Leah Mclaren

Brush up your Shakespeare

Is our greatest writer now better appreciated on the other side of the Atlantic?

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‘William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived,’ is the audacious opening line of Canadian writer Stephen Marche’s recently published book, How Shakespeare Changed Everything. It’s the sort of bold claim that makes you immediately think of other contenders: Jesus? Muhammed? Newton? Freud? Oprah? And while we’re at it, how exactly should influence be measured? Is it counted in literary references and Google hits — or is it something less tangible, more magical than that?

Marche suggests the latter but conveniently skips over the criteria for determining his thesis. As far as the author is concerned it’s obvious that all of history’s luminaries are pretty dull compared to Stratford’s son, who, he writes rather ecstatically, ‘makes the world shiver’ and ‘everyday things vibrate’. Marche himself chose Shakespeare as the subject of his PhD, and later as teaching material as a professor of Renaissance drama at the City College of New York, because he hoped Shakespeare would never bore him.

And as his book attests, he was right.

No doubt Oxbridge scholars beavering away in the dusty corners of English literature will balk at the idea that they can need a lesson in Shakespeare appreciation by an enthusiastic Canuck. But perhaps sometimes it takes a keen outsider to brush away the layers of fashionable restraint. Marche rushes in where Angles sometimes fear to tread, and shows how the magic of Shakespeare infuses all of our daily lives, whether we care to see it or not.

There are, of course, many obvious reasons why the Bard deserves such homage. He perfected, if not entirely invented, narrative conventions seen everywhere from the Hollywood schlockbuster to the most rarified literary novel. He was as much a master of the sharp and scintillating insight (‘Action is eloquence’) as he was of the dirty joke (‘O Romeo, that she were an open-arse, and thou a popp’rin pear’).

Every important writer for the past three and a half centuries has been influenced by his work, whether they openly revere him or not. And the best ones generally do, often to distraction. ‘Why should anyone else attempt to write?’ Virginia Woolf moaned in her diary. ‘Indeed I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.’

The only risk in extolling the virtues of Shakespeare’s influence is that it can begin to sound somewhat obvious. But broadly speaking, this only offers further proof of his reach. Shakespeare, after all, is the original mainstream genius. Part literary lion, part rock star, he is the inventor of modern pop culture. His best plays are like the 17th-century equivalent of Andy Warhol’s soup cans, The Waste Land and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ rolled into one. Genius made sweetly, wildly accessible. As Robert Graves drily observed, ‘The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good — in spite of all the people who say he is very good.’

But what about all the secret gifts Shakespeare has given us that few of know existed? The name Jessica — the most popular girl’s handle in the United States in the 1980s and 90s — is Shakespeare’s invention (she is the daughter of Shylock in Merchant of Venice), as are roughly 1,700 words, many of them still commonly used. Abstemious, academe, accused, addiction, alligator, amazement, anchovy, arouse, assassination and auspicious all made their recorded debut in his plays and poems. And those are just a few of the As. Contemplating Shakespeare’s ability to weasel his way into everyday conversation brings to mind that famous list of common Shakespeare-isms by the late Bernard Levin, which begins: ‘If you cannot understand my argument and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare.’

What’s more of an imaginative stretch (but still interesting) is the way Marche connects Shakespeare’s legacy to some of the crucial events in America’s history, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the civil rights movement. He even credits Shakespeare with the chattering mass of starlings in New York City’s Central Park. How can Marche justify all this? Well, Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, once starred with his brother in a benefit production of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden theatre in New York. While his brother Edwin Booth, who played Brutus, went on to become one of the greatest actors of his generation, John Wilkes (the production’s Mark Antony) internalised the narrative as a sign he ought to shoot America’s greatest leader in the back of the head in a darkened theatre.

The seeds of the civil rights movement, Marche argues, were planted when Paul Robeson, the first African-American Shakespeare actor, performed what is widely considered be the greatest Othello of the 20th century on Broadway in 1942. And as to the starlings? The environmental scourge of Central Park were imported from Europe by a pharmaceutical manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin, who had a marvellously eccentric if deeply misguided plan to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to North America. The nightingales and the skylarks did not survive, but the starlings thrived, multiplying to the hundreds of millions. Today the streets and parks of New York are thronged with their squawking calls, rubbish-picking beaks and glinting black eyes. That they are torment to humans is perhaps fitting, given their cameo in Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Part One, Hotspur fantasises about training a starling to irritate the king. ‘I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak/ Nothing but “Mortimer”, and give it him/ To keep his anger still in motion.’

Marche is a particularly captivating guide — like the kind of teacher who can’t help but galvanise the brain cells of even the most sullen, hungover undergraduates with his contagious humour and zeal. In this sense, the professor and his subject are well matched, for as Marche explains, ‘If a kid doesn’t care about Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello, he or she is probably never going to care about any character in any book ever.’ How many students this actually applies to in Britain today is frankly too depressing to contemplate.