For many, remembrances of William Shakespeare are painful. Perhaps it was the struggle to read one of his plays in high school or college and then being tested on the work. After muddling through the assignments, there was a vow that he would never be read again. For others, the remembrance is one of great joy rather than discomfort. There is a moment of discovery that Shakespeare is a masterful playwright. He wrote 400 years ago, but the plots of his plays remain vibrant. They are used today as a platform for discussions on subjects from abortion to war.
Regardless of your view of the great Bard of Stratford, HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING by Stephen Marche is a book you should read. For the aficionado, Marche makes the case that the reading, study and discussion of Shakespeare is worth the effort. For those less enthusiastic, he may well turn you into a fan. Shakespeare's influence cannot be denied, and his impact on present-day art is far more pervasive than many comprehend.
Marche, who writes on culture for Esquire magazine, chose Shakespeare as the subject of his doctoral thesis because he believed he would not be bored. HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING is a joyful little book that is a love note to the greatest writer in the English language: never syrupy or over the top, it's a pleasure to read. If you have read Shakespeare's plays, you will find many of Marche's insights to be informative, entertaining and a touch humorous. If you are one who found Shakespeare ponderous and difficult, his perspective may well cause you to take a second look.
The book is organized in small, precise chapters. One of the best is "Words, Words, Words," reminding us of Shakespeare's substantial contribution to the English language. Marche correctly points out that even one who has never read a word of a Shakespeare play can sprinkle his speech with Shakespeare terms. It is difficult to identify with precision the number of words he contributed to the language, but most scholars agree that he coined somewhere in the vicinity of 1,700 words. Astonishingly, nearly 10 percent of the words he used in his plays were new to both him and his audience. The name "Jessica" from The Merchant of Venice may be his greatest accomplishment. For 400 years, parents (including me) have been naming their daughters Jessica because they love the name created by Shakespeare. The created words are a major contribution but pale in comparison to the common phrases "to be or not to be" "a rose by any other name" and "now is the winter of our discontent" that are routinely used by writers.
Beyond language, the Bard's influence on thought, politics, sex and racism are undeniable. Think for a moment of Romeo and Juliet. The story of young love and feuding families is a staple of art in books, plays, musicals and operas. Adaptations of the play have focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and apartheid in South Africa. Operas, ballets and the musical West Side Story are the children of Shakespeare's plot. And this is only one of his 38 plays.
While Shakespeare cannot claim direct credit, pause for a moment to ponder the great Shakespearean actors, even just those of the 20th century. The great thespian Paul Robeson tore down racial barriers with his performance in Othello. Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh, Denzel Washington, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, to name just a few, have performed Shakespeare in film and on stage. Indeed, one might well argue that Shakespeare is how actors and actresses establish their legitimacy and worth on the stage.
It's never too late in life to begin appreciating Shakespeare. It's not just the plays themselves, but how they speak to us about life that impact society out of all proportion and beyond anything Shakespeare could have dreamed. HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING is a simple but thoughtful compendium of the Bard's contribution that continues centuries after he authored his last play.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 16, 2011