How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche – Book Review

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

The game is up and I’m in a pickle. Perhaps I’m just being cold-blooded, but there will be no reprieve. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who denies the influence of Shakespeare on the modern world. Or, in the case of those anti-Stratfordians, the work that is generally attributed to Shakespeare, regardless of who actually wrote it.To begin with, he coined some 1700 words, many of which are still used today. Stephen Marche’s thesis, though, is somewhat more than a nebulous claim of general influence. He asserts that Shakespeare actually changed, well, everything. Everything from sex to racial relations to teenagers. Marche even sees Obama’s victory – and the continuing opposition to him – as being heavily influenced by Shakespearean tropes:

The fact that 18 percent of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim, the continuing power of the birther movement despite the clear-cut evidence that he was born in America, testify to Othello‘s power as a prepared narrative. For many Americans, Obama remains a noble Moor in the mold that Shakespeare cast. – p. 21

Except I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. I would say pure and simple racism, with a bit of overwhelming political ideology, and a heavy helping of propaganda. I really don’t buy the whole ‘inspired by Shakespeare’ thing in this case, and on page 21 of 200, that isn’t a particularly good sign. Generally Marche didn’t seem to be quite as out in left field as that, but he did have a tendency to (vastly) overstate his case. For example:

Shakespeare has improved your sex life. If you’ve had sex without shame, sex for pleasure, for fun, for any other reason than procreation within marriage – Shakespeare, more than any other single figure, is responsible for the climate of permissiveness that made it possible. -p. 39-40

Because, you know, nobody ever had sex for pleasure before Shakespeare. I’m surprised the human race even made it to the 17th century.

Not to say that How Shakespeare Changed Everything was completely without value. Certainly there were many interesting facts about Shakespeare, his work and how aspects of our modern world match up. Certainly there are have been many homages to Shakespeare in the 400 odd years since he was writing, and many of these homages have shaped our everyday lives. To grant him complete agency over sex or Lincoln’s assassination, simply because his words and creations have been co-opted by others, seems a bit unwarranted.

Interesting if you are looking for evidence of how Shakespeare continues to be important in the world (and that is right up my alley), but don’t pick it up if hyperbole annoys you.

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14 comments to How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche – Book Review

  • I agree with your review–although I am one of those people for whom this book was designed. Absolutely, Marche way overreaches–and I think the Obama case may be the most extensive one.

    But how intersting some of the essays are! I find it fascinating to see how plays like Merchant of Venice and Othello (which we think of as coming out of a time of great racism) get repressed by the Nazis and the Jim Crow South.

    I must say I’m glad the Marche book is slim and that each essay is short. I don’t think I would enjoy it nearly as much if I read it in larger gulps.

    • I definitely agree on the length. I think it is sort of a shame he does overreach so much, because it may cause people to dismiss the book and miss the really interesting parts, like those you mentioned.

  • Er, yeah, seems like he missed the mark in some cases. That sex thing? How does that explain the whole Victorian era? And many people aren’t exposed to some of Shakespeare’s heavier work anymore, does he explain how it still manages to influence people’s opinion today?

    Otherwise, this is an interesting topic and it sounds like a fair review.

    • He doesn’t ever really explain HOW it influences people, really. More like “here, Shakespeare wrote about it, and here we do it!” I think there is a case for a societal influence in the English-speaking world has he has been seen by many as the pinnacle of the cannon and co-opted by many others, but yeah, definitely a bit exaggerated here.

  • Hyperbole is the worst (hehehe-see what I did there?) I don’t always have a problem with hyperbole but this seems to be a little much. I like Shakespeare, I think he was important but, really? Thanks for reading this one so I don’t have to.

  • I haven’t seen many reviews for this one yet, so thank you for doing such a detailed write-up! From what you’ve said, this one sounds more like a borrow from the library book. Maybe skim through and get the feel for some of the more insightful essays. Even for an English major like myself, this one sounds a little self indulgent for my tastes.

  • I considered requesting this one for review but decided against it. Looks like that was the smart choice. I love thinking about Shakespeare’s influence on language and drama, but not any of the things you mentioned.

    Besides, hasn’t he read Chaucer? Sex was alive and well in the Middle Ages, even if it was confined to non-holy days …

  • Meg

    Well, I’d say that Shakespeare on your blog today and Shakespeare on my blog today (I recently visited Stratford-upon-Avon and saw his birthplace!) is evidence of his continuing influence on modern culture! I mean, here we are. Two modern women and one old dude, and we’re writing about him on… blogs. On websites. On the Internet. Which people can access from tiny, handheld smartphones.

    The Bard wouldn’t know what hit him.

    Sounds like an interesting book I would enjoy flipping through! Thanks for a great review.

  • Not a huge fan of the guy myself, unless you count my enjoyment of The Weird Sisters. I suppose he did influence a great many things, but sounds like this guy is just a tad more passionate about it all that we mortals.

  • Thanks for this review. I hadn’t heard of this book before, but I have to agree that there is no way you can associate everything to Shakespeare! Great review.

  • Thanks for your honest review. The title grabbed me, but apparently the exaggeration in the title carries through the whole book. Good to know.

  • This one caught my attention because it really could be a great subject but after looking into it I decided it would annoy me with its over-reaching. You have made me happy with my decision.

  • I’ve got this one my to read pile for the month, but I’ve been putting it off after I read a really scathing review of it. I’m not sure the hyperbole will be too much, but maybe knowing its there will help :)