Sun, Dec 14, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Book Review: What did Shakespeare do for us?

The Bard made modern culture, according to Marjorie Garber, though following her argument requires wading through sometimes-specious points to find the sharply incisive ones

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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If you gave typewriters to an infinite number of monkeys, one of them would eventually quote Shakespeare. That was an oft-repeated theory, but it has now been supplanted by a timelier model. Give search-engine capability to an infinite number of Shakespeare scholars, one of them will eventually discover factoids like the following:

• Macbare, Macbuff and Out Damn Spot are the Macbeth-inspired names of makeup products.

• In popular films that have slight debts to The Tempest, Ariel has variously been played by Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet) and Wilson the Volleyball (Cast Away).

• It’s easier to sing, “just like Romeo and Juliet,” as the Detroit doo-wop group the Reflections did in 1964, than “just like Troilus and Cressida.”

• Motivational speakers who provide Shakespeare-inspired lessons to captains of industry have described the Welsh forests of Henry V as the Silicon Valley of their day. And “while Henry doesn’t have the luxury of a policy-planning staff and off-site strategizing meetings,” a firm called Movers & Shakespeares instructs, “he proves himself a great leader in identifying and then pursuing a clear vision.”

These and many other such nuggets have been strung together by Marjorie Garber, an esteemed and apparently unstoppable scholar, in Shakespeare and Modern Culture, the latest of her many Shakespeare-centric academic treatises. She has already written Shakespeare After All, not to mention Profiling Shakespeare, Dream in Shakespeare, Coming of Age in Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality and at least one essay about Shakespeare and dogs that manages to mention two St Bernards featured in Beethoven’s 2nd, the movie about cute canines.

Now Garber singles out a new aspect of Shakespeare’s versatility. As her latest title indicates, she is out to assert that “Shakespeare makes modern culture, and modern culture makes Shakespeare.” In true academic fashion Garber loves that kind of commutative construction, the chiasmus. Shakespeare loved this too, and Garber has the chiasmi to prove it, straight from the source. (“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” etc.) She is happy to compound her book’s facile inversions by calling her method, at one point, “as much pedagogical as heuristic (and as much heuristic as pedagogical.)”

Why, then, should readers follow Garber’s frequently glib trail through Shakespeare’s body of work? Because her sometimes-preposterous book mixes specious points with sharply incisive ones, and her good ideas are worth the trouble. If some of her associations are far more tenuous than others, she does bind them together with an overarching idea.

Shakespeare’s work, in her opinion, is so constantly mutable that it always exists in the present, whatever that present might be. The ways in which Shakespeare is interpreted in different eras say as much about those time periods as they do about the writing itself.

With modernity as her hook this time, Garber makes Romeo and Juliet her most cogent topic point. Her focus here is on youth and romantic love, but Garber traces their evolution insightfully. In past times the world has seen a 44-year-old male Romeo (Charles Kemble in 1819) and a heavy-set, middle-aged 19th-century female Romeo (Charlotte Cushman) who played opposite her own sister. The very impossibility of such casting today makes Garber’s point about the play’s evolution.

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