The National Catholic Review

In an oft-quoted passage in his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope muses about one of his great heroes, Virgil, making an epochal discovery about his great hero, Homer: “But when to examine every part he came,/ Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.” Three centuries later, the Harvard professor Marjorie Garber ventures a similarly bold claim: “Shakespeare makes modern culture, and modern culture makes Shakespeare.” Really? What about Descartes, Newton, Hume, Marx, Darwin, Einstein and the other usual suspects? Couldn’t we amend that to “major parts of modern Western culture”? Harold Bloom tried this thunderclap routine a decade ago in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, where he flatly declared, “Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention.” Oh these academics, always trying to cause a sensation.

Actually, Garber is not. After that initial over-the-top assertion, she settles down to the more modest task of pointing out some of the myriad ways in which Shakespeare sheds light on our world and vice versa. And with her formidable wit and learning she does a bang-up job.

Focusing on 10 of the greatest plays and proceeding thematically, not chronologically, Garber links each one to a different topic: “The Tempest” (ringing the changes on “man,” including racial, ethnic and other identity issues), “Romeo and Juliet” (youth), “Coriolanus” (alienation, political and otherwise), “Macbeth” (interpretation of the riddles of language, gender and power), “Richard III” (fact versus fiction), “The Merchant of Venice” (authorial intention, anti-Semitism and so forth), “Othello” (racial and other differences), “Henry V” (heroic exemplarity), “Hamlet” (the mysteries of character) and “King Lear” (sublimity).

One can already hear the complaints: What happened to the comedies? (Perhaps their affirmation, however ironic, of patriarchal order and traditional marriage makes them less relevant—too conservative—for moderns.) Where are the unmatchable poetic splendors of “Antony and Cleopatra”? (Perhaps not tragic enough, too sensuously blissed-out.) What of “Henry IV,” especially Part 1? (Falstaff is mentioned briefly—but perhaps the incarnation of Old Vic is too classic and un-self-doubting a figure.) We could go on. But wait, Garber’s book is an essay, not an exhaustive survey.

And she brings to it a dazzling breadth of reference, from the canonical and expected (Dr. Johnson on Cordelia, Freud on Hamlet, Brecht on Coriolanus) to the laughable contemporary (Roz Chast’s New Yorker cartoon of Romeo and Juliet instant-messaging each other: Juliet: xoxoxoxoxoxxxoooxxx gtg. Romeo: k). Garber presents an impressive history of Shakespearean performances that seems to squeeze in every major filmed or live production of the past half-century. She knows directors, actors and (naturally) critics; and she integrates their vision of Shakespeare into both the historical traumas (the Holocaust, for example) and the philosophical dilemmas (existentialist absurdism) of modernity, as well as into the “timeless” texts.

This includes, for instance, reflecting on the shift in approaches to Caliban (from vicious brute to heroic postcolonial rebel) or Shylock (from caricature to noble victim) or Othello (as played by whites in blackface to real blacks). It means exploring the notable careers of actresses who played male Shakespearean leads—Charlotte Cushman as Romeo, Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet—the perfect counterpart to the boy actors playing women in the 17th century. It means delving into the profusion of present-day Shakespearian spinoffs: Laurents-Sondheim-Robbins-Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” Barbara Garson’s “MacBird,” Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Edward Bond’s deliberately repellent “Lear” and even back to Cole Porter and the Spewacks’ “Kiss Me, Kate,” with that unforgettable ditty “Brush up your Shakespeare.” Garber has seen everything. And it involves, as she demonstrates in her long chapter on what is now widely thought to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, “King Lear,” studying how our own changing experiences send us back to the work and let us see things we neglected or underestimated before (the harrowing vistas of cosmic pessimism), which in turn adds depth and complexity to the work.

So does Shakespeare still wear the “not of an age, but for all time” crown bestowed on him by Ben Jonson? Shouldn’t a modern feminist have problems with the idealized perfection (and passivity) of heroines like Cordelia, Desdemona or Miranda? For all his gender-bending, didn’t Shakespeare fail to perceive the radical injustice of Western sexual arrangements? Curiously, Garber does not address such issues.

Still, the bottom line here is not Shakespeare’s magical trans-temporal relevance, but Garber’s knowledgeability and charm as a guide. Who knew that high-priced management gurus ran so many training programs based on the speeches of Henry V—“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” etc.? Today’s budding executives are taught that just as the king had his old comrade Bardolph hanged for robbing a church, so bosses sometimes have to fire their buddies. Garber knows how Shakespeare fits into high school curricula, the current cinema, pop culture and every imaginable detail of American history.

One might wish that Harvard’s William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and American Literature would not use “like” as a conjunction and that she would check her French tags and the dates of some events a bit more carefully; but maybe that’s the sort of sprezzatura that goes with being so hip. She has ably negotiated the always slippery field of popularization, where explaining too little is pedantic and explaining too much is gauche, where you are never quite sure how much your audience knows (so she defines “enjambment” and “stichomythia”). Finally, as readers familiar with her Dog Love (1996) or Shakespeare After All (2004) know, Garber is lively, lucid and full of laughter—not a bad combination in these dark times.

Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.