That Shakespearian Rag Connects High and Low Culture

“That Shakespearian Rag” is comprised of famous quotes and simplified summaries of a number of Shakespearean plays (interestingly the plays alluded to are almost exclusively tragedies). The song is like the ultimate, shortest-possible Sparknotes of Shakespeare’s greatest works and is composed in a manner to make it popular and entertaining to the masses. Despite not being originally written or intended as ‘high culture,’ by the early 20th century, Shakespeare was already revered as one of the greatest known writers. Readers at the time would have viewed Shakespeare as high culture, which “That Shakespearian Rag” combines with the low culture of a pop song.

In Part II: A Game of Chess, Eliot paints scenes of high and low culture. He begins with the high culture, referencing famous historical and mythological characters like Cleopatra and Philomela in the physical context of a lavishly decorated room. The scene is pure opulence, but it is not welcoming as the “strange synthetic perfumes […] drowned the sense in odours” and the flames in the room seem unchecked and dangerous (87-89). Part II ends with the apparently overheard conversation between two women in a pub as the one describes, without a hint of remorse, how she seduced or stole her friend’s husband. The intermediary scene between a couple who is struggling to communicate seems to serve as the middle ground between the high culture and low culture that surrounds the encounter. It is in this scene that “That Shakespearian Rag” is mentioned, demonstrating how Eliot views it as a connection between high culture and low culture, classic and modern.


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