Last night I picked up Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything. The book gets mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I thought I’d give it a chance. I understand now why it gets mixed reviews. I myself am about to give it a mixed review, and I’m just one reviewer.
Marche clearly loves Shakespeare. He claims that he chose Shakespeare as the subject for his PhD because he believed he would never bore him, and was right. The entire book is a love letter to the Bard. The problem is that Marche tends to see Shakespeare’s influence in things where it may not be present. Here is a man who has devoted much of his academic life to the study of one author. By this point, he really does see him everywhere.
My first problem with the book came with the title. The book really isn’t so much about How Shakespeare Changed Everything. This bothered me for 142 pages until Marche finally acknowledged that “all these global effects” that he had been describing are really “accidental by-products of Shakespeare’s power to move individuals.” Shakespeare himself did not, for example, bring starlings to North America. It was a person as in-love with Shakespeare as Marche who decided to introduce to North America every bird ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. A more apt title would be How Shakespeare Influenced Everything, which I agree is just not as catchy.
My second problem came with some of the mental leaps that Marche wanted me to take with him. For example, the back of the book claims that Shakespeare gave us Obama’s presidency. I find his interpretation of Othello and it’s connection to Obama bizarre–as does the other library patron who scrawled notes in the margins of our now shared book. Marche goes on to discuss “how little any of [his] questions about race mattered” to his college students in Harlem. He claims that he would, “bring up the history and no one would want to talk about it” (21). My suspicion is that, like me, they did not want to take this mental leap with him.
Now, when Marche stuck to history I found the book very engaging. His discussion of how we quote Shakespeare without knowing it and how we still use words that he coined today was something that I might use in class next year. His discussion of Romeo and Juliet and adolescence gave me ideas for this year’s final exam. (More on that later.) I had no idea that John Wilke’s Booth had performed in a production of Julius Caesar with his brother prior to Lincoln’s assassination–and later wrote prior to being shot that he did “what Brutus was honoured for” (90). In my research about the Globe I hadn’t come across this little tidbit: “For the right price, you wouldn’t have to choose between prostitutes and a play, because in the most expensive seats female and male hookers conveniently and discreetly serviced clients during performances” (40). Lastly, I had no idea that Tolstoy hated Shakespeare so vehemently.
As for his last chapter? There was no need for it. Yes, it was an interesting piece on how little we know about Shakespeare, but I have two problems with it:
- It just doesn’t fit with what he had been writing all along. Perhaps if it had been the first chapter, I could have been okay with it. But after several chapters about how Shakespeare has “changed” everything to have a quasi-biography/discussion of the authorship question just didn’t fit.
- If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage, you realize that this chapter was sheer repetition of something that has already been written. Many of Marche’s points mirror Bryson’s rather too closely.
I felt like Marche thought, “Oh goodness. My book ends and is only 152 pages. Certainly that isn’t long enough” and tacked this 40-page chapter at the end to make his book more substantial. I personally think in this case less would have been more.