Shakespeare After All

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9780375421907: Shakespeare After All

In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber—professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University—gives us a magisterial work of criticism, authoritative and engaging, based on her hugely popular lecture courses at Yale and Harvard over the past thirty years. Richly informed by Shakespearean scholarship of the latter half of the twentieth century, this book offers passionate and revealing readings of all thirty-eight of Shakespeare’s plays, in chronological sequence, from The Two Gentlemen of Verona to The Two Noble Kinsmen. With erudition lightly carried, Garber illumines the overarching patterns and lush details of the plays, closely attentive to what matters most in Shakespeare: language, theme, plot, and character.

Here are fresh meditations on plays we have come to know and love, such as Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth,
Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest, and fruitful engagements with others not often read or produced—Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3; The Merry Wives of Windsor; King John; Timon of Athens; Pericles; and Cymbeline. Garber affords us a rare chance to trace Shakespeare’s stylistic development as a writer of verse and prose, an artful designer of dramatic scenarios and revelations, a masterly sketcher of woman and man, and a keen observer of society high and low.

Complete with a comprehensive introduction to Shakespeare’s life and times and an extensive bibliography, Shakespeare After All is a landmark work that enlarges our understanding of the most celebrated writer of all time.

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About the Author:

Marjorie Garber is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and American Literature and Language and chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge and Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Every age creates its own Shakespeare.

What is often described as the timelessness of Shakespeare, the transcendent qualities for which his plays have been praised around the world and across the centuries, is perhaps better understood as an uncanny timeliness, a capacity to speak directly to circumstances the playwright could not have anticipated or foreseen. Like a portrait whose eyes seem to follow you around the room, engaging your glance from every angle, the plays and their characters seem always to be “modern,” always to be “us.”

“He was not of an age, but for all time.” This was the verdict of Shakespeare’s great rival and admirer, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, in a memorial poem affixed to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. “Thou art a monument without a tomb,” wrote Jonson,

And art alive still, while thy book doth live,

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

We might compare this passage to Shakespeare’s own famous lines in Sonnet 18, the sonnet that begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and ends:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The sonnets have indeed endured, and given life to the beloved addressee, but it is the sonnet that praises him, not the unnamed “fair youth” to whom the sonnet is written, that lives on in our eyes, ears, and memory.

Both “of an age” and “for all time,” Shakespeare is the defining figure of the English Renaissance, and the most cited and quoted author of every era since. But if we create our own Shakespeare, it is at least as true that the Shakespeare we create is a Shakespeare that has, to a certain extent, created us. The world in which we live and think and philosophize is, to use Ralph Waldo Emerson’s word, “Shakspearized.”

“I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I do say so,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Goethe thought so, too, and so did Sigmund Freud. So, indeed, did the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who, having played the role in a celebrated production in France in 1899, and again in London in 1901, declared that she could not imagine Hamlet as a man.

But perhaps Hamlet, a play that from the Romantic era on has been established as the premier Western performance of consciousness, is too obvious a case to make the point. Around the world and across the years, Macbeth has become a figure for ambition, Othello for jealous love, Lear a paradigm of neglected old age and its unexpected nobilities, Cleopatra a pattern of erotic and powerful womanhood, Prospero in The Tempest a model of the artist as philosopher and ruler. Romeo and Juliet are ubiquitous examples of young love, its idealism and excess. But if Shakespeare seems to us in a surprising way so “modern,” it’s because in a sense his language and his characters have created a lexicon of modernity. This is a book devoted in part to exploring the remarkable omnipresence of Shakespeare in our lives.

King Lear as written and performed in its original historical context was “about” pressing questions for the seventeenth century, like absolute monarchy, and royal succession and the obligations of vassals. For most citizens of the twenty-first century, “king” is an archaic title, as it emphatically was not for the subjects of James I, under whose patronage Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, performed and prospered. Mid-twentieth-century readers often translated “king” into “father,” seeing the drama as one centered on the family rather than the realm. Lear’s railing against the heavens has often been understood as existential. At various moments Lear became a sign of male power, of the pathos of aging, even of the end of an actor’s career. “King Lear” is a cultural icon, cited by philosophers, legislators, and politicians, as well as literary scholars—and gerontologists and therapists. The character has a cultural life derived from, but also distinct from, the play.

The Merchant of Venice is another powerful example of the translatability of these plays across the centuries. The first Shylock was a comic butt, who may have appeared in a red fright wig and a false nose, the standard signs of Jewishness on the Elizabethan stage. Shylock was played as a comic figure until the mid-eighteenth century, when the actor Charles Macklin transformed him into a villain. Only in the nineteenth century did Shylock become a sympathetic or a tragic figure, masterfully portrayed by Edmund Kean in a performance that impressed Romantic authors like Coleridge and William Hazlitt. (It was Coleridge who said that Kean had the gift of revealing Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.) The early twentieth century saw empathetic productions of the play in the Yiddish theater, as well as a monstrous Shylock performed in Weimar under the aegis of Nazi Germany. After the Holocaust an anti-Jewish portrayal of this figure seems almost unimaginable—which is not to say that it will not be attempted. The point is that the play has changed, along with the times. The Merchant of Venice itself has a history, a kind of cultural biography that has transformed it from its moment of origination. Although we can revisit and understand the context of production and of belief, from the sixteenth century and indeed from the sources that preceded Shakespeare, this play, like all the others, is a living, growing, changing work of art. The role it plays for contemporary readers, audiences, and cultural observers is to a certain extent a reflection of its own history.

The same is true with Othello. The question of Othello’s particularity as a black man and a Moor has been balanced against a certain desire to see him as a figure of universal humanity. This tendency toward generalization was in part an homage to Shakespeare, seen as a portrayer of universal types, and also a liberal shift away from racial stigmatizing, an attempt to dissociate the play from any tinct of bias. Earlier eras saw all too vividly the hero’s color, especially in places, like the United States, where race and inequality had for a long time been issues of national concern. In the later twentieth century, critics have emphasized the context of cultural oppression in the play, while others have wrestled with Othello’s tendency to acquiesce with assumptions of his inferiority. Black actors like James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne have displaced the blackface portrayals of the past. Productions still sometimes depict the character as consumed with self-doubt, but the heroic Othello has returned to the stage and screen—an Othello often portrayed as culturally identified with blackness and with his titular role as “the Moor of Venice.”

One more familiar example, that of The Tempest, may serve to reinforce this general observation about the changing and growing nature of the plays, and their place as cultural “shifters,” expanding their meanings as they intersect with new audiences and new circumstances in the world. After years as the premier art fable of Shakespearean drama, The Tempest, the story of an artist/creator often movingly described as “Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage” (although at least one more play would be written and staged by his company before what scholars think may have been his retirement to Stratford), The Tempest was reconsidered, in the later twentieth century, as a reflection upon English colonial explorations and “first encounter” narratives of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This reconsideration was framed in part by responses to colonial and postcolonial issues in the twentieth century, the century in which, and from which, critics and performers now regarded the play. Caliban’s otherness was now celebrated as difference rather than as cultural immaturity. Prospero’s famous concession, “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine,” is addressed apparently to Caliban, but—as we will see—the “thing of darkness” is also something Prospero encounters in his own mind and soul. It is important to underscore the fact that postcolonial readings did not render the earlier understandings and resonances of The Tempest obsolete. Rather, they augmented, added nuance, questioned verities, such as Prospero’s wisdom and ideal mastery, and even toyed with the idea of reversals of power, giving Caliban and his co-conspirators an alternative voice in the play. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête and Roberto Fernández Retamar’s Calibán both give Shakespeare’s Tempest full-fledged postcolonial rewritings. The hallmark of a complex work of art is that it can not only endure but also benefit from any number of such strong rereadings. This, indeed, is one appropriate instrumental test of what we have come to call “greatness” in art and literature.

But where did “Shakespeare” stand on these questions? As I will suggest throughout the chapters that follow, the brilliant formal capacities of drama are such that the playwright’s voice is many voices. Shakespeare is Prospero, Caliban, Ariel, and the wondering Miranda. He is Othello, Desdemona and Iago, Shylock, Portia and Antonio. One of the tremendous achievements of these remarkable plays is the way one view will always answer another. Desdemona and Emilia debate women’s virtue from the “ideal” and “realist” viewpoints. Neither is definitively right. Both are “Shakespeare.” No sooner does Ulysses laud the universal value of “degree” and hierarchy than, in the next moment, he argues that the inferior Ajax be substituted for the incomparable Achilles. What is Shakespeare’s own view of such political questions? The answer—which is not an answer—lies ...

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