Visiting Scholar Marjorie Garber

By Amber Slater

This fall, McDaniel College’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa hosted Harvard Shakespearean and contemporary culture critic Marjorie Garber as part of the Visiting Scholar Program. On October 24-25, Garber engaged with McDaniel’s faculty and students, and also delivered a lecture titled “Occupy Shakespeare: Shakespeare in/and the Humanities.”

Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, where she has also served as director of the Humanities Center and the associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A member of American Philosophical Society, she has served on the board of directors of the American Council of Learned Societies and is a current advisory board member and past president of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes.

Garber has authored seventeen books, including Shakespeare After All, which was chosen by Newsweek as one of the top five best nonfiction books of 2004 and won the Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Book Award in 2005. Within Shakespeare studies, she has also written books such as Profiling Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Modern Culture, and Coming of Age in Shakespeare. Her most recent collection of essays, Loaded Words, explores language through lenses ranging from mad libs to Shakespeare studies.

Drawing from her extensive work in the realms of both the Renaissance and contemporary culture, Garber’s lecture traced the reception of Shakespeare’s works in both the public and academic spheres from the time of their introduction to present day. Though today Shakespeare’s works are a staple in English courses in high schools and colleges in the United States and around the world, they were not considered serious enough for academic study during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Garber explained in an interview that when Shakespeare was writing printed play-texts, they were the equivalent of today’s pulp fiction. She explained, “Libraries would not put them on their shelves. Famously, the [founder of] the Bodleian Library at Oxford, Thomas Bodley, stipulated that no play texts would be there, that they were ‘riffe-raffe,’ they were ‘baggage books.’” 

In fact, it was not until the development of English departments within universities in the 19th century that Shakespeare was considered appropriate for serious academic study. Of the development of English programs at institutions of higher learning, Garber noted that most programs and departments dedicated to English literature and language in this country began in or after 1870.

Today, we see the influence of Shakespeare’s work in popular culture, where his characters, plots, and wordplay have become tropes that appear in song lyrics and advertisements. In the literary world, the world of the humanities, he is celebrated as the supreme authority on stagecraft and representation of timeless human themes and experiences.

For Garber, the ability to relate to these themes is what attracts people to Shakespeare in particular, but also to literature in general. The reflection of culture in written works in turn shapes our cultural understanding.

“Many of our ideas about central human categories, like love and grief, come to us through their literary and cultural expressions,” she noted. “Over time these literary texts have taught us, and continue to teach us, about how people think, feel, and live.”

Amber Slater is a senior at McDaniel College majoring in English and Spanish. McDaniel College is home of the Delta of Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.