The Garber Guide to Shakespeare
December 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
What’s in a name, you say? Well, for one, some are more important than others. William Shakespeare’s, for instance, is a name that has launched a thousand books, movies, papers, theses, articles, university courses and lecture series. Marjorie Garber, who has made a very successful career out of popularizing Shakespeare at Yale and Harvard, lists 28 pages full of ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ at the end of her book, thus establishing it as an introductory text to Shakespeare’s plays as well as to the plethora of literature surrounding them.
This isn’t my first Shakespeare-expounding treatise – a few years ago, I read Harold Bloom‘s Invention of the Human (reviewed here) just before I read the plays themselves. It was Bloom who helped me wade through the plays (like a ghostly Virgil leading Dante through the circles of Hell, only in a good way) – and now, my familiarity with the plays, in turn, has helped me navigate Marjorie Garber’s book. In general, Bloom’s views were more extreme, and he expressed them with more superlatives and bombast, and he brooked no doubt or opposition to his views. Garber, on the other hand, is more comfortable with ambiguity, is tolerant of opposing views, and treats the plays as ‘living works of art’ that can and must be interpreted differently with every passing generation. “The ambivalence and ambiguity that emerge from a reading or staging of the play,” for Garber, “are not a sign of its failure, but rather of its signal success. The play produces upon its audience the effect that it also instates and describes in its characters.”
Therefore, rather than to try and guess the intentions and argue the morality of William Shakespeare the 17th century man from the vantage point of 20th century society (was he anti-Semitic in Merchant of Venice, racist in Othello, chauvinistic in The Taming of the Shrew, or imperialist in The Tempest?), she takes the plays for exactly what they are – stage productions to entertain an Elizabethian and Jamesian audience – and concentrates on the characters (and their relationships), the language, the structure of the plays, the historical backdrops, and a few familiar themes across plays – cross-dressing women, or in general, women who talk about acting like men (Garber never fails to remind us at every such point that all female roles were played, in that age, by cross-dressing boys), madness (King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth) which she explains rather nicely as a dramatic device that allows the victim to speak the truth – and be disbelieved; and the recurrence of certain character types across plays – for instance, she points out how Iago, Richard III, Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Prince Hal, Octavius Caesar, and Edmund are identical in that they are all pragmatic, uncompromising and coldblooded men of action, while Richard II, Anthony, King Lear, Henry IV and Edgar are all thinkers and romantics, people with a conscience, who talk incessantly (and brilliantly) but don’t do an awful lot. (Hamlet, she says, is a bit of both; he soliloquises throughout the first half, but has no delusions about himself or anyone else, and when he finally gets to work in the second, he is as much a man of action as anyone else)
Sprinkled throughout Garber’s text are tidbits of interesting historical trivia. For instance, that Henry VI Part 2 was initially published as ‘The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster’ (possibly making Henry VI Part 1 the world’s first prequel ); that the Globe Theater burnt down during the first staging of Henry VIII; that there were very few history plays before 1588, when the Spanish Armada was defeated by English ships, but nearly 200 were written and staged between then and the turn of the century, an indication of the new, growing nationalist spirit sweeping through the country.
For Garber, knowledge of the context is indispensable for an appreciation of the text. Her only pet peeve (unlike Bloom, Garber doesn’t have a long list of dislikes) is people who quote Shakespeare from a book or website of quotations, without any context or having read the plays themselves. She warns them about Shakespeare’s tendency to put quotable platitudes into the mouths of characters whose actions don’t actually fit the words they speak. We tend to forget (or ignore, or not know) that it was the villainous Cassius who pioneered the ‘lean and hungry look‘, the murdering Macbeth who was first described as being ‘full of the milk of human kindness’, the shamelessly immoral Iago who protests,’he who steals my purse steals trash…but he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed‘, and it was the pompous, prolix Polonius who first declared that brevity is the soul of wit. And when Juliet sighs, ‘What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ she realizes what her modern echoers don’t – that a name is, in fact, all-important (and so, she says, wherefore art thou Romeo? Which of course means, why -not where, as commonly misconceived- why are you Romeo, and not of some other name). By not knowing the context, we risk conveying the opposite of what we mean, at least to knowledgeable and pedantic listeners. The joke would then be on the unwitting quoter, insists Garber. Sadly, few – far too few – would know Shakespeare’s original intentions well enough to snigger with her. Besides, a cogent case could be made that it is not Juliet or Iago or Lady Macbeth who is being quoted, nor even Shakespeare, but that over time, these aphorisms have become part of the fabric of our culture and of language itself, and have dusted off their original context long ago.
A writer’s greatest achievement is when his words cease to be his alone, and become idioms that belong to the world at large; as public memory fades of him as the original craftsman of those aphorisms, so, Phoenix-like, does he emerge as an immortal author of language itself.
What is in the name, I wonder again. Why is this book called ‘Shakespeare After All’? Perhaps it is because Garber talks about something that we are – or should be – all familiar with, and should not see as a distant, obscure object (as in, it’s only Shakespeare, after all). Or perhaps it is because she attempts to explain the marvels in the text by pointing to the genius of the writer (as in, don’t be too surprised that it is brilliant – after all, it is Shakespeare, you know). But above all, I think, Garber means to talk about Shakespeare’s relevance in today’s world; I’d like to believe that Garber means to talk of Shakespeare After All These Centuries. In doing this, she is ultimately in complete agreement with Bloom’s conclusion as well: that Shakespeare is modern – incredibly, unbelievably modern – in language and characterization, and this is largely because in many ways, it was because of him that we speak and think like we do.