How Shakespeare Changed Everything
New York: Harper Collins, 2011.
reviewed from an uncorrected proof
Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything is my favourite kind of book. It is a book written by an expert for an audience of non-experts; the author is very knowledgeable but the book wears its expertise lightly; it is conversational and clever and packed full of Things I Did Not Know But Am So Glad I Know Now.
Justin Bieber, for example. Did you know that he consumes 3% of Twitter’s entire server capacity? I learned this in Marche’s chapter on Shakespeare and youth. All that traffic for one kid with hair in his eyes! (You should understand that I see the fact that he refers to Bieber as one of the book’s assets: it connects now and then.)
And starlings. There’s a whole chapter on starlings. The North American starling population owes its existence to Shakespeare, who mentioned the bird only once in his entire oeuvre. Once was enough for Eugene Schieffelin, who decided to introduce into America every bird mentioned by Shakespeare. On March 6, 1890, Schieffelin released sixty of the birds in New York’s Central Park. From that batch and 40 the next year, starlings have now extended their range from the Arctic to Mexico, and there are more than 200 million of them. Birds with a survival instinct and an ability to thrive like that do not just move in; they take over. There’s many a farmer none too pleased with Shakespeare’s hungry birds.
Eugene Schieffelin was blind to the future he was creating, and Shakespeare was too, for that matter, and so are we. The starlings in North America are two hundred million asterisks over the world and the gloss in the footnote is always the same: “We know nothing, we know nothing.” Thought’s the slave of life. The drop of ink Shakespeare quilled to write the word starling blotted out the sky of a continent he never visited. (107)
So how did Stephen Marche, regular contributor to Esquire and author of Raymond and Hannah and Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, come to write a book about Shakespeare? He wrote his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Toronto on Shakespeare and the “various presentations of dead bodies in the 1540s and their effect on the drama fifty years later.” (We overlapped there briefly. At UofT, not over dead bodies.)
I came to Shakespeare almost by accident. In 2001, I was beginning my career as a novelist. There are two things an aspiring novelist needs: (1) As much free time as possible, and (2) a professional alibi so that when you attend a family reunion and your aunt asks you what you do, you have a respectable answer. I decided that doing a PhD would fulfill both requirements. But what would I study? I had to pick a subject to research intensely for five full years. I chose Shakespeare because I thought he would never bore me. And I was right.
Leaving aside for a moment my amazement that he could earn a PhD and write a novel at the same time, what I love about this book is how passionate Marche is about his topic and how alive and rich with anecdotes the book is. And this is precisely Marche’s argument: Shakespeare is alive.
When I was a professor teaching Intro to Shakespeare, I started telling the stories in this book to impress upon students the vital importance of his plays to their lives. To people largely unfamiliar with his genius, the name Shakespeare can produce a vague impression of British stuffiness, of Cambridge dons in tweed and Wednesday matinees attended by school groups in rose gardens. The truth is that he belongs absolutely to our moment, to our experience. The world he created and inhabited is filthy and exalted, cheap and rarified, gorgeous and vile, full of confusion and sudden epiphany; in short as full and complicated as our own.
There are chapters on Othello and civil rights, on the market for weird and wonderful conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s identity, on Julius Caesar and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on his influence on other writers, and on the marvellous contributions to the English language made by Shakespeare (1700 words, by one estimate).
Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way is one of my all-time favourite books, largely due to his chapter on Shakespeare’s influence on our vocabulary, a chapter simply brimming with delight in its subject. I can’t get enough of that kind of thing. (Bryson also wrote a brief biography of Shakespeare for the Atlas Books Eminent Lives series.) Marche quotes an equally delighted Virginia Woolf: Shakespeare is “the word-coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping.” Marche himself effuses,
I mean, it’s one thing to make up a word like metamorphize. That just requires brilliance and education and open-mindedness. But glow? Or gnarled? Or hobnob? Or gossip? … The perfection of his invented words, rather than their quantity, is awe inspiring. He invented traditional and eventful. How did people live without them?
The writer who can ask that question in all earnestness is the kind of writer I long to read. I read about this book and contacted Harper Collins to request a review copy. I regret that a little. I’d like to have this one in hardcover. It’s a great read.