Featured Post

Shakespeare in American Politics

By T. Greer.

I was delighted to receive Marjorie Garber‘s Shakespeare After All in the mail this morning. Garber’s book is a thousand page review of everything Shakespeare ever wrote, with each play claiming its own chapter length analysis. The introduction of Shakespeare After All is a fascinating tour of Shakespeare’s reputation though the centuries, describing how Shakespeare’s poetry has been perceived in the days since his plays were originally performed, which of his works were most popular during various eras, and how their presentation on the page and performance on the stage has change with time. In Shakespeare’s lifetime Pericles was the most popular of his works; in the 19th century, lines from King John and Henry VIII, much neglected today, were the most likely to appear in the quote books and progymnasmata collections so popular then. Emerson bitterly lamented that Harvard, his alma mater, had no lecturer in Shakespearean rhetoric. His lament went unheeded; neither Harvard nor Yale included Shakespeare among their course readings until the 1870s. Yet for 19th century men like Emerson this really was no great loss. The American people of this era were so engrossed with Shakespeare that no one living in America could escape him: evidence of his place in America’s “pop culture in the nineteenth century [can be found in everything from] traveling troupes, Shakespeare speeches as part of vaudeville bills, huge crowds and riots at productions, [to accounts of] audiences shouting lines back at the actors.” [1] I am reminded of Tocqueville‘s observation that every settler’s hut in America, no matter how squalid or remote, had a copy of a newspaper, a Bible, and some work of Shakespeare inside it. [2] Tocqueville used this as evidence to buttress his claim that the Americans were more educated and cultivated than any other people on the Earth. He may have been on to something. One cannot read the diaries, letters, and editorials of 19th century America without wondering at their eloquence and erudition. What caused this, if not the many hours they spent as children on their mother’s knee learning to read from the Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare?

Shakespeare in American PoliticsGarber also discusses the role Shakespearean rhetoric has played in American political culture since the founding. Quotes from Shakespeare have always been ubiquitous in American politics. They were used in the earliest days of the American republic. They are used with equal frequency today. However, the manner in which they are used has shifted  with time. This diversity may seem a small thing, but the different ways Shakespeare’s rhymes have been used through time reveal a great deal about broader and more important shifts in American political culture. This will become apparent as I describe these changes.

A good place to start is with the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Of all American oratory, only the Lincoln-Douglass debates can claim greater fame than the debate Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne held on the antebellum Senate floor. In those days there was a resolution before the Senate calling for all new land surveys of federal land to be halted until existing land had already been sold. This struck the ire of the westerners, who pushed for federal land to be given to new settlers without charge or delay.

In those days American politics was a sectional affair. Political outcomes often turned on forging an alliance between one region of the country and another to push through policies that might benefit both at the cost of the rest. Hayne, a South Carolina man, saw in this debate a chance to place a wedge between New England, whose delegates opposed free homesteading, and the frontier states of the West. A “coalition” (as he would call it) between Westerners and New Englanders had delivered the presidency to John Quincy Adams just a few years before. That coalition was formed in unusual circumstances, and thus was condemned in Southern circles as a “corrupt bargain” that threatened American liberties. Adam’s side denied these charges with greatest vigor, but all of the vigor in the world could not slow the democratic tide sweeping over American society. Andrew Jackson would ride this tide into the white house. Jackson, champion of mass democracy, reconfigured the landscape of American politics. His new coalition–which united men of the West, South, and the urban centers of the North–would dominate American politics for the next two decades. But Hayne and Webster had their debate only two years into this new era. It wasn’t clear that the revolution had been won; no one knew if Jackson’s coalition would prove transient or permanent. Any chance to drive New England further into the backwaters of national politics must be seized, and Hayne was eager to do the seizing.

Webster was a quintessential New Englander. He was also one of the cleverest men ever elected to the Senate. For Webster, Hayne’s speechifying offered a choice opportunity. By responding to Haynes instead of the Westerners, he shifted a dispute over land sales to a debate over more fundamental questions about the nature of the constitution, the relationship of state and federal governments, and the South’s attempts to defy the rest of the Union.

Haynes was indignant to be so attacked, and his reply to Webster was harsh:

The gentleman from Missouri, it is true, had charged upon the Eastern States an early and continued hostility towards the West, and referred to a number of historical facts and documents in support of that charge. Now, sir, how have these different arguments been met? The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts [Webster], after deliberating a whole night upon his course, comes into this chamber to vindicate New England, and; instead of making up his issue with the gentleman from Missouri, on the charges which he had preferred, chooses to consider me as the author of those charges; and, losing sight entirely of that gentleman, selects me as his adversary, and pours out all the vials of his mighty wrath upon my devoted head. Nor is he willing to stop there. He goes on to assail the institutions and policy of the South, and calls in question the principles and conduct of the State which I have the honor to represent.

When I find a gentleman of mature age and experience, of acknowledged talents and profound sagacity, pursuing a course like this, declining the contest offered from the West, and making war upon the unoffending South, I must believe, I am bound to believe, he has some object in view that he has not ventured to disclose. Why is this? Has the gentleman discovered in former controversies with the gentleman from Missouri, that he is overmatched by that Senator? And does he hope for an easy victory over a more feeble adversary? Has the gentleman’s distempered fancy been disturbed by gloomy forebodings of “new alliances to be formed,” at which he hinted? Has the ghost of the murdered Coalition come back, like the ghost of Banquo, to “sear the eye-balls” of the gentleman, and will it not “down at his bidding?” Are dark visions of broken hopes, and honors lost forever, still floating before his heated imagination? (Emphasis added) [3]

Hayne’s charge was that Webster was not attacking the South because he actually disagreed with their policies as a matter of principle, but because he hoped to resurrect the dead coalition of West and East by tearing apart the alliance of West and South. This was a devilish fantasy in Hayne’s eyes, a point he emphasized by alluding to the most devilish of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth.

Webster was not going to let Hayne get away with abusing the Bard like this. His reply was masterful:

“But, sir, the Coalition! The Coalition! Aye, “the murdered Coalition!” The gentleman asks, if I were led or frighted into this debate by the spectre of the Coalition—“was it the ghost of the murdered Coalition,” he exclaims, “which haunted the member from Massachusetts; and which, like the ghost of Banquo, would never down?” “The murdered Coalition!” Sir, this charge of a coalition, in reference to the late Administration, is not original with the honorable member. It did not spring up in the Senate. Whether as a fact, as an argument, or as an embellishment, it is all borrowed. He adopts it, indeed, from a very low origin, and a still lower present condition. It is one of the thousand calumnies with which the press teemed, during an excited political canvass. It was a charge, of which there was not only no proof or probability, but which was, in itself, wholly impossible to be true. No man of common information ever believed a syllable of it……

But, sir, the honorable member was not, for other reasons, entirely happy in his allusion to the story of Banquo’s murder, and Banquo’s ghost. It was not, I think, the friends, but the enemies of the murdered Banquo, at whose bidding his spirit would not down. The honorable gentleman is fresh in his reading of the English classics, and can put me right, if I am wrong; but, according to my poor recollection, it was at those who had begun with caresses, and ended with foul and treacherous murder, that the gory locks were shaken! The ghost of Banquo, like that of Hamlet, was an honest ghost. It disturbed no innocent man. It knew where its appearance would strike terror, and who would cry out, a ghost! It made itself visible in the right quarter, and compelled the guilty, and the conscience-smitten, and none others, to start, with,
  • “Pr’ythee, see there! behold!—look! lo
  • “If I stand here, I saw him!”
Their eye balls were seared (was it not so, sir?) who had thought to shield themselves, by concealing their own hand, and laying the imputation of the crime on a low and hireling agency in wickedness; who had vainly attempted to stifle the workings of their own coward consciences, by ejaculating, through white lips and chattering teeth, “thou canst not say I did it!” I have misread the great poet, if it was those who had no way partaken in the deed of the death, who either found that they were, or feared that they should be, pushed from their stools by the ghost of the slain, or who exclaimed, to a spectre created by their own fears, and their own remorse, “avaunt! and quit our sight!”
There is another particular, sir, in which the honorable member’s quick perception of resemblances might, I should think, have seen something in the story of Banquo, making it not altogether a subject of the most pleasant contemplation. Those who murdered Banquo, what did they win by it? Substantial good? Permanent power? Or disappointment, rather, and sore mortification;—dust and ashes—the common fate of vaulting ambition, overleaping itself? Did not even-handed justice ere long commend the poisoned chalice to their own lips? Did they not soon find that for another they had “filed their mind?” that their ambition, though apparently for the moment successful, had but put a barren sceptre in their grasp? Aye, Sir,
“A barren sceptre in their gripe,
Thence to be wrenched by an unlineal hand,
No son of their’s succeeding.

Sir, I need pursue the allusion no farther. I leave the honorable gentleman to run it out at his leisure, and to derive from it all the gratification it is calculated to administer. If he finds himself pleased with the associations, and prepared to be quite satisfied, though the parallel should be entirely completed, I had almost said, I am satisfied also—but that I shall think of. Yes, sir, I will think of that.”(emphasis added) [4]

Webster’s response was twofold: his first point was that all talk of “coalitions” is nonsense: the “corrupt bargain” that gave Adams the presidency was a phantasm created by a tabloid press searching for controversy. Sober men could not believe in this sort of conspiracy. Adams won his election fairly, and it is irresponsible for Haynes to say otherwise. This is all well and good. Anyone on Webster’s side of the debate would have said the same thing—it was the party line. But then in a stroke of rhetorical brilliance Webster turns Hayne’s own allusion against him. Webster reminds his audience that in Macbeth it was only those who murdered Banquo who were haunted by his sight. The implication is clear: the scattered remnants that survived the death of the old coalition do not fears its ghost. The only people who could be haunted by its visage are those who stand to lose from its return–that is, those who labored for its destruction. Thus the devilish fantasy belonged not to Webster, but to Hayne. It was Hayne, Webster says, who built his politics upon an outlandish vision of alliance between New England and the West. The ambiguity of Macbeth‘s ghostly scenes (in the play it is not clear if Banquo is a hallucination of Macbeth or a true demon returned to haunt him) here becomes the perfect metaphor for Hayne’s conspiratorial report of Webster’s aims. Hayne’s choice to invoke Banquo’s ghosts reveals more about Hayne’s irrational insecurities than Webster’s true intentions.

Haynes: 0, Webster: 1.

These allusions to Shakespeare only occupy a small portion of the two men’s debate–no more than a few paragraphs out of ninety or so pages of text. Nevertheless, the use of Macbeth‘s script in the debate is telling. Neither Webster nor Haynes thought it was a waste of their time to debate the finer points of Shakespeare’s plays in the halls of the Senate. The reader senses that Webster, in particular, did so in a positively gleeful fashion. it is also worth noting that the play is not just used a source of pithy wisdom or quotable poetry. Webster discusses elements of its plot at length to drive home his meaning.

These speeches were given to a full standing audience. They were later printed and distributed in newspapers and periodicals across the nation. Webster and Haynes assumed, therefore, that the average reader of their words would understand the allusions made. You would be hard pressed to find an equal number of Americans today who would understand all such talk of Banquo’s ghost.

Webster and Haynes were not alone in their use of Shakespeare. Garber does not reference this debate, but she does discuss a whole host of American politicians from the antebellum period to the early 1960s who used Shakespeare in a similar way. It is at this point she detects a change in the way politicians at the Capitol use the bard. She provides several examples from the last decade or so:

  •  “William Shakespeare once wrote. ‘For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuf?ed off this mortal coil must give us pause.‘ Hundreds of years before the death tax was even conceived. Shakespeare captured the worries felt by thousands of Americans.”
  • “In sum, to paraphrase Shakespeare. which is not done very often on the Senate ?oor. adoption of the amendments will rob California of that which cannot enrich the northwest generators and yet will make California poor indeed.”
  •  “In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, the soothsayer warned Caesar to ‘beware the Ides of March.’ Caesar did not listen and Caesar perished. Today. on this Ides of March. I bring my colleagues fair warning. If we do not pass the Colombia aid package soon. our friends in Colombia could suffer the same fate as Caesar and our own children could be next.”
  •  “Shakespeare wrote. ‘What‘s past is prologue.’ And I believe no other phrase can quite describe both the achievements of the Republican Congress and its vision for America’s future.“
  • “The words of William Shakespeare‘s King Lear are ringing loudly in the ears of many Americans: ‘Fool me not to bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger.’ The old trusting king had just been grossly betrayed by two of his daughters. Collectively this nation has reason for an anger comparable to that of King Lear. In America the democratic process has just been mugged by the Supreme Court.” [5]

Garber comments on these statements:

In each of these cases Shakespeare plays the role of enforcer or up-lifter. The other lawmakers gathered in the chamber. and the constituents at home, are not asked to call to mind the specific circumstances of Hamlet: Iago; the Soothsayet in Julius Caesar; Antonio. the usurping Duke of Milan in The Tempest; or Lear’s reproof to his daughters about their stripping him of attendant knights—to give, in sequence, the sources of these quotations. Instead, Shakespeare is evoked, and invoked, as an eloquent coiner of eloquent phrases. The phrases, ?oating free of their immediate context, have become “Shakespeare.” [6]

She further adds that in the “21st Century… citing Shakespeare gives weight and heft to a political statement.” This is true; Shakespeare had a knack for saying things the best way they could be said. I can fault no one for using the Bard’s words in place of their own. But this way of using Shakespeare is not without its ironies: readers familiar with Shakespeare’s plays know that when the quotes above are placed in context, they mean something very different—even completely opposite—than what they are taken to mean at Capitol Hill. One suspects that if Daniel Webster a senator today he would have a lot of fun responding to these speeches.

What has happened here? How have we gone from long discussions of Shakespearean drama on the senate floor to the shallow repetition of disembodied sentence fragments? The answers to this question tell us much about the American body politic:

1) The decline of in public speaking as a vital part of American culture. Oratory is something of a lost art in modern America. It is hard to imagine just how vital it was to public life for most of America’s history. In Webster’s day public speaking was a central part of entertainment, education, civic life, and religious practice. He was elected in the midst of the 2nd Great Awakening, when American religious life was dominated by camp meetings  and church members were expected to preach and testify one to another. It was a time when every township had a lyceum at its center, and intellectual life was dominated by those who traveled the lyceum circuit. Collections of speeches like The Columbian Orator were the most common type of schoolbook in the antebellum era, while most American men actively participated in town assemblies and party caucuses. The mastery of proper political rhetoric an essential social skill.

Add all this together and you are left with a population that found immense pleasure in listening to, reenacting, and reading the speeches of others. It was a prized art, and when masters like Webster or Lincoln displayed their talents, people flocked together to listen to them. There was thus a great deal of patience for the sort of rhetorical flourish inherit in the long discussions of Shakespeare seen above. Today’s Americans will not sit still and listen to a political speech for longer than ten minutes. The medium through which politicians communicate to the masses really doesn’t let them. Radio shows and news channels rely on the soundbite. If a politician’s message cannot be fit into a seven second slot it will not be heard.

2) The American people have less cultural literacy than they did in the past. The distinction we make between “high brow” and “low brow” entertainment was much fuzzier in America’s past than it is in America’s present. This was especially true for literary works. In Webster’s day, poets like Edgar Allen Poe were famous among both the elite and the masses. Few of “average Americans” will be seen reciting lines from “The Raven” today! This mix of high and low culture was still true even in the 1950s:

“In 1955, 15 million people paid to attend major league baseball games, while 35 million paid to attend classical music concerts. The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million. As the sociologist David White has noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Sir Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White also went on to note that on March 16, I956, a Sunday chosen at random, the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times Toulouse-Lauflec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillieh, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew.” [7]

A paradox of the last fifty or so years of American history is that as the number of Americans with a university education has increased, the percentage of Americans who can claim any sort of familiarity with the poetry, verse, and literature past generations knew by heart has decreased. Explanations for why this happened are many, and none are simple. For the purposes of this discussion it is enough to say that since the baby boomers came of age, the strong voice of poetry and traditional literature once heard in American pop culture has waned. There are a few exceptions to this–Jane Austen’s excellent novels come to mind–but very few.

3) American leaders no longer have a literary world view. This is true not only for American leaders, but for Anglophone leaders generally. Again, it can be difficult for people born in the last forty to fifty years to grasp just how a big a part classical literature, philosophy, and poetry played in the daily lives of past generations, especially those privileged enough to receive a liberal education. Privilege was a big part of this; men and women were driven to memorize and quote from the classics because this set them apart as a superior sort of individual. The man who knew his Milton, Pope, and Wordsworth was a civilized being. But this is only a partial explanation. You do not need dig far into the history of a readers of the sort to realize how thoroughly their understanding of the world was built around literature. Winston Churchill is a sterling example of the type. Books and poems defined how he talked about, and more importantly, how he thought about, the problems he faced. His thoughts were filtered through Shakespeare.

In the case of Webster and Hayne it is easy to dismiss their public displays of Shakespearean rhetoric as just that: public displays of learned affectation. It is harder to explain away the role Shakespearean verse played in more intimate settings. Garber narrows in on the love Abraham Lincoln had for the works of Shakespeare. He would often memorize long passages to recite when friends searching for consolation or amusement. Lincoln was a man who believed in the power of words. He sought them out. When he came across words beautiful or profound he treasured them up in his mind and his heart so that he could use them in a day of need.

I cannot imagine any of the men or women running for president today sitting at a table with friends in need of counsel and reciting for them one of Shakespeare’s monologues. That simply isn’t the world we live in anymore. Ours is a world that has lost faith in words. We don’t value them—not as Americans once valued them. In such a world there is little reason for our leaders to quote Shakespeare.


Editor’s note: Cross-posted from the author’s blog. – BL


[1] Majorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 35

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Other Writings, Trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 544. See also the diary entry he excerpts on p. 869:

We went into the log house; the inside is not at all like the cottages of peasants in Europe; it contains more of what is not necessary and less of what is.

There is only one window over which a muslin curtain hangs; in the hearth of beaten earth crackles a huge fire which lights everything within the building; above the hearth thee is a fine rifle, a deerskin, and some eagle feathers; to the right of the mantelpiece a map of the United States is spread out which the wind catches and ruffles through the gaps in the wall; nearby, on a shelf made from a roughly hewn plank, there are a few volumes of books; I notice the Bible, Milton’s first six books, and two plays of Shakespeare; along the walls there are trunks instead of cupboards; in the center there is a crudely made table, the feet of which, being made from green wood has not been stripped of its bark, look as hough they are growing out of the soul upon which they stand.

[3] Herman Belz, ed. The Webster-Haynes Debate on the Nature of the Constitution: Selected Documents (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), p. 36

[4] ibid., p. 85-87

[5] Garber, Shakespeare After All, pg. 39

[6] ibid

[7] Bruce Brendan, On the Origin of Spin: Or how Hollywood, the Ad Men and the World Wide Web became the Fifth Estate and created our images of power (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013); 249.

Image by Books18 Shakespeare in American Politics

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

96 thoughts on “Shakespeare in American Politics

  1. Very nice.

    I think #1 is undoubtedly true, but the lack of Shakespearean allusion in our public rhetoric is almost certainly a result of #2. People don’t read Shakespeare anymore, and perhaps more importantly, people can’t read Shakespeare anymore: his early modern English is practically a foreign language to most contemporary English speakers. So Shakespearean allusions, if they were meant not only to convince one’s immediate opponent, but the public in general, would be pretty pointless. On the other hand, it’s easy to abuse Shakespeare with out-of-context quotes for the same reason.

    There is something to lament here, I imagine, but I’m not sure it’s a lack of “cultural literacy.” At the same time it indicates that people don’t read Shakespeare, it is also indicative of the range of choices and experiences that people have. It would be difficult to quote much of anything to the extent that Webster and Hayne did, because it’d be difficult to find much of anything that would invoke that amount of common ground, because there are few things that we all share, at least when we’re speaking of general audiences.

    To illustrate on more than one level, consider a scene from Psych that had me in stitches. In it, Shawn is tracking down a payphone used by a car thief, while talking to Gus on his cell phone, so that we only hear Shawn’s side of the conversation:

    Get this. The valet’s [car thief’s] number is actually a number to a pay phone outside of a warehouse.


    I don’t know.

    I don’t know if it looks like the warehouse from Blue City, Gus. You’re the only one that remembers that movie.

    What, are you insane? Way more people saw The Hip than Blue City. Look, I’m not gonna talk Judd Nelson right now.

    I imagine part of the reason I find this scene hilarious is that I actually remember Blue City (one of the worst movies ever made) and I know almost no one else does. An absurdly obscure 80s movie reference is part of why this scene (and so much of the humor from the show, which most people I know never watched) works: the obscure reference is mentioned as though it were common knowledge.

    Welcome to 21st century capitalist culture.

      Quote  Link


      • Oh man, I accidentally read this comment, and it is so perfect I think I’m going to frame it.

        There is absolutely no way that you are a work of performance art, because I can’t imagine any actual person sitting at his or her keyboard thinking, “I could address what this person says, or I could use it as an opportunity to take a largely unrelated shot at liberals. Liberals it is!”

          Quote  Link


        • That’s amusing coming from the person that writes, “Welcome to 21st century capitalist culture” as if it is capitalism that has something to do with this issue.

          There is absolutely no way that you are a work of performance art, because I can’t imagine any actual person sitting at his or her keyboard thinking, “I could address what this person says, or I could use it as an opportunity to take a largely unrelated shot at capitalism. Capitalism it is!”

            Quote  Link


          • Dude, of course capitalism has something to do with it, not only because it pervades our culture now, but because in myriad ways it is capitalism that has produced the diversity of entertainment options we have available to us today. A lot of people see this as a good thing.

            You might have been able to tease that out for yourself if you weren’t more interested in taking digs at what you perceive to be the other team than actually thinking about what you’ve read.

              Quote  Link


            • “I could address what this person says, or I could use it as an opportunity to take a largely unrelated shot at capitalism. Capitalism it is!”

              It’s kind of related to the issue and I didn’t read it as a cheap shot. That said, , I agree with you in a way because our capitalist system has been able to fund the ventures that have produced the variety of entertainment options available to us; however, I think the larger contributor is technology. It’s not only changed consumer culture, but in many ways, our capitalist system changed because of it.

                Quote  Link


                        • I’m 10 when I’m in a bad mood or feel like yelling at someone.

                          When I’m as even-keeled as a short Italian with a shorter fuse can hope to be, I’m 42.

                          I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of acting my age.

                            Quote  Link


                          • My grandfather, from Rome (Italy, not Georgia), was 5’3″ on a good day. One of my favorite things when I was a kid was watching him and my Great Uncle Gino, from Fonzaso (Italy, not… well, I dunno if there is another Fonzaso), who was a near giant at 5’6″, yelling at each other in Italian and, when Uncle Gino was really angry, in whatever weird Venetian-like dialect they speak in Fonzaso. Yelling at each other was their primary form of interaction.

                            Of course, Gino was just pure, unadulterated cantankerousness. He would call me now and then when he couldn’t get a hold of my mother, especially after my grandfather died. I would answer the phone with, “Hello,” and without any sort of greeting he would launch into a heavily-accented harangue about how my mother never calls him or her Aunt Rose.

                              Quote  Link


                            • My grandmother’s brother (well, one of them) was named Guido. My great uncle Guido was about as tall as your great uncle Gino. Guido, unlike your great uncle, is was (I still think of him as alive) Tuscan, and has had a rather different attitude about things.

                              Every morning from the time I first met him in 2000 until the time he passed just a few years ago, he’d wake up, take a cup of coffee, and kiss his wife. Then he’d walk down to the pier. On the way, he’d pick up a jug of red wine. His friend would meet him there with a box of live bait. They’d sit on the first open bench on the pier, fishing and drinking the wine out of the Italian equivalent of paper dixie cups.

                              When either the wine or the bait was all gone, they’d divide up whatever fish they’d caught and went home. Upon arriving home, Guido would kiss his wife and sit down while she prepared the fish for dinner, consumed with a little more wine.

                              Then he’d kiss his wife one last time, and go to sleep. Next day, get up and do it all over again.

                              Zio Guido had a few things figured out, I’ll tell you what.

                                Quote  Link


        • Capitalism loves Shakespeare. I once rewrote an entire Act of Hamlet as a review of a Keurig B60 coffee maker. It took only a few hours to rework a play around the soliloquy I’d previously written:


          To brew, or not to brew: that is the question:
          Whether ’tis nobler in the morn to suffer
          The yawns and harrows of a bleary waking,
          Or to make urns a’black to shake the slumbers,
          And by imbibing end them? To sip: to sleep
          No more; and by a sleep to say we end
          The heartache and the thousand nighttime shocks
          That sleep is known for, ’tis a stimulation
          Devoutly to be wish’d. To brew, to steep;
          To steep: perchance to steam: ay, where’s my mug;
          For aft’ that cup of joe what dream remains
          When we have stirred and slurped the coffee oil,
          Cupped in our paws: there’s the respect
          That makes a frothing cup of Café au lait;
          For who could spare the whip’t and airy cream,
          The Espresso’s song, the scent of Arabica,
          The grounds of spent wet love, the brew’s delay.
          The insolence of instant and the burn
          That patient merit makes of too hurried taste,
          So he himself might his craving forsake
          Lest a burnt piehole? Who would waking bear,
          With grumbled breath under a drowsy eye,
          But that the dread of dozing at the wheel,
          The commuter’s mortuary from whose urns
          No coffee mug refills, strengthens the will
          And makes us rather brew those beans we have
          Than drive to others that we know not of?
          Thus caffeine does make addicts of us all;
          And thus the doctor’s urge of abnegation
          Is sipped o’er with a pale afterthought,
          And resolutions of great sincerity
          With this first cup their firmness goes away,
          And lose the name of action. –Perc you now!
          The rare Arabica! Drip! For thy piquancy
          Be in my dreams remembered.

          the whole review

            Quote  Link


    • I have never heard of Blue City.

      I think you are right about the language. One of the hottest debates in theatre and English lit scenes is over “no fear Shakespeare.” That is performing Shakespeare in 21st century English. Lots of theatre people (including me) hate this.

      The Oregon Shakespeare Festival just created a tempest because they commissioned 36 modern playwrights to “translate” the plays of Shakespeare. Many purists believe that adaptation would be a better word to use and point out tat Shakespeare wrote modern English, not Old or Middle English. I like that you call it early Modern though.

      That being said, Shakespeare is adapted all the time. The Bad Sleep Well is Akira Kurosawa taking Hamlet and setting it at a corrupt corporation in 1960s Japan.

        Quote  Link


      • Of course you haven’t heard of Blue City! You’re not that much younger than me, but I doubt more than a handful of people under 35 have heard of that movie, much less seen it. The trailer is at the bottom of this comment, so you can get a sense of how awful it is.

        “Early modern English” is of course not my label, it’s one frequently used to describe the language of Shakespeare’s time. It is significantly more different from the 19th century American English we see in the Webster-Hayne debate than their language is different from ours, and American English has evolved a great deal since the first half of the 19th century. Shakespeare’s English really is very nearly a foreign language, only moderately more readable to many 21st century native English speakers than Chaucer’s Middle English.

          Quote  Link


        • Readable… maybe. But if you go to a Shakespeare Play itself, by the end of the play the actors sound downright normal.

          It’s a regional dialect from a region that doesn’t exist anymore. A few hours immersion can get you up to speed.

            Quote  Link


      • SaulDegraw:
        That being said, Shakespeare is adapted all the time. The Bad Sleep Well is Akira Kurosawa taking Hamlet and setting it at a corrupt corporation in 1960s Japan.

        Ran is King Lear. Throne of Blood is some Scottish play. Yojimbo is a mashup of two Dashiell Hammett novels. Hidden Fortress is Star Wars.

        Tying to the other thread, modern “Cultural Appropriation” has a lot to learn from Kurosawa, who got there fustest with the mostest.

          Quote  Link


      • I was just reading an article about that the other day.

        I think the article’s author makes a good case for translating Shakespeare. It’s not like Middle English and Modern English are clearly delineated. With each passing decade the shifting meanings of words render more of Shakespeare’s sentences incomprehensible to the modern reader. And while you can deal with that somewhat through annotation when reading Shakespeare, when consuming Shakespeare through performance (which is after all how it was supposed to be consumed) you don’t have time to pause and read footnotes.

        If not now, then eventually Shakespeare will be impossible for modern audiences to understand. At that point translation will be necessary.

          Quote  Link


    • There is something to lament here, I imagine, but I’m not sure it’s a lack of “cultural literacy.” ….It would be difficult to quote much of anything to the extent that Webster and Hayne did, because it’d be difficult to find much of anything that would invoke that amount of common ground,

      The term “cultural literacy” was invented by E.D. Hersh. He defines it to mean essentially this: familiarity with core set of traditions and allusions common to a community. Not “having common ground” and not having “cultural literacy” are two ways to say the same thing.

        Quote  Link


      • Hmm… I kind of think they’re the opposite. Those aren’t the core set of traditions and allusions common to the community anymore. They’re antiquated. Now, cultural literacy means being able to quote Breaking Bad and knowing what The Bachelor is.

          Quote  Link


      • I have to agree with Chris here. The cultural literacy definitions and changed and this leaves non TV watches like me as largely being non-culturally literate. I know what people are talking about but not in detail.

        There is also the issue of people keeping their heritage as Asian, Jewish, Africa, Italian, Greek, Arab, etc. Americans and also being broadly American as well.

          Quote  Link


  2. Great essay and some thoughts:

    1. Maybe our ancestors could recite large capacities of Shakespeare and other material because that is all they had? Eleanor Canton’s The Luminaries is set in New Zealand in 1866. This is also a frontier society. One character grew up in a house with two books: The Bible and Paradise Lost. Said character was able to recite large sections of Paradise Lost because he read it hundreds of times. If you hear Hamlet hundreds of times you will read it.

    2. In a multi-cultural and heterogeneous society, why is Anglo-Saxon culture our national heritage. What if someone can trace their family history to Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam or French fur trappers? What if someone was of Japanese ancestry? Wouldn’t the Japanese-American have more cultural heritage in the Tale of Genji?

    3. The TV example seems like cherry picking. There were plenty of high brow critics in the 1950s and 60s that sneered against TV. The critic Dwight MacDonald wrote works like MassCult and Midcult to attack the alleged intellectualism that is praised in the random Sunday example. I also remember that JFK’s FCC chair famously described TV as a vast wasteland in the early 1960s.

    Shakespeare used to be performed regularly in entact or abridged form during the 19th century but you also note he was not taught academically until 1870. This means that Shakespeare became worthy of intellectual study relatively recently. Before then, he was just entertainment. Perhaps the Webster-Haynes speech was the 19th century equivalent of two politicians attacking each other with Simpsons quotes?

    3. I am known (for better and for worse) as being OTs defender of the highbrow and the need to eat cultural vegetables. I am not sure that our ancestors were more literary. They just had fewer options. We learn more about math and science. More non-Western
    History. The TV example is also what happens with non-democratic cultural gate keeping and that can be insidious as well.

    4. I also defend arts and humanities educations quite strongly. However, there has always been a long practical streak in American education. The land grant universities were created largely to produce better farmers and engineers. In the novel Stoner by John Williams, the protagonist is sent to University by his parents so he can learn better farming techniques and stop the family farm from being dirt poor. He happens to fall in love with English Literature. This sort of moves him up but not as his parents attended. We are still trying to determine the point and purpose of American education and the focus seems economic. Education is for producing middle class and above worker bees.

    There is also the fact that we live in an era of lifelong student loans and increased economic anxiety. This has turned studying the arts and humanities into a perceived indulgence. 50 to 60 years ago, cousin Alan was seen as a being not too bright because of his business degree. In 2015, cousin Emily is seen as indulgent, spoiled and wasteful because she wants to study Dance and Art History. What kind of job is she going to get? Maybe economics is a better major choice?

      Quote  Link


    • 1. Better the Bible and Paradise Lost than the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. But yeah, I get that we are actually talking about the loss of the canon. I miss the canon, but I can’t quite articulate a coherent argument for foisting it off on everybody.

      2. Because Anglo-Saxon culture is largely Anglophone, as are we, even those of us of non-AS ancestry, once we are three generations off the boat.

      3a. My sense is that Shakespeare was recognized as high culture even as it was performed on the popular stage. Being recognized as high culture and being taught at Harvard are related, but not quite identical things.

      3b. Preach it, brother! Not only do we learn more non-Western history, the Western history we do learn includes more than just what the aristocracy was doing. This is unqualifiedly a Good Thing.

      4. I have seriously mixed feelings about this. The economic realities are what they are, but college as high-priced vo-tech training makes me sad.

        Quote  Link


      • 2. I agree that teaching the Western and Anglo-Saxon stuff is important and has merit. I was just raising an issue for discussion. I am not for the type of conservatism that holds Western culture above all others and I am not for the lefty thing that says Western culture is boring and imperialist.

        4. I have expressed my mixed feelings about this as well. I’ve long said that a humanities degree does not damn one to poverty and being a coffee house worker but I’ve also heard of plenty of underemployed PhD biochems.

          Quote  Link


      • For number 1, my point was that if you live in the middle of nowhere and only have a handful of books. you are going to read those books again and again and again. This is going to make everyone be able to absorb large passages, if only by osmosis.

          Quote  Link


      • 1. I think you can make an argument for canon for several reasons. The canon and reaction to the canon forms the intellectual basis of Western culture, life and thought. It all goes back to the Bible, Greek philosophy, and other parts of Western culture in one way. You could also argue that in order for their to be a common discourse in society, you need to have a common culture that people could refer to. In the Anglophone world, this would include Shakespeare because of his sheer importance to the development of the English language.

          Quote  Link


      • As to the canon, I’ve always found it curious that the only choices I ever hear argued are, “keep the canon as is, with no additions or subtractions ever,” or “eliminate this and all canons forever and ever.”

        I could never figure out why you couldn’t have a canon that included Dickens and Baldwin and Austen.

        The only explanation I can think of is that arguments about the canon aren’t really about writing at all.

          Quote  Link


      • But yeah, I get that we are actually talking about the loss of the canon. I miss the canon, but I can’t quite articulate a coherent argument for foisting it off on everybody.

        As the number of works increases, the cultural weight of each work falls. We’ve gone from a canon to a machine gun.

          Quote  Link


    • Garber makes clear that Shakespeare’s reputation as the superior English poet was solidly in place by the 1760s. Shakespeare was not taught academically because poetry was not taught academically. However, it was prized both for its practical utility in improving character and in a high intellectual sense of making beauty manifest in a spoken word.

      That is a bit abstract. To make things concrete, let us return to Daniel Webster. Here is another speech he gave, this time to a local historical society:

      It is presumptuous of me, whose labors and studies have been so long devoted to other objects, to speak in the presence of those whom I see before me, of the dignity and importance of history, in its just sense; and yet I find pleasure in breaking in upon the course of daily pursuits, and indulging for a time in reflections upon topics of literature, and in remembrance of the great examples of historical art.

      Well written history must always be the result of genius and taste, as well as of research and study. It stands next topic poetry, among the productions of the human mind. If it requires less of invention than that, it is not behind it in dignity and importance. The province of the epic is the poetical narrative of real or supposed events, and the representation of real, or at least natural, characters; and history, in its noblest examples, is an account of occurrences in which great events are commemorated, and distinguished men appear as agents and actors…..

      (emphasis added. Daniel Webster, “The Dignity and Importance of History,” Address to the Historical Society of New York, 23 Feb 1852).

      So here stands Webster arguing that history should be treated with more dignity than it is. It is the highest of all “human endeavors”…. next to poetry.

      Saul says:

      The TV example seems like cherry picking. There were plenty of high brow critics in the 1950s and 60s that sneered against TV.


      The author of the book quoted discusses this a bit. In essence, the high brow critics were wrong. And even ‘low brow’ entertainment of the day was more elevated than most anything that appears on television today. There was a few weeks where I watched a version of the old game show Is That My Line? every day. I was shocked to see how participants on the show–considered tawdry fluff in its day–talked, debated, and discussed daily events one with another. The plotting was altogether too slow for modern audiences (the game is essentially a glorified version of 20 Questions), but the conversations were too full of fancy words and high highfalutin rhetoric to ever make it on television today. What the critics hated about television in that day was the obvious attempt to confuse mass entertainment with high brow art. This is a democratic impulse, and a complaint long herd in American history. But at least the attempt was made! No one could confuse MTV, or the History Channel, or indeed most popular sit-coms for high brow aspirations.

      HBO can make that case. But you got a pa extra for them.

      He also says:

      In a multi-cultural and heterogeneous society, why is Anglo-Saxon culture our national heritage. What if someone can trace their family history to Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam or French fur trappers? What if someone was of Japanese ancestry? Wouldn’t the Japanese-American have more cultural heritage in the Tale of Genji?

      The simplest answer is because we speak English, and those folks of Dutch or French or Japanese ancestry who grew up speaking English will never be able to understand the most beautiful and most powerful poetry of their ancestral home without learning the language of that home. Most never will. Every English speaker deserves the chance to know and treasure the best of English poetry and prose. Words have power. We should not withhold it!

      With that said, I have no objection to a global canon that incorporates things like the Tale of Genji. My expertise lies in ancient Chinese thought and the Chinese strategic tradition. I feel like every educated American should know the words of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Han Fei, and Sima Qian.

      I have written about this issue of great books and global cultural traditions before. I plan to do so again–shortly. If you follow my blog wait for the two posts titled “Great Books and the Problem of Pluralism” and “What Would a Global Great Books Course Look Like?”. They are on the dock now, and will probably be published there in about 2 weeks. Your comments would of course be welcome.

        Quote  Link


  3. Few of “average Americans” will be seen reciting lines from “The Raven” today!

    Simpsons did it.

    I really like this piece, but the logical flaw is manifest.

    How have we gone from long discussions of Shakespearean drama on the senate floor to the shallow repetition of disembodied sentence fragments?

    1830’s Dixie guy just threw off a shallow repetition of the literary allusion himself. The only difference between then and now, is that in instead of Twitter saying ‘I do not think that allusion means what you think it means’, Danny W. called Dixie guy right out on it! But Danny was always at his best when dealing with the Devil.

      Quote  Link


    • “First thing we do is, we kill all the lawyers” was said by the bad guy, describing his evil plan.

      That doesn’t mean quoting it in jest is “wrong”. Villains are often quoted semi-admiringly in the sense of “Of course this is wrong but there’s still something fun about it”:

      “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”

      “Why so serious?”

      Anyway, I’m curious how the audience at that play’s performance reacted to the line, or was supposed to react. Was there no laughter at all?

      I agree with your larger point that Shakespeare is often misquoted.

        Quote  Link


      • The big issue with the Kill all the Lawyers quotation is that Shakespeare is basically saying that rule of law is necessary for the people’s safety and liberty.

        Not to get all Godwin but there is a lot of scholarship about how the Nazis were able to use anarchic situations to kill more Jews. Occupied countries that kept their states relatively together were able to save more of their Jewish populations.

          Quote  Link


  4. Outstanding piece.

    I suspect there are other forces at work than the two you mention here. One somewhat minor one on the political side is politics itself: Shakespeare — and Poe, and Pope, and so on — find themselves in a bit of a cultural no-man’s land in the age of electronic-media driven politics. Asking the public to focus on a dead white man’s words as the font of wisdom asks a Democratic candidate to take a risk with his or her base they may not see gain in taking; asking the public to acknowledge liberal academic scholarship as a similar font asks something similarly nettlesome for a Republican. Simply put, Shakespeare in different ways represents something anathema to each tribe.

    Looming larger than that, however, is the fragmentation that technology and the free market has born. The (somewhat) unspoken compliment given to the early American in discussions such as this is that, given the choice between reading and discussing Shakespeare or binging on one of thousands of movies or TV series on Netflix, they would have chosen the Bard. As soon as you state this assumption out loud, however, the obvious silliness of it becomes apparent. The only way you get Shakespeare back in the game the way he once was, sadly, is likely by eliminating the competition.

    There’s a price we pay for this era of choice we live in. Part of that price is that, being creatures who most often gravitate to the path of least resistance, challenging readings will always fall a distant second to passive watching. Shakespeare is a victim of this. (As are all the classic canon authors, really.)

    Another part of that price is that, more and more, we are losing common reference points. In my childhood, for example, families didn’t sit around reading Shakespeare, but once a year everyone — and I mean everyone — watched the Wizard of Oz and the Sound of Music on a Sunday evening on ABC, and for weeks those movies were reviewed and deconstructed in every recess in the country. That kind of universal cultural experience no longer exists. The only event comparable to ‘everyone watching the Wizard of Oz on the same night’ for my sons’ generation was a couple of airplanes flying into a couple buildings. So it isn’t just Shakespeare and the King’s English we’ve largely lost; it’s a shared cultural common denominator.

      Quote  Link


    • There’s a price we pay for this era of choice we live in. Part of that price is that, being creatures who most often gravitate to the path of least resistance, challenging readings will always fall a distant second to passive watching. Shakespeare is a victim of this. (As are all the classic canon authors, really.)

      Jane Austen’s prose is notably compatible with present-day prose style. I have no doubt but that this is a substantial component of her present popularity.

        Quote  Link


    • I’m probably one of the few liberals that raises his or her eyebrows at the entire “dead white man” thing. If I’m in a more ornery mood, I actually want to throttle people who make this argument. Dead white men might not be the front of all wisdom but we shouldn’t through out the baby with the bathwater. They contributed a lot to the cultural and intellectual life of the West. Most of the people protesting “dead white men” are still heavily indebted to them. The art, music, and literature they created are things of beauty still. They should be enjoyed by everybody.

      For conservatives in the United States, I think that the biggest problem with Shakespeare is that even though they are the appointed defenders of Western cultural tradition in the United States, they have also adopted an anti-elitist stance to sneer liberals. The big problem is that that Western high culture is at least somewhat elitist. A lot of the Republican base, the Evangelicals, are the ideological descendants of the Protestants that hated theater. That probably doesn’t help either.

      But your ultimate point is right. Most people really like Shakespeare when they see his work performed. Its just that there are so many choices out there that few people are going to elect to see a Shakespeare play when they have other more modern options for entertainment.

        Quote  Link


      • Count me in with you.

        I’ve come around to the idea that in order to honestly accept other cultures on an equal level, its important to embrace my own. Not as superior, not as inferior, but just as an equal.

        Sneering at our culture (American-of-European-extraction) is one of those false modesty things, like praising black music as more authentic, which end up exoticising other cultures and making our culture the norm.

          Quote  Link


    • Looming larger than that, however, is the fragmentation that technology and the free market has born. The (somewhat) unspoken compliment given to the early American in discussions such as this is that, given the choice between reading and discussing Shakespeare or binging on one of thousands of movies or TV series on Netflix, they would have chosen the Bard. As soon as you state this assumption out loud, however, the obvious silliness of it becomes apparent. The only way you get Shakespeare back in the game the way he once was, sadly, is likely by eliminating the competition.

      Notice Shakespeare’s presence on the vaudeville bills. He did not have to be there.

        Quote  Link


  5. As a young lawyer, I was motivated to weave allusions to Shakespeare into my pleadings. “The defendant objects that plaintiff has not made full disclosures in discovery. But the lady doth protest too much, for her disclosures are even more incomplete than those of which she complains,” that sort of thing. I was counseled not to do this, and have accepted that guidance.

    First, because there are easier, clearer, more direct ways to make the same point. But second, because there’s a pretty good chance that the judge or even more likely the law clerk who reviews the paperwork will have never read Shakespeare at all and won’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

      Quote  Link


  6. After rereading the post, I have a question. Is this just a sort of yearning for a time when politicians were more elegant in their speeches and debates and included all sorts of literary references? I’m all for more high culture but I think desiring more elegance, wit, and verbal flourish in debates and speeches isn’t really necessary or a good thing. It isn’t bad either but politicians should first be able to debate something on the merits and than add the extra bits.

      Quote  Link


    • Alsotoo, I wonder to what extent, in bygone times, words from Shakespeare and the Bible and Milton were viewed as perhaps the only expressions of Deep Truths, so referencing them provided gravitas and authoritah! to the substance conveyed. Now we have science, which most everybody knows a little of, lots know a pretty good bit of, and a few know a lot of, so quoting Virgil doesn’t add anything to the discourse other than expose the speaker as the type of person who would quote Virgil on the Senate floor.

        Quote  Link


      • Stillwater, this rather misses Garber’s point. Shakespeare is treated mostly as an expression of “Deep Truths” today. Thus the disembodied sentence fragments bereft of context. The entire point of quoting these snippets is to add “gravitas and authoritah! to the substance conveyed.” There really is no other reason to quote him–so stripped from context are the quotes that they can do nothing else.

          Quote  Link


        • There are still some (small) subcultures where a quote from Shakespeare carries more than “I think that’s Shakespeare…” with it. An allusion to the dynamic between Iago and Othello, the treatment of Shylock, Lear’s madness (or his Fool), Hamlet’s insights into everything/nothing.

          It allows for a veritable Darmok and Jalad on the ocean but, yeah, can oftentimes lead to Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.

          But those sub-cultures are still out there, if you look for them.

            Quote  Link


          • From Yes, Prime Minister:

            As they say, it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

            Oh really, Bernard, must you and Humphrey really always express yourself in this roundabout and pompous way? “More honoured in the breach than the observance”! Must you always distort and destroy the most beautiful language in the world – the language of Shakespeare?

            That *is* Shakespeare, Prime Minister.

              Quote  Link


        • Fair point. (Like, I get what you’re sayin.) Part of what I’m getting at, tho, is that there’s a pretty big difference between a speaker justifying his support for policy P because Shakespeare! and justifying it because Evidence! So the role played by appeal to expressions of deep truths has changed as empiricism continues it’s relentless, inexorable quest for Complete Domination. And on top of that, sorta repeating what other people have written, for lots and lots of people Shakespeare just doesn’t convey gravitas or authoritah. Not even to me, I might add, and I’ve read dozens of his plays plays once, some of them more than once, many of his sonnets, etc.

          My beef with public discourse at the political level isn’t so much that it’s bereft of quotations from dead white guys, but that the majority of speakers seem incapable of constructing a clear argument. At this point, I’d view speaking in complete sentences as a huge improvement.

            Quote  Link


          • I can’t really imagine how the debate over slavery would go if it was waged with empiricism rather than deep truths. There were some minor attempts at using empiricism in the slavery debates when people wrote about whether it made economic sense or not but most of the debates, anti and pro, took place on the deep truth level.

            Empiricism is often just as useful as deep truths for debates because you still have to get things through the political process. Both sides of the healthcare debate believe that empiricism favors their point of view. It was still a question of vote counting in the end. The Democratic Party finally had the votes for some type of universal healthcare bill and passed it.

              Quote  Link


    • I am apt to romanticize certain elements of the antebellum era. One must be careful doing this. But I chose the Webster-Hayne debate (instead of say, Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and letters) for a fairly specific reason. It is hard to imagine a debate on more substantive issues. A live discussion over land sales was seized as an opportunity to make detailed constitutional arguments. But I don’t think you would have one without the other. Had Webster not been able to make his case with style, he probably would have written it up in a pamphlet!

      But what this really is is a lament for a culture that honored words. There was a time when literature, poetry, and prose mattered to people. You saw it in their diaries, in their letters, and even, as I hope I have shown here, in their politics. Words have lost their power over us, and we have lost because of it.

        Quote  Link


      • I think words matter to people. Notice the never-ending popularity of grammar memes on the Internet.

        Literature still matters to a lot of people but it is a different kind of literature that matters to most and this is an intensely political and cultural fight. There is the fight between Franzen and Weiner over what kind of literature really matters. The fight over whether adults should be embarrassed or not for reading young adult literature or not. There are also tons of blogs out there and a lot of writers have turned their blogs into professional writing careers.

        What is changing is the sheer amount of writing out there. I am currently reading a book called Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. This is a book of literary and historical criticism. It also does separate me from the cultural conversation as Chris pointed out above because I know what the Office and Parks and Rec are but I explicitly choose to spend my free time reading instead of watching what many others are watching. Even Orange is the New Black and the Wire are class and culture signifiers because they have viewership in the millions as opposed to the tens of millions like CSI shows.

        Poetry is more difficult. I’ve known people who just don’t get poetry and my poetry education is largely self-taught. I don’t remember doing much poetry in my English classes.

          Quote  Link


      • Words have lost their power over us,

        This cuts both ways, yes?

        and we have lost because of it.

        Sorry to do this, but who’s “we”? I do think, as you indicated upthread, that there’s a lot of romanticism involved in this sentiment. I mean, I read letters (LETTERS!) written by T Jefferson or M Twain and I wonder how “we’ve” fallen so far so quickly as a civilization. But I only think that for about half a minute or so.

          Quote  Link


          • Nah, it’s not that. I think it’s something else. It started with Andy Warhol’s observation about 15 minutes of fame in the 60s, so even at that time our culture was already lurching inexorably down a path of valuing entertainment over art and brief, almost transitory, yet very clever encapsulations of emotional and descriptive content over the more thoughtful …..

            Ehh, where was I going with this? Shit. I’ll pick it up again later. Check my Facebook page this afternoon.

              Quote  Link


      • I do agree with your sentiments about words having lost their power and certainly feel the same way all the time, most recently over advertising’s gross abuse of periods. What I would say is not to lament, but to behave as if the decline never happened. We had a cleaner with us in the toiletariat who used to recite poetry in the bathrooms she was cleaning at 6 a.m. I was tickled by this and she told me she felt deprived because her generation didn’t memorize poems in the way her grandparents’ had. She was about 30. So, I think the revolution will come slowly and quietly and when people feel that lack. All we can do, I think, is to show them what they’re missing.

          Quote  Link


        • This is not too different from what I do. But I come at it from a slightly different background than most. I am a practicing Mormon. Leaders of the LDS faith–for the most part men and women old enough to remember the old ways, for what it is worth–are always urging us to memorize scriptures and hymns for the strength they provide. They are right, of course. So it is a bit easier to move onto poetry when one has already strove to treasure up some words in the heart.

            Quote  Link


  7. Wow, I can’t disagree with this more.

    Everyone does understand the distinction between high-brow and low-brow entertainment is not only just completely arbitrary and random, having nothing to do with intellectual merits and everything to do with class…but Shakespeare belongs on the *low brow* side, right?

    The article seems to understand this, but then seems to somehow think that meant everything was secretly high brow or something. The fact everyone was reading the same stuff doesn’t magically make it intellectual.

    People quoting Shakespeare in Congress in 1830 are basically quoting Seinfeld at each other. Or Die Hard.

    In fact, let’s look at the specific example there. I’m actually a little baffled as to how ‘The Raven’, which is, *at best*, a very short character piece, could somehow be considered intellectual. No. It’s something you *read in school*, and had to dissect. That does not magically make it intellectual or thought-provoking. It’s just a good poem. (I’m not even sure a *poem* can ever be ‘intellectual’.)

    Also, that’s not what ‘cultural literacy’ means. Cultural literacy is how well you can function in a culture, not how well-read a culture is.

    Pretending it *does* mean ‘well-read’, I actually dispute that they were better read than us. Listing three books in every home does not prove that…in fact, it rather proves the opposite. How many books are in your home? Oh, you’re a geek and have tons of books? Okay, ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a house without any books?

    We live in a world where books and magazines and newspapers (Except now they’re web sites, but that’s *still* reading*) are everywhere, whereas they were lucky to get two magazines to read a month and a new book every three years. We also live in a world where everyone is reading the news, *all the time*.

    Even if we assume that we’re just talking about *narrative* reading, I’d like some evidence that people in the 1800s read more than we do.

      Quote  Link


    • Also, I just want to make a comment about how utterly insane it is that one the few ‘literary’ works everyone seemed to read was *not* a literary work at all.

      Those things in books are not Shakespeare plays. They are *scripts* that tell you how to *make* a Shakespeare plays. Plays are *performance art*, not words. (And, yes, I know dictionaries disagree with me, which prove people can only be utterly stupid for so long before the dictionaries just go with it.)

        Quote  Link


    • “The article seems to understand this, but then seems to somehow think that meant everything was secretly high brow or something. The fact everyone was reading the same stuff doesn’t magically make it intellectual.”

      This magnificently misses the point. I encourage you to search for the word “intellectual” anywhere inside the post if you thin otherwise.

        Quote  Link


      • No, I’m not missing the point. I think you perhaps missed the fact that *I* was the one using the term intellectual. The original article really doesn’t.

        The article was talking about high brow vs. low brow…and seems to think ‘high brow’ is a good thing because, presumably, it makes you smarter….when in reality high brow is just what the upper class enjoys, and high vs. low brow is completely orthogonal to how intellectual or mindless a work is.(1)

        Intellectual works are works that lead to deep thought about it, or inner reflection.

        And intellectual *doesn’t* describe The Raven (Which is just a portrayal of a guy wrapped up in grief.), and I’d argue it doesn’t *really* describe Shakespeare’s works either. It’s just they’ve been so popular so long that they’ve already been studied quite a lot. And they certainly weren’t *written* to cause deep thoughts.

        1) The ballet, for example, is supposedly the ultimate high brow entertainment, but, because of how the story is gotten across via dance, is often *extremely* simplistic in plot. Remove the dance, and you have like 5 minutes of people pantomiming at each other.

          Quote  Link


        • “The article was talking about high brow vs. low brow…and seems to think ‘high brow’ is a good thing because, presumably, it makes you smarter”

          Again, point magnificently missed. If you think this is what the article is about, you ought to read it again.

          Incidentally, this:

          Also, I just want to make a comment about how utterly insane it is that one the few ‘literary’ works everyone seemed to read was *not* a literary work at all.

          Those things in books are not Shakespeare plays. They are *scripts* that tell you how to *make* a Shakespeare plays. Plays are *performance art*, not words.

          is also incorrect. Or to a bit more charitable, it highly over simplifies things. One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays have proven so easy to adapt to various settings and eras is the paucity of his stage directions. They were sparse even for his time. It is almost as if Shakespeare was fully aware of what publishing his works on a written page would do, and wanted his readers to focus on the words, not its staging.

          A more serious example concerns the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The plays is survived in three editions. The oldest of the these, the “First Quarto” edition, presents a play whose action is quicker, scenes streamlined, and monologues significantly shorter. To take the opening lines of this version’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy:

          To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
          To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
          No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,
          For in that dream of death, when we awake,
          And borne before an everlasting Judge,
          From whence no passenger ever returned,
          The undiscovered country, at whose sight
          The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.

          We might compare to the version most people are familiar with today:

          To be, or not to be, that is the question:
          Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
          The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
          Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
          And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
          No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
          The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
          That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
          Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
          To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
          For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
          When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
          Must give us pause

          What accounts for these discrepancies? The 1st Quarto versions of the soliloquies are significantly shorter (something that is apparent here, and would have been even more apparent if I had copied out the entire section), they are less philosophically deep, and they run off the tongue a bi easier. One reason this may be is that the 1st Quarto version was the original version performed on the stage–this would make Hamlet, easily the bard’s longest play, a much more endurable length, and a far less boring experience to boot. There is little time to ponder philosophy while the action moves before you. But there is plenty of time to stop and ponder while reading a text; the neater poetry and the deeper ideas of the latest edition suggest that it was intended especially to be read, not performed.

          The stage directions of the 1st Quarto are also more detailed than later editions (‘Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing’ vs ‘Enter Ophelia distracted’), giving more credence to this theory that the quarto edition was closer to play as intended to be performed, the later editions the play as intended to be read.

          That is just a theory, of course. But it is worth noting that modern theater companies that have performed the 1st Quarto version have met with success.

          The broader question over whether or not Shakespeare should be thought of as more a playwright or more a poet is one that has divided critics to the modern day. Harold Goddard defended the latter view veraciously in his 2 volume The Meaning of Shakespeare. He pursues the argument further than I would, but you might find it worth your time if you see no sense in the ‘poet’ argument at all. Best to encounter your intellectual opponents at their strongest, if chance allows.

          I think I’ll end here with a quote by George Orwell. He is a nice closing point, and once I’ve left his words here I don’t think I’ll return. There is much room for further dialogue when fundamental issues are seen so differently, especially regarding the worth of Shakespeare’s works. You put his plays on the same plane as Seinfeld–to me a thought so silly that it does not deserve refutation. It would be hard to refute in any case, for your judgment of the Bard’s merits are not proven, nor reasoned out, but simply asserted. One cannot assail an argument that rests on nothing more than taste. Orwell critiques a man who did try and condemn Shakespeare on more than taste. The man was Leo Tolstoy, who declared after reading all of Shakespeare’s works, “I have felt…. the firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits — thereby distorting their aesthetic and ethical understanding — is a great evil, as is every untruth.”

          In response, Orwell tore Tolstoy apart. His essay is fun reading, but you may find a few of his points germane to your own appraisal of Shakespeare’s worth:

          …One’s first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Beeping is ‘bad’. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy’s attack…..

          One of the first things an English reader would notice in Tolstoy’s pamphlet is that it hardly deals with Shakespeare as a poet. Shakespeare is treated as a dramatist, and in so far as his popularity is not spurious, it is held to be due to tricks of stagecraft which give good opportunities to clever actors. Now, so far as the English-speaking countries go, this is not true; Several of the plays which are most valued by lovers of Shakespeare (for instance, Timon of Athens) are seldom or never acted, while some of the most actable, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are the least admired. Those who care most for Shakespeare value him in the first place for his use of language, the ‘verbal music’ which even Bernard Shaw, another hostile critic, admits to be ‘irresistible’. Tolstoy ignores this, and does not seem to realize that a poem may have a special value for those who speak the language in which it was written. However, even if one puts oneself in Tolstoy’s place and tries to think of Shakespeare as a foreign poet it is still clear that there is something that Tolstoy has left out. Poetry, it seems, is not solely a matter of sound and association, and valueless outside its own language-group: otherwise how is it that some poems, including poems written in dead languages, succeed in crossing frontiers? Clearly a lyric like ‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’ could not be satisfactorily translated, but in Shakespeare’s major work there is something describable as poetry that can be separated from the words. Tolstoy is right in saying that Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated. Nevertheless, something, a kind of pattern, or perhaps only an atmosphere, survives the complications and the longueurs. Lear can be imagined as a puppet show, a mime, a ballet, a series of pictures. Part of its poetry, perhaps the most essential part, is inherent in the story and is dependent neither on any particular set of words, nor on flesh-and-blood presentation….

          How deeply Shakespeare himself was fascinated by the music of words can probably be inferred from the speeches of Pistol. What Pistol says is largely meaningless, but if one considers his lines singly they are magnificent rhetorical verse. Evidently, pieces of resounding nonsense (‘Let floods o’erswell, and fiends for food howl on’, etc.) were constantly appearing in Shakespeare’s mind of their own accord, and a half-lunatic character had to be invented to use them up.

          Tolstoy’s native tongue was not English, and one cannot blame him for being unmoved by Shakespeare’s verse, nor even, perhaps, for refusing to believe that Shakespeare’s skill with words was something out of the ordinary. But he would also have rejected the whole notion of valuing poetry for its texture — valuing it, that is to say, as a kind of music. If it could somehow have been proved to him that his whole explanation of Shakespeare’s rise to fame is mistaken, that inside the English-speaking world, at any rate, Shakespeare’s popularity is genuine, that his mere skill in placing one syllable beside another has given acute pleasure to generation after generation of English-speaking people — all this would not have been counted as a merit to Shakespeare, but rather the contrary. It would simply have been one more proof of the irreligious, earthbound nature of Shakespeare and his admirers. Tolstoy would have said that poetry is to be judged by its meaning, and that seductive sounds merely cause false meanings to go unnoticed. At every level it is the same issue — this world against the next: and certainly the music of words is something that belongs to this world….

          If we are to believe what he says in his pamphlet, Tolstoy has never been able to see any merit in Shakespeare, and was always astonished to find that his fellow-writers, Turgenev, Fet and others thought differently. We may be sure that in his unregenerate days Tolstoy’s conclusion would have been: ‘You like Shakespeare — I don’t. Let’s leave it at that.’ Later, when his perception that it takes all ‘sorts to make a world had deserted him, he came to think of Shakespeare’s writings as something dangerous to himself. The more pleasure people took in Shakespeare, the less they would listen to Tolstoy. Therefore nobody must be allowed to enjoy Shakespeare, just as nobody must be allowed to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. True, Tolstoy would not prevent them by force. He is not demanding that the police shall impound every copy of Shakespeare’s works. But he will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including — as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet — arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest.

          But finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all makes. As I said earlier, one cannot answer Tolstoy’s pamphlet, at least on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be ‘not guilty’. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.</blockquote

            Quote  Link


          • Again, point magnificently missed. If you think this is what the article is about, you ought to read it again.

            And I shall use my superpower here, which allows me, if someone (especially someone who isn’t the writer) tells me I missed the point but doesn’t bother to say what they think that point is, I get to *invent* their point for them: And as such, I think your claim that the article’s point was about how the lack of pirates cause climate change is demonstrably wrong, considering that the phrases ‘pirates’ and ‘climate change’ do not appear in the text.

            It is almost as if Shakespeare was fully aware of what publishing his works on a written page would do, and wanted his readers to focus on the words, not its staging.

            Erm, stage directions *are not in plays when written*, even in the modern era. They end up in there *during the first performance*, where the directer and writer work together to try to bring the script to life, so that *future* directors don’t have to do that. (Or the writer just borrows the prompt book and summarizes it.)

            Shakespeare, being both the writer and director, and being the only person (he assumed) who was ever going to direct the plays, did not bother to ‘rewrite’ them with stage directions. The only reason his have the level of stage directions they do is that *the people that compiled the folios copied them from prompt books*.

            The idea he left out the stage directions because he wanted people to *read* the plays is completely insane, and shows absolutely no understanding of how theatre works. (Not just how theatre in that day worked, but even how *modern* theatre works.)

            That is just a theory, of course.

            It’s an incredibly stupid-ass theory. If he wanted people to read his plays, he presumably would have *compiled a collection of them* at some point, or released them all as quartos, duh, instead of the few quartos (Few of which we’re sure *he* actually printed) that were published.

            Hell, he didn’t even produce *clean copies* of the plays in his own records.

            Seriously, you are using perhaps the best example of plays as living performances on stage…the guy who would change his stuff if he thought something was better, the guy who barely wrote down his own works… to try to prove that plays should be read in static form on a printed piece of paper. To try to prove *he* wanted them experienced that way.

            It’s completely insane.

            The oldest of the these, the “First Quarto” edition, presents a play whose action is quicker, scenes streamlined, and monologues significantly shorter.

            …are you serious? The first quarto edition of Hamlet is shorter because it’s a ‘bad quarto’, and parts of it were missed.

            But let’s pretend it was actually published by Shakespeare. Thus, *it* was the version published by him (Duh, tautology) and the longer versions *were only performed on stage*, never published by him and only recovered after his death, make your entire premise literally exactly backwards.

            If he wanted the longer version out there for people to read, he presumably would *published* it at some point, and *not* published the shorter version. Meanwhile, it would have been the *shorter*, performed version recovered from prompt books after his death. Instead of exactly the other way around.

            The broader question over whether or not Shakespeare should be thought of as more a playwright or more a poet is one that has divided critics to the modern day.

            You can think of him as a poet all you want, considering he actually is quite a prolific one. (?!)

            What you can’t do is think of his scripts as things best experienced by reading them. And especially not something he ever intended people to experience by reading them.

            You put his plays on the same plane as Seinfeld–to me a thought so silly that it does not deserve refutation.

            Actually, I put *talking about* his plays in the 1800s on the same field as *talking about* Seinfeld.

            I have no idea why you think I think he’s a bad writer. He’s not a bad writer. (The comedy and other parts of his work are getting outdated, but that’s hardly his fault.) If he *was* a bad writer, he probably wouldn’t have been the form of entertainment that people hundreds of years later were most familiar with!

            My point is that this doesn’t magically make *those people* more intellectual. Quoting popular entertainment in Congress is quoting popular entertainment in Congress.

              Quote  Link


  8. If you’re so lacking in blank verse, may I cheerfully provide Gortimer Gibbons: Life on Normal Street?

    And remember to thank Gerrold while you’re at it.

    If we can even put blank verse in children’s entertainment, I think it’s hardly a lack of talented writers… It strikes me that quoting Shakespeare lacks a certain cunning, and a certain salience. Far more crafty to slip in a hidden reference to 9-11… so subtle that no one recognizes the footage.

      Quote  Link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *