as electives, part of an English survey class, perhaps, at university. Yet…Shakespeare’s influence on us is pervasive. One of the most repeated phrases in the American/English language is “catch a cold” – a phrase creatively invented by William Shakespeare, an English playwright who died in respectable poverty nearly 400 years ago.
Marjorie Garber is a Harvard University Professor of English whose love for all things Shakespearian can be readily guessed by her authorship of this book and an earlier work,
Shakespeare After All. In this readable, scholarly new book, she seeks to demonstrate how close to the cultural bone Shakespeare lies. Not only has Garber ferreted out many obscure facts about the man and his times, the long history of his plays and how they have been produced and perceived over these
three hundred years, but she also explicates how the concepts embedded in the works are hardwired into our Anglo psyche. With Shakespeare, one is dealing in archetypes, mythology, science, politics, sex, psychology, pathology, symbolism and words, words, words. Even the word “Shakespeare” has been disconnected from the man, to mean a vast host of different interlocking things to different unconnected people, over a long span of time with no apparent diminishment.
The book, based on the premise that not only do Shakespeare’s plays always seem to “coincide with the times in which they are read, published, produced and discussed,” but that in a sense, Shakespeare writes us, like M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands” (reproduced in the book along with many other small illustrations) in which hands merge with the paper to draw one another, or the Magritte painting marvelously titled “The Human Condition,” in which a canvas set on an easel by the window is, not just depicts, the landscape outside the window. Our language and culture are so immersed in Shakespeare that we often don’t know it.
Going through each of the best-known plays chapter by chapter, the author cites many examples of her thesis. It is not merely art imitating life; it is life imitating Shakespeare. The great revolutionary Franz Fanon made a study of the character and treatment of Caliban by Prospero in
The Tempest to illustrate how arrogant white males regard those of lesser rank and race.
The Merchant of Venice was happily made a tool of Nazi propaganda, and even Henry Ford used it as a basis for his anti-Semitic rants. It isn’t simply that the phrase “band of brothers” comes straight out of Shakespeare’s
Henry V – it’s that, as Garber proposes, the play deals with the traits of exemplary men, men who will never have to endure shame for not having stood the test of real battle.
Garber emphasizes that being timeless does not exclude Shakespeare from being timely. The fact that we as a culture have internalized Shakespeare indicates a hopeful spirit, “the wish that something should endure, something made by man, something to show that we have been here and touched the world.” For those of us who, like Garber, revere the man and his brilliance and cut our teeth on his magnificent plays and poems, the book is a feast.