Shakespeare Changed Everything

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Nat Post reviewI have been reading an entertaining little book called How Shakespeare Changed Everything, which, as the title suggests, is about the pervasive influence the Bard has had on pretty much everything in our lives ever since he started putting quill to paper.

Stephen Marche’s book was described in the NatPost as a, “sprightly, erudite sampling of Shakespeare’s influence on absolutely everything.” Reviewer Robert Cushman isn’t always that laudatory about all of Marche’s claims, however. He concludes the book is full of,

…rash generalizations balanced by elegant insights. Rightly, he links Shakespeare’s frankness about sex to our own; wrongly, he asserts that all love poetry before Shakespearean had been Petrarchan idealism. In fact, Shakespeare’s cheerful obscenity is also typical of his fellow playwrights, of his near-contemporary John Donne, and even of a gentle sonneteering predecessor like Sir Thomas Wyatt. And besides, the Shakespeare sonnet he actually quotes (“the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), though certainly frank, is anything but celebratory. On the other hand, he can cut to the heart of what makes Shakespeare supreme: his “preternatural ability to match the sound of a word to its sense”; that “no one produces characters with more individuality of language than Shakespeare”; that he “violates the idea that life can be fully understood.”

Well, don’t let either the criticism or the possibility of hyperbolic claims deter you. It’s a fun book that anyone – not just Shakespeare scholars – can read and enjoy. And like most books about the Bard, it adds to the growing corpus of ideas and opinions about Shakespeare’s influence and impact.

Whether you agree with Marche’s or Cushman’s assessment, no one can argue that Shakespeare didn’t influence – and continues to influence – the world.

His longevity is remarkable. None of his contemporaries get more than mild interest today, and few if any are the subject of books, university courses or lectures. I don’t know of anyone who reads Fletcher or Middleton or even Jonson for pleasure these days, but many – myself included – still read Shakespeare for the simple enjoyment of it.

Certainly Marche’s book is more entertaining and easier to read than Harold Bloom’s dense book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. eNotes writes that Bloom

“…suggests that a surprising amount of what the modern world understands about human nature began with William Shakespeare. Harold Bloom concludes that, even if Shakespeare did not expand the range of human emotions, the playwright’s presentation of those emotions improved the modern world’s understanding of them.

What both authors are telling us is that a playwright was able through his works to influence us – our cultures, the way we communicate, our politics, our feelings – ever since. This tends to go against the historiography which focuses on the politicians and warriors as those who direct social change. Artists of all sorts get relegated a back seat and the studies focus on, for example, Queen Elizabeth I and King James as the dynamic force that made Britain in that time.

What Marche does best is to steal Shakespeare away from the dry hands of academe and put him back into pop culture. He makes the Bard fun. As Quill and Quire reviewed it:

While the institutionalization of Shakespeare has often led to sterilized, reverential interpretations of his plays, Marche cheerfully points out that Shakespeare’s genius emerges from his sheer, unapologetic bawdiness. (Shakespeare was an expert on sexual liberation long before the Swinging Sixties.) Add barbaric violence that makes today’s video games seem tame by comparison, and one can easily see the appeal of Shakespeare, an artist unafraid of showing the seamier and more brutal sides of life, for today’s culture.

A review in The New York Journal of Books by Jeremy McGuire gives us one example:

Another area where Mr. Marche maintains Shakespeare influenced subsequent social issues was that of religious tolerance, quite a hot potato under Elizabeth l’s reign. The Tim Lehrer ditty, “The Catholics hate the Protestants and the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Hindus hate the Muslims and everybody hates the Jews,” pretty much sums up the religious landscape in the 16th century.

Enter the character of Shylock, who in many respects is a stock character as in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, but in Shakespeare there is a difference: Shylock is not a complete villain; he is a wronged man seeking justice. He gives voice to a whole peoples’ frustration with not being allowed to work in any field but money lending and is then condemned and distrusted by society for making a living at it. In his frustration, he crosses the line and asks for a pound of flesh as security on a loan. Abominable? Yes, but Shakespeare manages to make him sympathetic, thus, whether intentionally or not, firing a literary salvo at antiSemitism.

Who else has had such a long-lasting influence? One can argue Chaucer’s writing had a huge influence on literature and language. But on politics? Religion? Sexual mores? Human psychology? Certainly less so. And Chaucer seems so far removed from modern society, while people are still making modern film and theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Marche himself writes:

Nearly four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare permeates our everyday lives: from the words that we speak, to the teenage heartthrobs we worship, to the political rhetoric spewed by the 24-hour news cycle. In the pages of this wickedly fun little book, Esquire columnist Stephen Marche uncovers the hidden influence of Shakespeare in our culture.

It’s full of great fodder for dinner conversations. Asking, “Did you know that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar led to the assassination of President Lincoln?” will generate more energetic table chat than, “Anyone see the Leafs’ game?”

Any book that popularizes Shakespeare is alright with me (except for those fringe writers who push the someone-else-wrote-it conspiracy codswallop). The Bard doesn’t have to be stiff or formal, or books about him stuffed with academic bombast. Marche helps us remember that Shakespeare wrote for and about the people – his day-to-day audience; about their lives and in their own voices – not simply for the erudite and the nobility.
As McGuire concludes:

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the title is justified or not. How Shakespeare Changed Everything is fun and informative, with more than its share of “Aha!” moments packed between its diminutive covers. Mr. Marche’s thesis is compelling and probably more true than we ever imagined.

I think the Kirkus Review sums it up best:

Informed, ebullient and profoundly respectful.

Get it, read it and have fun.

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