Reviewed by Em Angevaare
I tend to distrust titles that boldly identify a turning point, an ultimate cause (there’s been a spate of them claiming ‘the making of Europe’ lately), but fortunately in many cases the text is more sensible than the title in such books.
Marche evidently knows his Shakespeare inside out, but it seems to be all he knows. Every trend that may be identified both in the plays and in today’s world is directly understood as originating with the playwright – to the point of absurdity. A few hours with the Oxford English Dictionary or even Wikipedia should suffice to demolish most of the author’s claims (I haven’t bothered). Inevitably, there is the chapter about how many words Shakespeare added to the English language. Marche mentions the usual 1700, and goes on to give some examples, telling us Shakespeare constructed the word ‘consanguineous’, from Latin ‘with’ and ‘blood’. The etymology is fine, but it was not Shakespeare who came up with it. Since Latin consanguineus already meant ‘blood relative’, the most we can claim here for Shakespeare is that he was being lazy, not bothering to think up an English adjective. I doubt the world would have been a vastly other place had he not done that. And while 1700 first-time-uses may be a lot, it’s not outrageous, for the time. Thomas Nashe, in a much smaller corpus, clocked up 800. Shakespeare has certainly enriched the English language, but that enriching lies, I would suggest, not in such pedestrian items as ‘fashionable’ and ‘watchdog’, but in his inventive expressions. Where would I be right now without ‘more in sorrow than in anger’?
It is a purely Anglophone world that Marche sees changed, and Shakespeare is understood to have done this earth-shaking all on his own. Marche firmly refutes the theories that the plays were written by Bacon or Oxford – about the only unobjectionable chapter in the book – but he completely ignores the inventive literary climate of the time and the collaborative behaviour of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Who knows whether an expression we use daily wasn’t the result of a flash of brilliance from Beaumont and Fletcher? Who knows what felicitous phrases we’d be quoting now if Marlowe hadn’t got himself killed?
At times Marche’s narrow view is almost comic. Take this, coming soon after he has got the hot potato of Shakespeare’s racism out of the way: ‘…the smaller sexual revolution we are undergoing now, with the normalization of homosexuality and every other kind of freakiness…’ Really, ‘homosexuality and other freakiness’? If I didn’t know by now that you aren’t very good with words, Mr Marche, you’d have me up in arms. In fact, the chapters on Shakespeare’s influence on our sexual behaviour and concept of teenagers are hard to take seriously. Foucault’s view of historical homosexuality and Ariès’ view of historical childhood are dutifully trotted out, with no awareness of how these theories have been challenged since they were formulated. By this time I was wondering if How Shakespeare Changed Everything isn’t just one big send-up. How else could a writer with so much appreciation of Shakespeare’s language have written such a senseless book? The most that can be said for it is that it made me want to go back to someone who could really write – Shakespeare.
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