Shakespeare, 'Tis Modern Culture and Modern Culture, 'Tis Shakespeare

'Shakespeare and Modern Culture' by Marjorie Garber (Pantheon)

“The premise of this book is a simple and direct one: that Shakespeare makes modern culture and that modern culture makes Shakespeare.”

So does English and VES professor Marjorie Garber open her newest book, “Shakespeare and Modern Culture,” leaving no uncertainty as to exactly what she will teach her readers in the upcoming 326 pages. Upon first glance, this claim may seem broad and deterministic, but by the book’s end, Garber has tied every possible loose end, explored the selected plays to what seems their absolute fullest extent, and provided her readers with an understanding of Shakespeare to rival even the most in-depth college courses.

One of the greatest virtues of Garber’s newest work is her skillful combination of broad scope and insightful depth, as she chooses 10 plays to examine in the context of modern culture. These are 10 of the more widely recognized theatrical works by the Bard, and by her careful selection Garber widens her potential audience to those who may have had little Shakespeare exposure (including, as Garber informs us in the introduction, George W. Bush).

Each chapter (and, in turn, each play examined) concentrates on a specific issue of modernity. For “The Tempest,” it is “the Conundrum of Man;” for “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Untimeliness of Youth;” for “Coriolanus,” “The Estrangement of Self;” and so forth. With each focus, Garber effectively channels her interpretations of the modern contexts for these plays so that by the end of each chapter, we not only have a comprehensive understanding of the play’s place in the modern world but also a specific idea about what seems its greatest contribution to modernity.

Discussing “Romeo and Juliet,” Garber argues that it is what she calls “The Untimeliness of Youth” that preserves its popularity. “It is the brevity and compression of their story, the impressionistic sense that their lives, and not only the play that bears their names, constitute a ‘two-hours’ traffic,’ that has made this tragedy about untimely love so poignant, so ‘modern,’ and so timely.” It is this factor—now associated with our concept of “youth culture”—that Garber emphasizes, pointing to film, modern theater (specifically, “West Side Story”), music, cartoons, and even commercials. At the end of her argument, we cannot deny that as much as we have been influenced by this play, we have influenced how it is presently read.

The thorough analysis of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in the context of the influences of “Hamlet” is enthralling enough to make one want to watch both, whether it be for the first time or for the fifth. Garber demonstrates how Stoppard’s play is an inversion of Shakespeare’s while similarly dealing with existential crises: “Stoppard’s play both interprets and upends ‘Hamlet.’ It is ‘Hamlet’ inside out, so to speak, seen from the green room or the wrong end of a telescope.”

Garber’s breadth of knowledge of the themes and characters in these plays can even make the readers feel as if they have met the playwright himself, although she reminds us that we mustn’t sink to believing myths about the Shakespeare-the-person. The chapter on the “Merchant of Venice” (subtitled “The Question of Intention”) grapples with the problem of Shakespeare’s motive in the representation of Jews via Shylock. Garber seems to bring us increasingly closer to Shakespeare by means of her meticulous analysis of the character’s development over time in productions and in secondary literature. Although she reminds us repeatedly that we will never know the playwright or the definitive answer to the problems Shylock presents, Garber brings us as close as possible to this Elizabethan genius of theater.

It’s a good thing that the book focuses on these better known works, as a lack of familiarity with one or more of the plays will diminish the amount of insight that one can glean. Knowing at least the basic plot proves necessary for full appreciation of Garber’s Shakespearian wisdom. But having read all the plays is not necessary; just about anyone would possess enough knowledge of the basic plot of “Romeo and Juliet” to appreciate that chapter. And this, in a sense, is part of Garber’s overall point.

So while Garber tells us outright what she’s going to accomplish in her book, she does anything but spoil the surprise. Each chapter opens another door to our understanding of Shakespeare’s works and thereby the overall influences of literature in our modern culture. It would be unfair to merely say that Garber’s newest text doesn’t disappoint; it is rich with insight and with humor, bringing to life (for the thousandth time, perhaps, but with new light) these texts and stories, taking readers beyond the “to be or not to be.” Whether we know it or try to deny it, Shakespeare’s works have shaped the ways we view the world. It may just take Garber’s magic touch to realize it.