- Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture
Douglas Lanier's Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture introduces readers to the multiple avatars of latter-day Shakespeare. His book is an anthology of adaptations, citations, appropriations, authorship controversies, festivals, parodies, transmogrifications, and other contemporary versions of the Bard and his oeuvre. Lanier tells us that even in cultural productions having traditionally or formally little to do with "Shakespeare," that name/figure retains an immense prestige, over which culture warriors wage pitched battles. Despite the military metaphor, Lanier has few axes to grind, few volleys to fire. Indeed, his tone is measured and appreciative throughout as he assesses the myriad forms of pop-culture Shakespeare. As an entry in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series, the book negotiates a familiar contradiction: it must live up to a scholarly pedigree while making the academic accessible and therefore marketable. And the subject of this book expresses a similar contrariety: to pair Shakespeare and popular culture is to link the loftiest and (potentially) the "lowest" forms of entertainment.
His basic argument, and one with which most critics of popular culture would agree, is that manifestations of Shakespeare in the popular realm are "an important means by which notions about Shakespeare's cultural significance" can be "created, extended, debated, revised, and renewed, not only parodied or critiqued" (19–20). If the authentic, proper, "real" Shakespeare is always under construction, then pop-culture Shakespeare deserves to be considered as "real" as any other.
Noting the great divide between Shakespeare and popular culture, Lanier lays out the book's project: "how and why popular culture uses Shakespeare, and how those uses bear upon the image and value of Shakespeare in our culture" (4). Lanier surveys definitions of high and popular culture, and explores "how far we are willing to extend the name 'Shakespeare'" (9) for popular appropriations. The many contested uses of Shakespeare, he argues, can be explained by the "considerable cultural power" (9) of the name. In his opening chapter Lanier executes lively readings of the Star Trek franchise that suggest how surprisingly multifarious, flexible, and self-referential deployments of "Shakespeare" can be. He does not typically unpack allusions in depth—for example, Lanier conspicuously does not explicate the Hamlet resonances in the subtitle of the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country—even though he is capable of providing a searching and perceptive reading. Once we accept the dual limitations of his form— [End Page 101] namely, a "Shakespeare Topics" primer on a subject itself committed to surfaces and fragments over depth and wholeness—we can enjoy his book as an entertaining, informative tour through the "Shakespop" amusement park.1
For many readers, the value of the work will be its numerous examples of Shakespeare-where-you-wouldn't-expect-to-find-him: in a rap or hip-hop review, a graphic novel, a working-class sitcom, "fan fiction" (adaptation at two removes), a '60s folksong, and the countless ads and objets d'kitsch that inhabit the museum of modern cultural life. In most of these examples Lanier's controlling trope is ambivalence, which he sees as popular-culture Shakespeare's defining characteristic: tribute-in-parody, emulation as desecration, the attempt to partake of and honor a cultural monument while iconoclastically exploding it. Every parody implies a subject worth the attention; what Lanier calls "popular culture's long struggle with the Shakespearian idiom" (80) amounts to the tension between "cultural authority" and "pop's commitment to contemporaneity and relevance" (80–81). But, crucially, he comes to argue that both classic and parodic Shakespeare "sustain Shakespeare's vitality in the culture" (89). This seems a legitimate reply to those who question the value of mutated or re-formed contemporary versions of the plays.
Lanier then gives us a history of "Unpopularizing Shakespeare," or "the process by which Shakespeare's plays were transformed from ephemeral popular entertainments to centrepieces of the literary canon" (21–22). The move is a crafty one, for it suggests that the study of Shakespeare in or as popular...