WTF, Shakespeare

When his career appeared to have bottomed out in 2009, comedian Marc Maron turned in desperation to the medium of podcasting and created WTF with Marc Maron, a show that has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon with over six million downloads per month. Over the course of eight years and more than eight hundred episodes, Maron has interviewed fellow comedians, actors, musicians, artists, and even President Barack Obama in his garage in Highland Park, California. In October 2017, Maron and his producer Brendan McDonald released a book entitled Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live by from the WTF Podcast (Flatiron Books), which organizes moments from these conversations according to recurring themes such as growing up, sexuality, identity, parenting, and mortality in a manner that is not altogether unlike an early modern commonplace book. Cutting across and indeed touching on all of these aspects of humanity, however, is another theme that runs throughout the episodes of WTF: Shakespeare.

Nearly every time Shakespeare comes up in conversation with guests, ranging from musicians such as Rivers Cuomo of Weezer and Patrick Stickles of the punk rock band Titus Andronicus to actors such as Sir Ian McKellen and Kathy Bates, Maron expresses his own discomfort and frustration with Shakespeare’s language, recognizing the cultural importance of the plays but consistently finding them difficult to read, listen to, and understand. During a live episode in 2011, in response to screenwriter and actor B. J. Novak’s account of how he came to write his undergraduate thesis on Hamlet film adaptations, Maron exclaims, “Life and all of its facets—power, class, struggle, relationships, love, pain, death, and all of that—it’s all in there, in every f—in’ sentence, in language I can’t f—in’ put together, and if I read four lines of it, I am glazed over and tired” (episode 185).

As Maron comically gives voice to a general public sentiment about the difficulty of understanding Shakespeare, he betrays the subtle genius of his skills as a conversationalist—skills that have undoubtedly made his podcast the success that it is. In the case of Shakespeare, he assumes a genuinely frustrated but seemingly deliberate pose that invites his guests to offer new justifications for Shakespeare’s relevance to their work and in our culture more broadly. By asking his guests to teach him why Shakespeare’s language is worth grappling with, Maron allows them to show precisely how the plays resonate with our present moment, often in unexpected ways. In what has become the most well-known instance, Maron’s frustration with understanding Shakespeare in episode 621 prompts Sir Ian McKellen to conclude their conversation with a recitation of “the strangers’ case” speech from Sir Thomas More, calling it “a little present.” And what a gift it is to hear McKellen perform the speech in which More condemns the “mountainish inhumanity” of a crowd of anti-immigrant rioters by asking them to imagine that they could be in the position of the refugee someday: “What country, by the nature of your error, / Should give you harbour?” (Arden3, 6.156, 6.142–43). Although the episode concludes without commentary, the modern implications were quite clear in 2015 as the Syrian refugee crisis was growing in magnitude and anti-immigrant sentiment continued to build throughout Europe and the United States.

Nearly two hundred episodes later, Maron read an email from a California high school English teacher named Mike that showed just how powerful McKellen’s performance of Shakespeare on the podcast had been. Opening with the subject line “Maron and Shakespeare in the Classroom,” Mike explains, “Close to 90 percent of my students are Hispanic, many of whom are undocumented or have undocumented family members. I am teaching a large group of students who are in quite literal peril in the age of Trump.” Hearing McKellen’s performance on WTF was the “catalyst” Mike needed to “get creative” in these uncertain times and to develop a lesson in which he and his students “use [the] monologue to talk about the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of fear of the other.” As someone who teaches in Texas, a state with the second largest undocumented population behind California, I can attest to the fact that students in particularly vulnerable positions are turning to their teachers for reassurance, and Mike offers just one example of how we might use Shakespeare to open up discussion in the classroom when conversations have failed to happen in other public arenas. As Maron puts it in response to the email, “It’s exactly what this show can do” (episode 812).

In light of the recent decision to rescind President Obama’s executive order known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, actor Kathy Bates touches directly on issues of immigration in the final moments of episode 846. Anticipating that “what’s happening in terms of politics” might come up in conversation, Bates explains that she prepared “a message” for Maron’s listeners that they might take to their elected representatives and President Trump. That message is Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice. After reading the speech, Bates reflects on why she chose it: “I’ve resisted talking about political views . . . and I don’t know when this came to me, but I thought, that’s what we need, is mercy.” As Maron responds with an exasperated sense of “hope that something like that could get through to people,” listeners familiar with the play might be reminded of Portia’s merciless treatment of Shylock just moments after delivering this speech, an irony that points to an all-too-familiar disconnect between word and action.

In the introduction to Waiting for the Punch, Maron describes WTF as “one long, ongoing conversation with many participants, many voices” (4). After four centuries of ongoing conversations with and about Shakespeare, we could say the same thing about his multivoiced plays. Examined together, these moments from Maron’s enormously popular podcast call attention to the fact that Shakespeare has audiences beyond theaters and film screens—publics who are hungry for conversation. A master of dialogue himself, Shakespeare might just be one way to start thinking about and, ideally, to start talking about the increasingly urgent issues that we face today.


Web Exclusives