Monday, October 31, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche

If you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you will almost certainly become one upon reading Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Marche dexterously crafts an ode of rhyme and reason to the Bard’s towering influence on the working-day world, from the words and phrases he coined to his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement to his popularity among the Nazi party. In one fell swoop, this book compellingly chronicles the ubiquitous presence of the Bard in our politics, our language and our sex lives.

How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a collection of essays, starting with one on the influence of Othello on the integration of African-Americans in the theater business. While the title character was often played in blackface, Paul Robeson made a name for himself as the infamous Moor, and went on to become an important figure in Civil Rights campaigns nationwide. Marche also makes the case that John Wilkes Booth was inspired to assassinate President Lincoln by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Among the more ingrained influences is Shakespeare’s coining of over 1,700 words and countless phrases that have a strong presence in our language today. These essays culminate into a generous homage to arguably the most influential writer that ever lived.

Citing Shakespeare’s bold refusal to censor the violence and bawdy humor in his plays, among the more histrionic of Marche’s claims is that Shakespeare influenced Freud’s studies of human sexuality, and, by extension, the way we view sex today. The custom of teen girls swooning over celebrity heartthrobs allegedly began with Romeo and Juliet, which idolized star-crossed flaming youth. Claims such as these may require readers to suspend disbelief; however, this does not sully the book’s quality as a whole.

Besides revealing little-known trivia and fun facts about Shakespeare, Marche also delves into persisting mysteries about the Bard: how he looked like, for one, and how he really spelled his name, as well as the circumstances surrounding his marriage. Among the more humorous of Marche’s tidbits is Leo Tolstoy’s passionate hatred for the Bard and the book he wrote detailing all his failures as a writer, making him out to be the devil incarnate. Marche covers a lot of ground, from proven facts to myths and speculations to zealous critical acclaim and naysayers alike, resulting in a well-rounded and accessibly written portrait of a man so renowned and yet so mysterious.

While slightly farfetched in some of its claims, How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a fun, enlightening read and a goldmine for Shakespeare fans, who will surely get their money’s worth. It’s a foregone conclusion that Shakespeare has left his undeniable mark in many aspects of our daily lives, both large- and small-scale, and Marche’s faithful tribute to the Bard is to be admired, despite an exaggerated claim here and there.

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