19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
The book covers almost no new ground, and only reaches it's relatively tiny page count by repeating ideas two or three different ways within the same paragraph, but the ground it covers - Shakespeare's impact on modern life - is worthy and as a summary on the topic, it's really quite good.
Apart from the above-mentioned repetitiousness, the writing style is fast-paced and engaging, moving from topic to topic quickly enough to keep the reader interested by not so fast that you lose track of what's going on. The book really hits its stride in the passages on Shakespeare's impact on English vocabulary and modern sexuality. The last chapter, which focuses on the questionable authorship of Shakespeare's work, is a bit of a muddle, gliding past complicated criticisms and arguments in favour of a more populist approach. Also, this last bit really doesn't fit the book's overall theme at all. I much rather would've preferred an expansion on any or all of the previous chapters than a slapdash rehash of an old argument.
46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Stephen Marche's HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING makes some bold claims: namely, that Shakespeare changed everything, including your life, whether you know it or not. To pull that off, the reader needs to trust implicitly in the author's judgment; when that fails, you're left with a bunch of words that you don't have any real faith in. That's my main indictment against HOW SHAKESPEARE.
I'll cut to the chase and tell you the exact sentence that killed this book for me. On page 33, after recounting Paul Robeson's experiences playing Othello, Marche makes the leap that O is the first letter not just of Othello, but also O.J. and Obama. Certainly that must signify something, right? Well, according to Marche it's because the two stories are linked: the black man who kills his white wife, and the black man who is "savior of the republic" (political rhetoric that is an eyeroll itself). Exactly how they're linked, we're to guess for ourselves. To my knowledge, O.J. and Obama have never met, or had any meaningful interaction with each other.
But then, we get this gem: "If O.J. did it, which he did not, he did it just the way Othello did."
Unless Marche was the real killer, or was with O.J. that night in Brentwood, there's no possible way that he could say that O.J. didn't do it with that kind of smug self-assurance, unless he's convinced O.J. is innocent because he (Marche) believes he is. DNA evidence? Motive? Doesn't matter.
That kind of lapse in judgment makes me really wonder about Marche's scholarship. If you're willing to stake your integrity on something like O.J.'s innocence and offer no evidence to back up your claim, I have a hard time trusting you enough to let you tell me your story. If you want to say provocative stuff to hook magazine readers or to perk up sleepy undergrads, that's one thing, but you can't put material like that into a book and expect to be taken seriously.
Finally, there are a few prose issues. For a guy who makes his living writing, I'd have expected better than sentences like "Shakespeare's multitudinous effects on world history would have boggled his own capacious imagination." (xiv)
So there might be some nifty pro-Shakespeare factoids in here, but I have a hard time taking anything in this book at face value.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
It's evident from page 1 that Stephen Marche is a great admirer of Shakespeare. How fortunate that Marche is a good enough writer himself to convey some of his own enthusiasm to his reader. How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a carefully researched compendium of ten essays, each of which describes The Bard's influence on contemporary issues. Among the topics are race, sex, adolescence, starlings (yes, the birds), history, and Shakespeare's identity. Marche contends, and makes a good case of it, that Freud developed his psycho-sexual theories as a result of Shakespeare's treatment of sex, especially Oedipal themes, in his work. By citing passages from Romeo and Juliet, Marche shows how today's concept of adolescence came about. He is convincing in his belief that John Wilkes Booth's formulated his assassination plans based upon his own experiences acting in Julius Caesar. And he includes a fascinating chapter about all the words that we use as colloquialisms today without thinking about their origins - Shakespeare is credited with coining and/or recording hundreds of them. Marche includes a humorous paragraph compiled by journalist Bernard Levin, in which strings of them are joined into a coherent paragraph.
How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a lighthearted but heartfelt homage to the greatest, most enduring writer/poet in the English language. If you're an admirer as well, you'll enjoy this little (190 pages) volume.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2011
This book is full of interesting facts that are not true. Check for yourself, because the writer didn't.
For example, Marche talks about all the words that Shakespeare invented, but includes words that people were using years before Shakespeare was born. This isn't rocket science, and you don't need a Ph.D. to figure it out. These are mistakes that you could catch with one solid afternoon in a good public library.
The book is also full of silly arguments that you could have made up yourself, if you didn't have any basic common sense. For example, Othello is black, and his name starts with an O. Barack Obama is also black, and his name also starts with O! Holy moley! That couldn't be a coincidence, could it? (Yup. It totally could.)
Shakespeare really is great. He doesn't need people to make things up or to say goofy things in order to convince people that he was important. And one of the greatest things about Shakespeare, brilliant as he was, is that he never treated his audience as if they were stupid. Stephen Marche should learn from that.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Okay, I grant you that without Shakespeare the world would be a much different place. But that's a little different than saying "William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived." That's what author Stephen Marche asserts in the very first sentence of "How Shakespeare Changed Everything," and then dissapoints by not presenting convincing evidence that what he just said has merit.
This slim, slight collection of essays that talks about and around Shakespeare is a sometimes a somewhat fun-filled collection of things Shakespearian.
Jessica, the name of Shylock's daughter in "Merchant of Venice," was made up by Shakespeare. It's one of more than 1,700 words Marche says the playwright coined, including accused, addiction, alligator, amazement, anchovy and assassination and that's only from the start of the alphabet. Included on the list are at least two words, prenzie and scamels, the first from "Measure for Measure" the second from "The Tempest," which no one seems to know the meaning of.
On faith, I agree with Marche when he says that Shakespeare's greatest contribution is the influence he's had on English speech. Shakespeare "is in all of his words, and his words our ours. His truest dominion is in speech, and it grows every time we open our mouths."
Most of the other arguments Marche presents about Shakespeare are at best a little tenuous. In the chapter "Beast With Two Backs," (a crude reference to copulation in "Othello"), Marche says without any equivocation that Shakespeare has improved our sex lives. That's because Shakespeare, Marche says, is responsible for fostering a climate of sexual permissiveness. Later, Marche comes out of the chute with the claim: "He (Shakespeare) changed sex. Every other change - the iBook, the airplanes, the skyscrapers - is nothing beside it." Does he really think that? Wouldn't it be better to argue that rather than change Elizabethan attitudes toward sex, Shakespeare was very inventive at reflecting, in a very creative, often comical and certainly bawdy way, the lusty sexual mores of his time?
In another chapter, he tells us that President Obama owes his election in a significant way to the influence of Shakespeare's "Othello." The Moor and the presidential candidate acted from the same Shakesperian script, he tells us. "Barack Obama, too, retold the story of "Othello" throughout the 2008 election, but obliquely and redemptively." I just don't buy it.
In the chapter "Flaming Youth," March says the Elizabethan "invented teenagers as we know them today." He draws a direct line from "Romeo and Juliette" to "The Wild One," and asks us to believe there's a causual relationship between what Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago and the "humiliations and glories" that characterize adolescence today. I don't think so. I think it's another case where Shakespeare's genius lies in his ability to render so well the attidutes and cultural attributes of his time.
Marche opens his book with a bold beginning statement. It's flash that quickly fizzles. There's no gold, and not much glister that follows. He didn't convice me that no one since has had more influence than Shakespeare. He lost me early and never managed to get me back.
"Words without thoughts never go to heaven," the King says in "Hamlet." I was disappointed; for me the book never managed to get off the ground.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This book's first sentence asserts that Shakespeare is more influential than anyone who has ever lived. This will shock devout Christians, Buddhists and Islamics, as well as many others. Author Marche makes no real attempt to establish this claim by argument and proof, instead relying almost entirely on unconnected anecdotal examples and on unsupported assertions. The book is entertaining, if often maddening. Marche's writing is fluid, easy to read and usually interesting. But the result is a mere potpourri of assertions that, for me at least, defy belief.
Here are two examples: Modern adolescence and modern sexuality. Marche says he exaggerates only slightly in saying that Shakespeare "invented" modern teenagers. He bases this on the similarity of teen behavior shown in Romeo and Juliet (bizarre fashions, reckless behavior, rebellion against parents, high passions and excess of all kinds) to that which we see in teens today. Medieval people lacked any concept of adolescence as a distinct life-stage and had no explanation for this behavior. Shakespeare certainly provided none.
Yet such behavior itself was well known. The real Prince Hal was doubtless a severe trial to his father, King Henry IV. The historical Richard Lionheart led armed rebellion against his father, Henry II; and the antics of the real Richard II nearly defy belief for their vanity, headstrong rashness and stupidity. The Bible itself also provides examples such as the Prodigal Son and Absalom fighting against his father, King David. "Teenagers" as a unique class show up in the 20th century, along with theories to explain them and an expectation of counter-cultural behavior. Romeo remains popular because we recognize the behavior, as have countless generations before us, and see its beauty and danger.
Marche also thinks that sex lives must be unrepressed to be healthy and believes this insight came from Freud through Shakespeare, whose works are certainly full of sexual passion, innuendo and jokes. Shakespeare observed the tempestuous life around him and put it, so far as censors allowed, in his writing. Yet sexual practices departing from narrow socially and religiously sanctioned norms remained officially condemned, if vigorously and discreetly practiced, for almost 400 more years---persisting after Freud, let alone Shakespeare. Factors not in play until the late 20th century, not least the birth control pill, surely dwarf Shakespeare in causing changed modern attitudes about sex.
Such examples from the book could be multiplied. E. g. see Marche's chapter on Othello where he sees the play as preparing the way for the election of President Obama 400 years later; and the chapter on Julius Caesar where he suggests that the play helped push Booth to kill the "tyrant" Lincoln.
The book also has some insightful elements such as Marche's comments on Shakespeare's coining and use of words and his attitude on the effects of chance in life and history. Marche is astute too on the elusiveness of Shakespeare's political beliefs (all shades of opinion have found support in his works) but claims that the profound and complex humanity in the plays, by its very breadth, has rebuked the absolutist views and regimes of our times.
But overall the book is uneven at best, devoid of significant arguments and sometimes silly.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2012
I was very excited to purchase this book after hearing an interview with the author on PBS. I recommend the interview, but not the book. While there are a few intriguing bits of history in the book, they are overshadowed by the author's ridiculous assertion that Shakespeare invented teenage angst and made the Obama presidency possible. His proof? Non-existent. Honestly, I found it all pretty insulting. That a someone who teaches college could get away with publishing something so patently unscholarly is troubling. Don't buy it, just go to pbs and find the interview.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2012
I found "How Shakespeare Changed Everyting" to be lightweight and flimsy in content, and lacking any new perspective on Shakespeare. Also, it failed to answer the basic question of how Shakespeare changed anything. For more insightful reading, I'd recommend Bill Bryson's "Shakespeare: World as Stage", which is about the same number of pages but far more interesting. For biographical information, Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World" has greater depth and insight.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
I expected How Shakespeare Changed Everything to be a lighthearted look at various ways that Shakespeare's influence can be found in the world today. What I did not expect was a near fanatical, quite serious, series of essays about, well, how Shakespeare changed everything.
The first line of Marche's introduction sets his tone: "William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived."
Well, all right. . .
In his first essay, "the Fortunes of the Moor", Marche gives Shakespeare credit for the election of the first African American President. According to Marche, because Shakespeare wrote Othello, and because Paul Robeson acted the part in the 1940's, the United States has it's first African American President. I am not simplifying his argument. I suppose, for Marche, the entire Civil Rights Movement was unimportant?
In another essay, "Words, Words, Words", he credits Shakespeare with creating more words than any other author--any word not previously recorded prior to Shakespeare's writing it down is, according to Marche, a Shakespeare invention. Marche seems to forget that Shakespeare was a man of the streets, and what he was writing down was slang. Did the first journalist (or script writer) to use the word "noob" invent it? No. Did Shakespeare invent the words he wrote? No. Shakespeare was a writer of popular, low brow entrainment, the equivalent of a sitcom or soap opera writer today. He was writing for his audience, using their words. Bravo for Shakespeare for recording so many, but only a history-ignorant hero-worshiper could think that he invented them all.
In "Not Marbles, nor the Gilded Monuments", Marche states "the greater the artist, the more he or she was influenced by Shakespeare". For blind fanaticism, this is a great line. For truth about literary greatness, it doesn't even deserve a response.
One of Marche's arguments is that the introduction of Starlings to NYC came from Eugene Schieffelin's attempt to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the United States. I was fascinated by this, actually giving Marche his due for a way that Shakespeare really did change the world. Until I looked it up myself. While it may be true, there is no factual evidence to prove that this given reason is more than the equivalent of an urban legend.
Marche, with the zeal of a school boy writing his first opinion essay, finds Shakespeare as the source for everything from the sexual revolution to the assassination of Lincoln, to the idea of teenagers to the use of skulls as decoration. He often proved himself wrong with the few contrary facts he allows into his essays. An easy bit of research will show contrary views and facts for those that don't find his obsessive devotion easy to swallow.
Marche's mediocre writing does nothing to help his case. Despite being a novelist and regular magazine contributor, his prose in How Shakespeare Changed Everything is juvenile, dull and overtly slanted.
I was unconvinced and thoroughly disappointed. I had expected a lively, entertaining book and instead found a series of essays that might have been written for a high school English class.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I want to start by saying that this is a fun, entertaining read. It is not long--there is really nothing difficult about it. Some parts will enlighten you, other parts will interest you, and other parts merely alert you to the obvious. If you have any interest in Shakespeare, this book is worth a read. Even if you have a passing interest in Shakespeare this book could inspire you to read his plays for the first time (or even again with new insight).
However, despite its strengths, there are some glowing weaknesses (hence the three star review). This book is in desperate need of an editor. Each chapter is not balanced, and Stephen Marche's strengths and weaknesses as a writer become apparent as you move through the chapters. Some chapters come across as very factual, while others come across as very opinionated (by the author). For example, in the chapter about teens, it becomes clear that Marche does not have high hopes for teens in America today. Instead of telling the reader about Shakespeare, I end up reading about Marche's opinion about teenagers. Compare this to the first chapter (and arguably the worst chapter in the book), it is all about the history of the actors who played Othello. This chapter goes on much too long and is too historical when compared to the more interesting chapters, like the one about the birds and the chapter about how other author's debated Shakespeare's worth.
The best chapter happens to be the last, and it is the chapter that should have come first. It discusses the identity of Shakespeare--who is he and how did he write these plays, sonnets, and poems? The chapter shows how little we know about the man. This chapter sets the tone of the book better than any other. In fact, the question that should really be asked is this: how does a man we know so little about become the most influential writer in history?
The title of the book is How Shakespeare Changed Everything. As others have pointed out, Shakespeare did not change "everything." That word is too big and encompasses too much. Shakespeare did change "culture." His ability to understand and identify what makes us human makes him influential. The book does communicate this to the reader, so Marche does get credit for making this connection. But the book has its flaws. However, with some editing of the writing/chapters, this book could go from being a "fun" read to a "must" read.