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Shakespeare in Our Times: To Beep or Not to Beep

The book “Shakespeare and Modern Culture” hits shelves today.

Marjorie Garber

Marjorie Garber

Photo By Beverly Hall

In seminars at Harvard and in five books on the works of William Shakespeare, the scholar Marjorie Garber, 64, has examined everything from the roles race and gender play in his work to the relationships the playwright had in life with women, his queen and his dogs. Now, with the book “Shakespeare and Modern Culture,” hitting shelves today, Garber attempts to make sense of the references to his plays in our coverage of people like O.J. Simpson and Conrad Black. She spoke to WWD.

WWD: Your new book mentions everyone from Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love to George W. Bush. Is there anyone famous who isn’t in some way a character from one of Shakespeare’s 38 plays?
Marjorie Garber: No, I think not. Shakespeare has envisaged modern culture in an extremely open way. The other way to say this is that, as we get a new cast of characters in Washington, analogies to Shakespeare will pop up in the press and on “Saturday Night Live.” Shakespeare functions as a kind of cultural template for us. It’s a measuring stick or common denominator that makes sense to people.

WWD: Yes. During the last couple of years, I began to wonder if the designation of every major news event as “Shakespearean” was a sign of how influential he is or merely how little anyone reads nowadays. Has this designation become something of a cliché?
M.G.: Absolutely, it is a complete Ford, though maybe one shouldn’t say that now that the Big Three are going down. Perhaps one should say Honda. But “Shakespearean” has come to mean anything beyond the common experience that’s either wonderful or terrible. And it is often used by people who don’t read Shakespeare.

WWD: Of all the references to Shakespeare in modern culture, none is more ubiquitous than the description of Hillary Clinton as Lady Macbeth. But I was a little surprised to see Condoleezza Rice mentioned in your book.
M.G.: The ubiquity of the Lady Macbeth references suggests that we don’t have a lot of alternative terms for powerful women seen to be ambitious. There could be other such figures chosen from Shakespeare, but no one gets called a Volumnia. When people grasp for a quick verbal snapshot of a powerful woman about whom they feel some ambivalence, Lady Macbeth comes to mind. I don’t think there’s a particularly close analogy between what Condoleezza Rice has done and what Lady Macbeth did.

WWD: Another Shakespearean character journalists are constantly referencing is Iago, whom you say is having a “moment” in pop culture. What do you attribute this to?
M.G.: He’s a powerful voice behind the scenes. And what I was trying to trace in the chapter on Othello was to find the Iago figure in every administration, and it was not always a negative criticism in some of these cases. Often, there was a kind of tacit admiration for their manipulative powers. It’s a code word for a successful manipulator behind the scenes. Karl Rove was such a figure. Success breeds its own admiration.

WWD: Recently, there’s been an avalanche of Shakespeare references in advertising. What are some of your favorites?
M.G.: “To beep or not to beep” is one. I love that. “Now is the winter of our discount tents” is another. There are lots. People enjoy taking Shakespeare out of context. It doesn’t do any harm to the plays.

WWD: You mentioned that as we get a new cast of characters in Washington, we’ll get a new slate of references, but it seems to me that perhaps the only modern political figure without obvious parallels to Shakespeare’s most famous protagonists is the man we just elected president. If Shakespeare is so important to modern culture, what does the advent of “no drama Obama” point to? Might we finally be tired with everything being “Shakespearean?”
M.G.: Well, the book was concluded in the early summer, so it wasn’t able to address the election results. But “no drama Obama” is just right and there’s a couple of analogies that can be made. At the end of many of the plays, a figure arises who attempts to reconcile various warring sides and look forward to a future which is not going to be tragic or comic. It’s the Act Six. Figures like Edgar at the end of “King Lear,” or Malcolm at the end of “Macbeth” or Octavius at the end of “Antony and Cleopatra.” These are not perfect analogies, but there’s an attempt in the plays to put the drama behind us.

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