The Short Version: OMG, Shakespeare is, like, the most important writer of all time ever. Whether it be politics or nature or sexy times or race relations or really just about anything, it’s all about Shakespeare! He changed EVERYTHING, dude!
The Review: What is it about Shakespeare that drives people to the very brink of madness? I’m not excluding myself – I love Shakespeare, sometimes to the point of distraction – but I find that, more than any other writer, he provokes so much scholarship and speechifying that is completely and utterly unnecessary. This book, I regret to inform the reader, is just that: completely and utterly unnecessary.
I suppose I could, perhaps, see an audience for this book. For example, a young high school student whose only interaction with Shakespeare has been a god-awful attempt by a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided English teacher in middle school to plan a lesson on Romeo & Juliet. A kid whose life could very well change if they were given a better introduction into the, yes, greatest writer of the English Language – but who might otherwise just sort of roll along and say “oh, yeah, Shakespeare, whatever.” And were students of that age to pick up this book, they might – might – find something infinitely more interesting than they’d thought (probably in the chapter about sex) and thus become a little bit more enlightened.
But if you have even a passing knowledge of Shakespeare – if you’ve ever sat through more than the basic plays, if you’ve ever taken a class on Shakespeare, if you’ve ever visited Stratford-upon-Avon – this book will tell you absolutely nothing new. Wait, sorry, that’s a lie. I learned one thing from this book: that Shakespeare invented the name “Jessica”. I had no idea that The Merchant of Venice is the first-ever appearance of that name in the history books. But other than that, this was just a compendium of facts that get spouted pretty regularly by anyone who’s done a modicum of Shakespearean research.
The problem, I suppose, is with Marche. He was a professor at City College in NYC for a while and he writes for Esquire – so I guess there’s a certain mix of highbrow/lowbrow going on that he feels entitles him to expound as the Cool Guy about that stodgy ol’ Shakespeare – who isn’t so stodgy! Cool, right, guys?!
But it’s not enough to say “I think Shakespeare is so so so cool and so I’m going to write about him as though I’m writing a column on Gawker” and let that make it seem like you’re the hip voice speaking in the language the kids all understand. He spends nearly a chapter talking about how Tolstoy spent his life slagging on Shakespeare, going so far as to say to Chekhov that he was “worse still” than Shakespeare. Marche then takes it upon himself to defend the Bard against Tolstoy’s (admittedly a bit crackpot-ish) attacks. First of all, Shakespeare wasn’t infallible – and secondly, who the hell cares? It’s like trying to drum up beef between two guys who’ve been dead for centuries. No one cares that Tolstoy – another brilliant* writer (asterisk because I’ve never actually read any Tolstoy) – didn’t like Shakespeare because he wrote some great stuff himself.
The stories of the Booth brothers and their relationship not only to Shakespeare but to the theater at large? I’ve seen at least two plays that dealt with it explicitly in New York in the last year.
Talking about how everyone and their mother has tried to appropriate Shakespeare as their culture’s own? He’s English but universal. We get it.
“Paul Robeson’s 1943 performance as Othello on Broadway was a seminal moment in black history.”? Okay, yes, it was – but I’m uncomfortable with you saying a few sentences later that Obama is in the White House because Shakespeare wrote a play with a black lead. Uncomfortable because I don’t see how your logic works, especially when you say that the Hollywood storyline of the 2008 election was “Othello with a black wife.” That, alone, should be enough to disqualify anything else you say in this book because I cannot take you seriously for having written something as inane, ridiculous, and flawed as that sentence.
Rating: 2 out of 5. You may notice a certain level of irritation creeping into my review, so I’ll wrap it up. I told you, Shakespeare makes people crazy. And he is, above all else, a writer for everyone. For the angsty teens, for the warring nations, for the troubled leaders, for the murderers and the murdered, for the sick and the dying and the healthy and the newborn babe. No one, no one, has ever done more to balance the playing field than Shakespeare. He did change everything – I just don’t see how Marche is the one to tell us about it, seeing as his credentials beyond “college professor” are, apparently, a lover of Shakespeare who reads him most often in mall food courts. The worst thing to happen to Shakespeare was to put him into the classroom, take his words and turn them into scholarship – and books like this, trying to make Shakespeare scholarship ‘cool’, are the newest grief. But, as I said: if this book gets one kid to turn a more interested eye to Shakespeare, then my thoughts are irrelevant. I already love him, so I’ll take converts to the cause any way they come.
But still, come on. Hamlet does not haunt the food court, good sir – no matter how many skulls you see on kids’ clothes these days.