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How Shakespeare Changed Everything

by Stephen Marche

It is clear from the opening paragraphs of this charming tribute that novelist and culture columnist Stephen Marche is besotted by the Bard. This highly accessible paean to someone whom Marche describes as “the world’s most powerful writer,” and indeed, “one of the most powerful figures in world history generally,” serves as yet another reminder of the impact Shakespeare has had on culture worldwide since first putting quill to parchment. 

Marche begins with Paul Robeson’s famous depiction of Othello in 1930, the first performance of the role by a black man. While Marche’s enthusiasm may at times seem overwrought – for example, crediting Robeson’s barrier-breaking performance for the ultimate success of Obama in the White House – his delight in his subject carries us through arcane, sometimes profound, and for the most part entertaining trivia on all things Shakespearean.

Marche goes on to demonstrate the remarkable inventiveness of Shakespeare’s language, much of which is still in use today. He glories in the ease with which diverse cultures can interpret this most English of playwrights, while bemoaning those from across the political spectrum who appropriate Shakespeare’s work for less-than-noble ends (see, for example, the Nazis). Marche even attributes our current fascination with youth culture to Shakespeare, from the teenaged Romeo and Juliet through the (arguably) adolescent-like indecision of Hamlet.

While the institutionalization of Shakespeare has often led to sterilized, reverential interpretations of his plays, Marche cheerfully points out that Shakespeare’s genius emerges from his sheer, unapologetic bawdiness. (Shakespeare was an expert on sexual liberation long before the Swinging Sixties.) Add barbaric violence that makes today’s video games seem tame by comparison, and one can easily see the appeal of Shakespeare, an artist unafraid of showing the seamier and more brutal sides of life, for today’s culture.

Ultimately, Marche suggests Shakespeare’s artistry and humanism account for the longevity, popularity, and universality of his work. If nothing else, the Bard displays all the necessary ingredients for those who aspire to greatness in the theatre – detailed characterizations, imaginative plots (even when borrowed), inventive use of language, a keen sense of humour, universal themes, and, of course, a little bit of sex and violence thrown in for good measure.