Shakespeare and Modern Culture

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The premise of this book is simple and direct: Shakespeare makes modern culture and modern culture makes Shakespeare. I could perhaps put the second “Shakespeare” in quotation marks, so as to indicate that what I have in mind is our idea of Shakespeare and of what is Shakespearean. But in fact it will be my claim that Shakespeare and “Shakespeare” are perceptually and conceptually the same from the viewpoint of any modern observer.


Characters like Romeo, Hamlet, or Lady Macbeth have become cultural types, instantly recognizable when their names are invoked. As will become clear, the modern versions of these figures often differ significantly from their Shakespearean “originals”: a “Romeo” is a persistent romancer and philanderer rather than a lover faithful unto death, a “Hamlet” is an indecisive overthinker, and a “Lady Macbeth,” in the public press, is an ambitious female politician who will stop at nothing to gain her own ends. But the very changes marked by these appropriations tell a revealing story about modern culture and modern life.


The idea that Shakespeare is modern is, of course, hardly a modern idea. Indeed, it is one of the fascinating effects of Shakespeare’s plays that they have almost always seemed to coincide with the times in which they are read, published, produced, and discussed. But the idea that Shakespeare writes us-as if we were Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, constantly encountering our own prescripted identities, proclivities, beliefs, and behaviors-is, if taken seriously, both exciting and disconcerting.


I will suggest in what follows that Shakespeare has scripted many of the ideas that we think of as “naturally” our own and even as “naturally” true: ideas about human character, about individuality and selfhood, about government, about men and women, youth and age, about the qualities that make a strong leader. Such ideas are not necessarily first encountered today in the realm of literature-or even of drama and theater. Psychology, sociology, political theory, business, medicine, and law have all welcomed and recognized Shakespeare as the founder, authorizer, and forerunner of important categories and practices in their fields. Case studies based on Shakespearean characters and events form an important part of education and theory in leadership institutes and business schools as well as in the history of psychoanalysis. In this sense Shakespeare has made modern culture, and modern culture returns the favor.


The word “Shakespearean” today has taken on its own set of connotations, often quite distinct from any reference to Shakespeare or his plays. A cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan in The New Yorker shows a man and a woman walking down a city street, perhaps headed for a theater or a movie house. The caption reads, “I don’t mind if something’s Shakespearean, just as long as it’s not Shakespeare.” “Shakespearean” is now an all- purpose adjective, meaning great, tragic, or resonant: it’s applied to events, people, and emotions, whether or not they have any real relevance to Shakespeare.


Journalists routinely describe the disgrace of a public leader as a “downfall of Shakespearean proportions”-as for example in the case of Canadian financier Conrad Black, whose plight was also called a “fall from grace of Shakespearean proportions,” and who was described as the victim of a “betrayal of almost Shakespearean proportion.” In a book on the U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, a former CIA officer describes the results as “self- imposed tragedies of unplanned- for length and Shakespearean proportions.” Here the word “tragedies” makes the link between military misadventures and Shakespearean drama. The effect of a series of Danish cartoons that gave offense to Muslims was “Shakespearean in proportions”; the final episodes of The Sopranos were “a bloodbath of Shakespearean proportions”; and the steroid scandal in professional baseball was a plot that had”thickened to Shakespearean proportions.”


Vivid personalities like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and William Randolph Hearst have likewise been described as figures of “Shakespearean proportions” or “Shakespearean dimensions.” Nor is it only national or international news that now makes the Shakespeare grade: a headline in the Daily Telegraph of London declared that “throwing a children’s party can be a drama of Shakespearean proportions.” And an article in the tabloid New York Post began, “A Shakespearean tragedy played out on a Long Island street where a boozed- up young woman unknowingly dragged her boyfriend under her car for more than a block as he tried to stop her from driving drunk.” “Shakespearean” in these contexts means something like “ironic” or “astonishing” or “uncannily well plotted.” Over time the adjectival form of the playwright’s name has become an intensifier, indicating a degree of magnitude, a scale of effect.


Why should this be the case? And what does it say about the interrelationship between Shakespeare and modern culture?


“Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how,” says one earnest young man in a Jane Austen novel to another. “It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution,” his companion is quick to concur. “No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” he says, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.” This was modern culture, circa 1814. In the view of these disarmingly ordinary, not very bookish observers, Shakespeare was the author of their common language, the poet and playwright who inspired and shaped their thought.


In 1828 Sir Walter Scott, already a celebrated novelist, “visited the tomb of the mighty wizard,” as he wrote. He had a plaster cast made of the Shakespeare portrait bust in Holy Trinity Church, and he designed “a proper shrine for the Bard of Avon” in the library of his home at Abbotsford, making sure that the bust was “fitted with an altar worthy of himself.” Scott noticed that the two of them-Scott and Shakespeare-shared the same initials, W.S. He had their head sizes measured and compared by a German phrenologist. A bust of Scott was designed to resemble that of the other Bard, and after Scott’s death the bust of his head replaced that of Shakespeare in the library. Admiration here became identification-or perhaps a kind of rivalry.


Shakespeare’s modernity would also be proclaimed in nineteenth- century America. In 1850 Ralph Waldo Emerson announced that, after centuries in which Shakespeare had been inadequately understood, the time was finally right for him: “It was not possible to write the history of Shakespeare till now,” Emerson wrote. The word “now” in his argument becomes the marker of that shifting category of the modern, and it is repeated for emphasis a few lines later. “Now, literature, philosophy, and thought, are Shakespearized. His mind is the horizon beyond which, at present, we do not see. Our ears are educated to music by his rhythm.”13 Thus Emerson could say of Shakespeare, simply and resoundingly, “he wrote the text of modern life.” We live today in a new “now,” a century and a half removed from Emerson’s, but this sentiment-“he wrote the text of modern life”-seems as accurate as it did then.


Nor-as we have already noted-is this view the special province of literary authors. The frequency with which practitioners and theorists of many of the “new” modern sciences and social sciences-anthropology, psychology, sociology-have turned to Shakespeare for inspiration is striking, but not surprising. Ernest Jones, Freud’s friend and biographer, the first English language practitioner of psychoanalysis, declared straightforwardly (in an essay he began in 1910, revised in 1923, and expanded in the 1940s)that “Shakespeare was the first modern.” Why? Because he understood so well the issues of psychology. “The essential difference between prehistoric and civilized man,” Jones argued, was that “the difficulties with which the former had to contend came from without,” while “those with which the latter have to contend really come from within,”


This inner conflict modern psychologists know as neurosis, and it is only by study of neurosis that one can learn the fundamental motives and instincts that move men. Here, as in so many other respects, Shakespeare was the first modern.


Thus for Jones, Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy, the onstage, interior questioning of a character’s conflicted thoughts and motives, anticipated the new science of psychoanalysis and Freud’s “talking cure.”


THE “text of modern life” these days is embedded in a network of text messaging, Internet connections, video clips, and file sharing. Shakespeare in our culture is already disseminated, scattered, appropriated, part of the cultural language, high and low. An advertisement for rugged outdoors types advertised a sale: “Now Is the Winter of Our Discount Tents.” This turned out also to be the name of a rock compilation by the label Twisted Nerve. At the same time, in London, the White Cube Gallery presented an exhibition of work by British artist Neal Tait, titled “Now Is the Discount of Our Winter Tents.” Manifestly, none of these tweaked or inverted phrases would offer much in the way of wit or appeal if the cultural consumer did not recognize, or half recognize, the phrase on which each is based: the opening soliloquy of Richard III, in which the envious and aspiring Gloucester observes, in a classic of double- meaning enjambment, that “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York” (1.1.1-2). So we might say 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.


Our Shakespeare is often “sampled” and “texted” in forms from advertising to cartoon captions. Lady Macbeth’s exclamation in the sleepwalking scene, “Out, damned spot!” (Macbeth 4.1.33), is so well-known that it has been used to describe stain removers, acne medicine, and cleaning technologies for semiconductors. An ad for Hard Candy cosmetics extends the literary allusion, offering not only the “Out Damn Spot” concealer pencil to cover up blemishes, but also a coordinated line of makeup called “Macbare” and “Macbuff.” I call this a “literary allusion,” but it is a quite different kind from those of an earlier period. Although the writers of copy here assume a recognition of Macbeth as the source, there is no extended expectation of familiarity with the text. The wit inheres in the dislocation from context(“Lay on, Macbuff “?).


Popular culture examples of this kind are virtually ubiquitous. Hamlet’s phrase “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (Hamlet 3.1.79-80) has been used as the subtitle of Star Trek VI, the title of an art exhibition on representational painting at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the brand name of a company offering bicycle tours in California. The bionic skeleton used for decades by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate artificial body parts was named Yorick, after “the exhumed skull in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Sometimes the Shakespeare quotation has moved so far into the mainstream that there is little or no acknowledgment of any connection with the source. Economist Greg Mankiw chose the phrase “Strange Bedfellows” as the headline of a short piece on Al Gore and supply- side economists of the 1980s. Although there may have been some tacit comparison between these figures and Shakespeare’s Caliban and Trinculo, there’s no evidence of it in the piece-and really no necessity. Shakespeare sampled, Shakespeare quoted without quotation marks, has become a lingua franca of modern cultural exchange.


The cultural “Q” value of something often goes up when its familiarity and utility go down. An antique shop that specializes in folk art will display objects like churns, crocks, quilts, and spinning wheels-once valued for their use and now many times more valuable, in sheer dollar terms, despite being useless. And the further we get as a society from intimate knowledge of the language and characters of the plays, the more “love” of Shakespeare begins to be expressed as a cultural value. Shakespeare’s plays are probably read and studied more, these days, before and after college-in high school and in reading groups, extension courses, lifelong learning and leadership institutes, and in the preparation of audiences attending play productions-than during the four years of traditional undergraduate college education. Preprofessional training starts earlier, college majors are more specialized than once they were, and there is less expectation of a broad general education or liberal arts foundation than was the case a generation or two ago. Shakespeare becomes the treat, as well as the all- purpose cultural upgrade, for which time is found later in life, after more basic, pragmatic skills and knowledge are acquired.


Thus it is not perhaps a surprise to discover that some of the most avid and interested students of Shakespeare today are businesspeople, CEOs and CFOs of major national and international companies. Shakespeare’s plays are now being used, regularly and with success, to teach corporate executives lessons about business. A few of the analogies the CEOs and their facilitators make may seem facile (the appearance of the ghost of old Hamlet is like the reminder that executives are accountable to their shareholders; CEOs, like the kings and queens in the plays, have to face the necessity of betraying-or firing-their friends). But the business of teaching Shakespeare- in- business has become popular and lucrative as a sideline for both government officials no longer in power and Shakespeare companies struggling to make a living. The play that has most galvanized business leaders has been Henry V, whose protagonist, the leader of a “band of brothers,” produced unit cohesion and triumphed against apparently insurmountable odds; I use some of the discussions among what might be called “business Shakespeareans” as examples in my chapter on that play.


In these encounters, “Shakespeare” often becomes a standardized plot, a stereotypical character, and, especially, a moral or ethical choice-not to mention the ubiquitous favorite, “a voice of authority,” as if it were possible to locate “his” voice among the mix of Hamlet, Macbeth, Falstaff, Rosalind, Portia, Iago, the Ghost, and the Fool. (The CEOs are not often asked to see the play through the lens of a minor character, an old man, a young woman, an attendant lord, or a common soldier; they are kings and queens, generals, Machiavels, decision makers all.) What may sometimes drop out here, crucially, is the complexity of language and of plotting, the ultimate undecidability or overdetermination of phrases, words, and actions. Reading against the grain-trying to gather a multiplicity of sometimes conflicting meanings from any staged scene or passage-itself cuts against the grain of CEO management and decision- making. Perhaps the key phrase here ought to be, not “Falstaff, c’est moi“-as one executive was quoted as saying-but instead Iago’s “I am not what I am.”