It is a testament to Shakespeare’s generic flexibility – his mixture of comedy and tragedy – that his works are appropriated to explain the news in both comic ways (the light-hearted mockery done in citation opportunism) and tragic ways (the solemn-minded analysis done by public Shakespeareans). If citational opportunism involves cultural critics using Shakespeare, public Shakespeare is scholars doing cultural criticism. Usually, allusions to Shakespeare in instances of citational opportunism are decorative, but allusions in public Shakespeare are substantive. Where citational opportunism tends to be about the Shakespearean line or character, public Shakespeare attends to the scene or situation. Citational opportunism employs a Shakespearean quotation or allusion with little or no analysis, but public Shakespeare presents sometimes extensive analysis of the text. Thus, the symbol of citational opportunism is the equals sign: it suggests one-to-one correspondences between Shakespearean lines or characters and modern politicians. Here Shakespeare’s value is rhetorical – his writing can make learning fun and memorable – and the purpose is usually to mock, to satirize, to suggest absurdity, and to elicit self-satisfied laughter. In contrast, the symbol of public Shakespeare is the lens: it identifies similar situations (and is at pains to qualify the analogy) to suggest similar interpretations. It exploits Shakespeare’s analytical value – knowledge derived from Shakespeare studies has valuable applications in non-literary contexts – and the purpose is to provide clarity, to make sense of the modern situation. In the end, the citational opportunism that attempts to establish equals signs between Shakespearean characters and modern people will always be suspect, but the public Shakespeareans who do a close reading of some Shakespearean text in an effort to do a close reading of some aspect of modern culture have the potential to be a productive force.
In a sense, public Shakespearans are doing in written, argumentative essays what modern-dress productions of Shakespeare have always done: reframing his texts in overtly modern terms to suggest similar interpretations of similar situations. Modern-dress productions used to be the first point of contact to discover the on-going resonances of Shakespeare’s plays in modern society. Now, public Shakespeare is reaching those audiences faster; more importantly, public Shakespeare is reaching more and different audiences. The modern resonances of Shakespeare’s plays are no longer restricted to theater-goers and those who can afford the price of the ticket: a democratization of Shakespearean appropriation.
Elizabeth Winkler, "Was Shakespeare a Woman," The Atlantic (June 7, 2019). Plus Responses by David Scott Kastan, Phyllis Rackin, James Shapiro, Mark Rylance, and David Ellis, "Shakespeare and Company," The Atlantic (June 8, 2019).
Geoffrey Way, "Introducing the Qualities of Mercy Dispatches," The Sundial (Aug. 12, 2020). Plus entries from Vanessa Corredera, Katherine Gillen, Kathryn Vomero Santos, Brooke Carlson, Mary Janell Metzger, Jonathan Burton, and Ambereen Dadabhoy.