Review: How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche

You know Chandler from Friends? You know how in Friends, somebody would say something stupid, and Matthew Perry would do that thing where he would fling his whole body into one large, frantic gesture of utter incredulity? That is how I felt all the way through How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Exactly like that. I kept flinging the book across the room (really satisfying, by the way! A nice thing about ARCs is you can dog ear pages and throw them across the room or even rip out pages if you want, and it doesn’t matter because they belong to you, but you don’t need them to last).

How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a really short book, more of a long essay than a book. Yet it managed to irritate me exponentially more than anything else I’ve read this year, and y’all know, this has been a good year for people in the news being irritating. If I tried to enumerate all the things about this book that were irritating, I’d end up with a blog post nearly as long as the book itself, so I’ll try to limit myself.

Marche comes from journalism, and without wishing to insult journalism, a profession I really truly admire and I often love reading journalists’ books, his roots are showing. He makes these grand, extravagant claims like he’s designing catchy headlines (what I mean when I say his roots are showing), but he does nothing to back them up. He’ll say “Shakespeare invented teenagers!” and then spend the chapter nattering away about how Sampson and Gregory are just like these annoying kids he saw at a football game one time. Or “Shakespeare is the reason you enjoy sex!”, then he says how Freud couldn’t have happened if not for Hamlet, and without Freud we’d still be Victorians, but because of Freud and Shakespeare Americans get to enjoy lots of freaky-deaky practices like oral sex.

(You think I’m kidding but I’m not kidding.)

I mean it’s not even good storytelling. Someone like Malcolm Gladwell can come up with these unwarranted conclusions, and yeah, experts debunk them all over the place, but you can’t deny, the man can construct a narrative. Marche’s stories don’t make any sense. One chapter is devoted to a comparison of Lincoln’s assassination with the assassination in Julius Caesar. This could be (and surely has been?) done well; John Wilkes Booth’s father was actually named Junius Brutus Booth. He really was. This story should almost write itself, but although Marche has in mind the points he wants to make, he makes them poorly and fails to bring them together into a coherent narrative.

Then there’s stuff like this (quotes from ARCs may change in the finished product):

The minor industry of mugs and magnets offers pearls of Shakespearean wisdom extracted from context and often misquoted. They drive me insane….The much-T-shirted line from Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from the wisecracking scumbag named Dick the Butcher. In context, the line is a testament to why we need lawyers.

Hands up everybody who thought Shakespeare was actually advocating we kill all the lawyers. What? Nobody? Everyone except Stephen Marche got the point that it was just another good line in the long tradition of lawyers-should-die jokes?

I’m not demanding that everyone who writes about Shakespeare must be a prestigious Shakespeare scholar. But if you’re going to write nonfiction, and you can’t be bothered doing exhaustive research and spending loads of time figuring out and preemptively refuting the objections that are going to be made to your thesis (I’m saying that without judgment), at least be able to write a good story.

I received an ARC of How Shakespeare Changed Everything (along with other, better books) for review from Harper. It’s scheduled for release on 10 May 2011.

31 thoughts on “Review: How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche

  1. Oh my this does indeed sound like a horrible book! I just love the mental image of you Chandlering your book across the room with this one, and I have to say that maybe Marche thought that if he put the whole sensationalistic thing out there, a good book would no doubt result. This doesn’t seem to have been the case though. From that quote about the lawyers it seems that Marche doesn’t really “get” Shakespeare, which is not in itself a bad thing, but he really should be gotten before you go out and write a book about him! Thanks for sharing your very perceptive and interesting thoughts with us.

    • And I love the verb “Chandlering” and may try to incorporate it into everyday speech. :D

      Yes, I was definitely expecting a more well-thought-out book than this one. I feel like I could have written a better book than this using the, like, two things I know about Shakespeare and Wikipedia. #grumblegrumble

  2. Great review! I love the line about Malcolm Gladwell. And to think we wouldn’t have mugs, magnets and t-shirts without Shakespeare. Well, you didn’t say he said that, but it’s implied…

    • He doesn’t exactly imply that, but he does imply that Shakespeare invented adolescence (no) and sex (really no) — it’s maddening to read! Argh!

    • Hahahah, but usually when I hate a book, I figure it’s not the book, it’s me. Reading is so subjective, and it’s about what you bring to the book, etc. But in this case the book was just bad. There was just nothing good about it.

  3. Talk about sending a book to the bottom of the pile. I just placed this one on my stack for May. I might skim around a little just to do it, but you have made the case that this might not be the Shakespeare book to read.

  4. I’m glad to have confirmation that this is a book not worth reading. I saw the Harper’s offer, and went over to Amazon to see what folks thought about it–not always reliable, I know, but in this case they all agreed with your review, each one like a teacher writing “overly generalized” in red at the top of this book.

    • I used to do that too, check Amazon, and it can give you a good general idea of what to expect. Nowadays I have book blogs to tell me what to expect from books — so much more reliable. But when a book’s not been reviewed much by teh blogz, Amazon is still there. And yes. In this case they are correct.

  5. I have read exactly three Shakespeare plays and some of his sonnets and I appear to know more about his influence than Marche! Thanks for the review – I’ll know to avoid this.

    • You’re welcome. I will try to find a better book about Shakespeare’s influence soon — I hate to tear down without offering any alternatives.

  6. Is that line really “much t-shirted?” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a t-shirt.

    Hmm. Yeah. I think I’ll stick to Malcolm Gladwell, since he does tell a good story and he gives me lots of questions, the answers to which I seek elsewhere because I know he is not necessarily the most reliable of fellows.

    • I haven’t seen that many Shakespeare T-shirts full-stop. I’m sure they exist, I just haven’t seen them, apart from, I suppose, at the Globe store.

      I miss the days when I could love Malcolm Gladwell, before he said lots of ill-considered insults to Atticus Finch. :(

  7. Wow. The title’s intriguing, and promises something that I think actually could be argued successfully… it just sounds like Marche wasn’t the one to do it. Too bad!

    • Yes! That’s what bothered me! I want to believe that Shakespeare changed everything, and I would only have needed a minimally plausible narrative in order to buy it! Hrmph.

  8. As an academic, this book positively HURT to read about. Alas, it’s an indication of where high concept and requisite accessibility may take us in time. I was thinking the other day about what can’t be said in books any more (I’ve been reading up on obscenity cases in law) and it struck me that being intelligent and clever and (therefore) elitist is becoming the thing that mustn’t be done. This opens the gates for people like Marche, but hopefully lots of people will react the way you did. And you are very funny when you’re cross! :)

    • But Litlove, I promise you it would have hurt so much more to read. It’s trying so hard to be accessible that it’s barely readable, which can’t be what Marche was going for. I hate the idea that being knowledgeable in your area is elitist — I mean you wouldn’t say that a biochemical engineer is elitist for knowing all about her area of expertise.

  9. I thought this looked interesting but I’ll be skipping. I enjoy reading Shakespeare every once in a while and I would prefer not to have that ruined for me. Thanks!

    • Nothing can ruin Shakespeare! (she proclaimed) Except for possibly Taming of the Shrew, which has put me off my Shakespeare-reading project for nearly a year now. Definitely this book can’t do it. :)

    • Excellent metaphors. :D I’ve got another Shakespeare book on tap that I’ve been putting off reading because I think it’s going to be so great, and also because I wanted to have read all of Shakespeare’s plays before I read this book. But I might give up on that and just read it already.

  10. lol, isn’t it terrible how a really good bad review can make me almost want to read the book, just to see if it is that bad.

    Don’t think I’ll really bother mind :)

  11. I’ll look forward to seeing what you think of it! It’s honestly so bad I can’t imagine anyone liking it, which is hardly ever the case with any book I read.

  12. I’ve seen this book popping up everywhere are was curious about it. Now I’m not, thank you so much for saving me from a time waster. I have a feeling I would have a very similar reaction to this book.

  13. Now I don’t want to read this one. :P It’s moving to the second tier review pile at least. I’ll see if I get to it. I don’t have time to be annoyed right now.

  14. Pingback: Imaginary Reader Mail: Writing mean posts | Jenny's Books

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