How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche.
Harper, 2011. 224 pages.
I’d heard some positive noise about Marche’s book, and at first glance that noise seemed well-founded. Marche clearly loves Shakespeare and wants to share his excitement with the rest of us. To create a facade of respectability in his life while embarking on a career as a novelist, Marche pursued a PhD; his subject of research was Shakespeare. “I chose Shakespeare because I thought he would never bore me. And I was right. He has never bored me.” Likewise, Marche never bored me. He did frustrate and disappoint me though.
I expected something great, or at least something to enrich my appreciation of Shakespeare. Instead I found myself shuffling through pages of self-love and careless claims, thinking, “There are some great facts in here, and I love the idea of this book; I just wish it was a different book.” Honestly, you may be better off reading this page out of a young woman’s moleskine that circulated the internet a few weeks ago. Marche seems to be more interested in how he says things than what he says; in other words, his attempt to make his prose exciting often overwhelms moderation, or logical consistency.
The book opens,
William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived.
Wow! That is a very big claim! Now, Marche does go to some lengths to show Shakespeare’s influence. But by the end of the book you are no where close to being able to say, “Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived.” You are very comfortable saying, “Shakespeare has been very influential, moreso than I thought.” But that’s a very different thing. There is no lateral reasoning. Marche never once examines other influential characters of history, or even Western Civilization, comparing them to Shakespeare to see how their influence measures up. It boils down to saying, “Twilight sure is popular. It must be the most popular series of books, ever.” Marche’s philosophy of history is weirdly historicist: Since a great deal of culture today contains traces of Shakespearean influence, Shakespeare is the overarching influence on modern culture, freeing him from the bonds of the 17th century. And since he came later than those who made his existence and career possible, he is greater than them. So forget Jesus Christ who founded the Church that developed Western Civilization, leading to Shakespeare’s England, and certainly forget looming figures like Constantine, Theodosius, Ambrose, Aquinas, Catherine, Hus, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli. Forget everything. Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived.
Marche’s broad, much-assuming proclamations are not all that serious. Some are throwaway lines that he clearly threw into the text to make it sound cooler. Somehow these are even more annoying than the philosophically retarded phrases. “The best murder mysteries are always ghost stories.” (Really?) “The minor industry of mugs and magnets offers pearls of Shakespearean wisdom extracted from context and often misquoted. They drive me insane.” (Relax, Steve. No one cares if a pub in Ontario misinterprets the definition of “small beer.”) “I adore the sheer number of our words. Every time I write, I feel I’m sitting down at an old, beautiful, immense organ with infinite modes and registers and effects.” (First of all, no you don’t. Second of all, shut up.) “The sexiest women’s clothes look best on girls with whom it would be illegal to have sex.” (Whoops! That is very, very weird and you need to go to jail now.)
You know how annoying it is when people use the word “literally” over and over with no basic understanding of what that word means? Marche drags that concept through a fifteen line paragraph:
The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet shows young men terrorizing the streets of Verona with instantly recognizable teenage nastiness…. They remind me exactly of a group of teenagers I saw once at a football game: punching each other repeatedly drunk, farting in each other’s faces, describing an overweight girl as “more cushion for the pushin’,” totally gross. These boys didn’t just resemble Samson and Gregoy from act 1, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet. They were identical.
No, they were not identical. Maybe the resembled Samson and Gregory from act 1, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, but unless those teens exist only in your R&J fan fic they are emphatically not identical to those fictional characters. I know I’m going long on particular qualms with Marche’s prose (and there are more, I’m practicing restraint over here), but there’s one more. He tries to be cute, writing
The Donkey Show in New York stages A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a seventies-style disco, complete with classic dance tunes, nudity, and drugs. I ‘ll leave you to guess the salient Donkeyesque feature of the star performer. Women go to the play for stagette parties.
But then on the very next page, he writes, “[Shakespeare] would have loved the nubile women and the huge swinging penis in The Donkey Show for sure.” What exactly is he leaving to us to guess? “Just how huge is huge?”?
Maybe I’m being self-indulgent cherry-picking bad phrasing from the book. But I think it conveys a deeper problem with the work. It’s not just bad prose; he makes huge claims not because they are true, but because they sound good. Othello is the reason Barack Obama not only could be, but was elected president. (“That’s the 2008 election in a Hollywood pitch: Othello with a black wife.” [Pardon: What? Othello with a black wife isn’t the play Othello.]) John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln because he truly understood Julius Caesar. (“John Wilkes Booth was a better interpreter of Julius Caesar than his brother Edwin. He took his interpretation into the world.”)
And, frankly, Marche’s reasoning is just bad. At one point he attempts a mediation on Hamlet’s own meditation on death, with Yorick’s skull. Referring to both Caesar and Alexander the Great, Hamlet says,
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.
Marche clumsily interprets this,
Hamlet reverses the usual spiritual practice of the memento mori; instead of the skull’s making him less materialistic, it makes him more so; it shows us that even gods among men such as Alexander and Caesar are just mud. He uses the skull as a symbol of the shallowness of even the most profound human matters. He makes a mockery of making a mockery of the pointlessness of human concerns. He uses the device of religion to arrive at the basest kind of crudity.
This passage begs the question: What does Stephen Marche think memento mori means? In two words, one poetic phrase, memento mori sums up for us what is told to us when we receive ashes on our foreheads at Ash Wednesday: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” How Marche thinks the becoming of Alexander and Julius to bungs is an encouragement to materialism I do not know. If anything this soliloquy is a strong underscoring of memento mori, a better way of saying, “This jester became dirt as did emperors of old; we become nothing, how should we think ourselves anything? Death renders us all equal, so let us live in life as if there we may make a difference.” Death is the inevitable approach; let our actions here on earth define us. This is the thought bouncing through Hamlet’s skull. This is memento mori; what Marche thinks it is, I don’t know. But he’s clearly confused.
I gave a report in a class on Shakespeare, once, on As You Like It, in which I focused on the Catholic imagery within Arden Forest. The Professor told me afterward, “You can find any Shakespeare you want to find.” I looked for the Catholic Shakespeare, and I found him. Marche finds the hedonist, and commits to this being the only viable Shakespeare. Sonnet 129 becomes a meditation on semen. Shakespeare and Freud would have been best pals. Marche skews disguises in the Bard’s plays into an open endorsement of transvestism. Even as Marche explains the difficulty (and ultimate futility) nailing down actual historical information on Shakespeare, he forms his own Shakespeare into what he wants Shakespeare to be.
This is a book I wish was good. I hoped it would be an excellent exploration into Shakespeare’s long-lasting influence, a reminder of what we owe the man. And there are some wonderful facts and anecdotes of that; Shakespeare’s responsibility in introducing starlings to North America, say, or the vocabulary he’s given us.