Shakespeare and Modern Culture

March 5, 2009

Last Christmas, my Arkansan in-laws gave me Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan. It is a DVD in which Cowboy Jack Clement, who wrote songs for Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, among others, converses and sings with a cartoon Shakespeare whose gravelly voice is provided by Johnny Cash. At one point, Clement croons "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more" from Much Ado about Nothing. The juxtaposition of Stratford bard and Nashville good ol' boy is startling and faintly farcical. The witty reversal of the DVD's title (which suggests that Shakespeare's work has been influenced by the great country singer) illustrates the capacity of country and western music to undercut itself with irony. But the DVD also illustrates the central contention of Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare and Modern Culture: "Shakespeare makes modern culture and modern culture makes Shakespeare" - Clement's music shapes Shakespeare's lyric so that the two can be said to have collaborated on the song.

So far, so good, but the problem of Garber's title (and the entire book) lies in the "and". For while her readings of usual suspects such as Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres testify to the pervasive afterlife of Shakespeare's genius, the siting of Shakespeare amid contemporary popular culture is not as straightforward as Garber would have us believe. The fact that some marketing wit in a camping equipment shop decided to promote its merchandise with a poster reading "Now is the winter of our discount tents" does not mean that "Shakespeare is already not only modern but postmodern: a simulacrum, a replicant, a montage, a bricolage. A collection of found objects, repurposed as art." Shakespeare is not "art" here - he is a clever advertising tag.

One is left with the sense that Garber cracks nuts with sledgehammers. Again, the fact that a glamorous Hollywood starlet has a misquotation from King Lear tattooed on her shoulder probably does demonstrate "a desire to quote Shakespeare", but it hardly supports the grand claim that, in this case, Shakespeare "lends cultural credence and cultural capital" - when did you last see Dame Judi Dench in a tattoo parlour?

Frequently, Garber's penchant for chiasmus pushes her into making unfeasible claims: "The past creates the future; the future creates the past" would be more at home in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets than in a critical explication of literary culture. Again, "we think in Shakespeare, as Shakespeare thinks in us" - not only is this an empty rhetorical flourish but there is also an intractable problem with that ostensibly democratising "we/us". When it was announced late last year that David Tennant had injured his back and his role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet would be played by the understudy, there were tears from a group of middle-aged women in the foyer of London's Novello Theatre. One of the women shouted that she had paid £800 for her ticket. They were thinking in Dr Who, not Hamlet.

No one could possibly doubt Shakespeare's importance "as a cultural icon". Indeed, as Michael Dobson, Gary Taylor and Terence Hawkes have been insisting for the best part of 30 years, Shakespeare has maintained a ubiquitous presence since the 18th century. Moreover, the work of the aforementioned scholars is considerably more rigorous than what passes for criticism here. The mendacity of Richard III is mentioned alongside the fact that a drug addict's memoir, chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, turned out to be fabricated. The Beatles on a zebra crossing on the cover of Abbey Road somehow speaks (we're not told how exactly) to the black/white issues of Othello. "Nothing", declaims Garber, "is a central thematic" (a very vile phrase, that) in King Lear - and, she continues, Seinfeld "was widely described as 'the show about nothing'": QED.

Shakespeare and Modern Culture

By Marjorie Garber. Pantheon Books, 368pp, £21.16. ISBN 9780307377678. Published 9 December 2008

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