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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Michael and Cathryn Borden Memorial Book of the Day.*

From the National Post:

Book Review: How Shakespeare Changed Everything

By Stephen Marche
HarperCollins Canada
224 pp; $24.99

Reviewed by Robert Cushman

The humble starling is a major blight on North America, a brightly coloured pest that ruins crops, spreads disease and breeds at an unstoppable rate. And it’s Shakespeare’s fault.

This is one of the fascinating facts I learned from Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything. It seems that in the 19th century, Eugene Schiffelin, a New York pharmaceutical magnate devoted equally to Shakespeare and to birds, conceived the idea of introducing into America specimens of every fowl mentioned in the complete works. Shakespeare mentions starlings just once; indeed he seems to have been the first writer ever to mention them, as is detailed in another essay in the book, one devoted to the unparellelled number of words the English language owes to its greatest writer. (“Unparallelled,” by the way, is another of them.) The starling turns up in Henry IV Part I, in a speech that Marche calls “forgettable,” though I think it’s pretty memorable; it’s the one in which Hotspur threatens to train a starling to say “nothing but Mortimer” to a king who has good reason to fear the name. Anyway, in 1860 Schiffelin released 60 starlings into Central Park, and since then there’s been no stopping them.

This is the clearest case of cause and effect that Marche adduces in a sprightly, erudite sampling of Shakespeare’s influence on absolutely everything. Others have to be more speculative. Even the book’s initial statement — “William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived” — is open to question. Has he really been more influential than Jesus or Muhammad? Grant, though, that he’s the most influential writer who’s ever lived, worldwide, and that the influence, once past a certain point, has become a self-perpetuating mechanism. An actor wants to play Hamlet because every other actor has played Hamlet. Shakespeare gets quoted (and misquoted) all the time, even by people who’ve never read him, and that omnipresence affects the way we think, speak, behave and see one another. “There would be no Obama,” Marche writes, “if there were not first Othello, just as there would be no Leonardo DiCaprio if there were not first Romeo.”

I wonder. Marche is probably right to say Shakespeare “invented teenagers as we know them today”; the same point was made by Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare and Modern Culture, a book similar to Marche’s in its arguments, though perhaps because it’s the work of a professional academic, more strait-jacketed by them. DiCaprio’s career was certainly jump-started by his playing Romeo, though of course it’s perfectly possible he would have been a movie heartthrob if neither Shakespeare nor Romeo had ever existed; after all, the role didn’t do much for Leonard Whiting (the previous film Romeo, if anyone remembers). Really, it’s unknowable. Still, I’ll give Marche DiCaprio. I’m far more skeptical about Obama. The thesis here, advanced in the book’s first and flagship chapter, is that Shakespeare’s black general eventually paved the way for a black president. The linchpin figure is Paul Robeson, whose successive and increasingly confident appearances as the Moor established him as an American culture hero. But there was far more than that to the Civil Rights movement, of which Obama is to date the ultimate beneficiary and the ultimate symbol. The canonical writer who did most to make him possible was probably not Shakespeare but Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Which doesn’t make Obama an Uncle Tom, any more than he’s an Othello.)

Marche complicates his argument by getting the play wrong. He says it’s racist: “In the play’s opening scene … Iago whips the city of Venice into a fury over Othello’s elopement with Desdemona.” No, he doesn’t. The only person he whips up is Desdemona’s father who, until his paternal pride was challenged, liked and respected Othello. As does everyone else in the play. When Lodovico, in the last speech, says, “The object poisons sight,” he isn’t, as Marche claims, referring to the spectacle of a (dead) black man embracing a (dead) white woman, he’s describing three dead bodies on a bed, all of them the victims of Iago’s villainy. Far from being racist, the play places racism as the refuge of people with their own agenda. The play Marche describes might have been written by Iago. Nor do I buy the idea that, according to Shakespeare, “Othello is a man whose inherent barbarism undoes his civilization.” When Laurence Olivier played the role, he marked the moment of Othello’s fall by tearing off the crucifix that he’d previously worn around his neck. It was a powerful moment, but there’s absolutely no cue for it in the text. You might as well blame Leontes’ jealousy in The Winter’s Tale on his being Sicilian. (The Merchant of Venice is a more problematic case. Marche mostly avoids it, though he does bring forward two fascinating facts: The play, contrary to what you might expect, was banned in Nazi Germany; and it’s always been very popular in Israel.)

Marche on Othello is doing what he, like Garber before him, recognizes has always been done with Shakespeare: quoting out of context for moral effect. He acknowledges that in Shakespeare “everybody finds what he or she is looking for, and I’m no exception.” Not everybody is so frank. Just recently a columnist in this very newspaper quoted some lines from Julius Caesar that sound very noble and reflective in isolation, but are actually part of an incitement to mob violence. Even more amusingly, he attributed them to Macbeth. Not that Shakespeare’s the only writer who can be misused in this way. Marche himself writes that George Orwell’s vision of the future was “a boot stamping on a human face over and over.” But that isn’t Orwell speaking; it’s his character O’Brien in 1984. Orwell crops up again, though less prominently than he should, in a chapter on Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare in general and King Lear in particular. Marche has little to add to Orwell’s classic essay on the subject, but the chapter does occasion one of his happiest phrases, on Shakespeare’s ability to cross borders: “He’s better in English, but he’s willing to negotiate.”

And so it goes: rash generalizations balanced by elegant insights. Rightly, he links Shakespeare’s frankness about sex to our own; wrongly, he asserts that all love poetry before Shakespearean had been Petrarchan idealism. In fact, Shakespeare’s cheerful obscenity is also typical of his fellow playwrights, of his near-contemporary John Donne, and even of a gentle sonneteering predecessor like Sir Thomas Wyatt. And besides, the Shakespeare sonnet he actually quotes (“the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), though certainly frank, is anything but celebratory. On the other hand, he can cut to the heart of what makes Shakespeare supreme: his “preternatural ability to match the sound of a word to its sense”; that “no one produces characters with more individuality of language than Shakespeare”; that he “violates the idea that life can be fully understood.” And I could forgive anything for Marche’s summary of Shakespeare the working playwright, indifferent to the printing of Hamlet: “He wasn’t going to get paid whether it was good or bad, and besides he was in the middle of writing Macbeth.”

• Robert Cushman is the National Post’s theatre critic.



Here's an excerpt from the National Post:

In a mall food court, the power and the glory of a play like Hamlet shine out.

Been in a mall food court recently? Notice how many skulls there are? Teenagers wear them on their Vans. I’ve seen them in crystal patterns on baseball caps and on the hoods of hoodies. In the gossip magazines, Gwyneth Paltrow pushes her babies around with skulls on her scarves. At the shoe store, my son, when he was three, wanted sneakers that flash up and down when you jump, and then when I brought them home, I found that they were covered with hundreds of small skulls. In our time, the skull serves the same iconic purpose that the peace symbol once did, to establish that the wearer is in touch with the current of present reality.

By the time Shakespeare put the skulls in Hamlet, they already had a long tradition in Western Europe. The memento mori — the reminder of death — took many distinct forms. The simplest would be a small skull bead at the end of a rosary. In Holland and Germany, some of these beads, in the shape of a skull, would fold open to display scenes of the apocalypse and resurrection. More elaborate reminders of death developed over the centuries. Maybe the most elaborate was the crypt of the Capuchin monks in Rome. Piles of skulls in a dozen rooms shaped into fireplaces or shelves, the shoulder bones making delirious patterns on the ceiling. A sign reads: “We are as you once were. You will be as we are.” Before Shakespeare, the point of the skull was to remind us of our ultimate end, to make us see beyond the superficialities of the material world we inhabit, to keep our gaze firmly focused on death.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare turns this icon of mortality into the skull of a jester. The scene with Yorick’s skull may be the most famous scene in all of Shakespeare, maybe the most famous scene in theatre altogether. Scholars call it comic relief because the gravediggers joke around as they toss up the bones from the crowded soil. I have always found the term comic relief inappropriate when applied to the gravedigger scene. Not because the scene isn’t funny. It is. But all the scenes in Hamlet are funny. The sadness is comic, and the humour is anguished; the two are not separate. One does not relieve the other.

Hamlet: Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? No one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.

So far, so unremarkable, a speech firmly in the established tradition, the mockery that death makes of our daily, inconsiderate lives, asking the question of what lies beyond what we see and what we know. A kind of nihilistic jesting.

Then the play takes a strange turn, an unprecedented turn even:

Hamlet: To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio: ’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it. As thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust. The dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away. O, that that Earth, which kept the world in awe, should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.

Hamlet reverses the usual spiritual practice of the memento mori; instead of the skull’s making him less materialistic, it makes him more so; it shows us that even gods among men such as Alexander and Caesar are just mud. He uses the skull as a symbol of the shallowness of even the most profound human matters. He makes a mockery of making a mockery of the pointlessness of human concerns. He uses the device of religion to arrive at the basest kind of crudity.

Hamlet doesn’t just think about death or obsess about his own mortality. He is not at all the morbid type, a proto-vampire, a goth avant le lettre. He looks at Yorick’s skull and sees two separate truths, neither of which he can escape. Death casts a pall over the feast of life and death nourishes life. Does the skull mean we should abstain from the pleasure of the flesh? Or rather should the lesson of the skull be eat, drink, and make merry, for tomorrow we shall die? Hamlet is melancholy and jokey at the same time because he feels both these contradictory truths simultaneously.

The skulls in the food court at the mall have the same two-faced glamour. They adorn the everyday objects of urban and suburban America to give a pretense of depth, spreading a radiant materialism, a daring superficiality that recognizes death but nonetheless wants a new iPhone and Prada sunglasses and blue jeans in the latest style. Look around an Urban Outfitters: Shakespeare is current up to the second. He means now. Hamlet in the graveyard scene arrives at the decadent materialism of the mall, the flouting of the authenticity of death. Hamlet’s father haunts the ancient battlements of Elsinore. Hamlet haunts the food court.

From How Shakespeare Changed Everything published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright 2011 by Stephen Marche. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.


*Huh? Look here.

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First of all, the word is SEX, not GENDER. If you are ever tempted to use the word GENDER, don't. The word is SEX! SEX! SEX! SEX! For example: "My sex is male." is correct. "My gender is male." means nothing. Look it up. What kind of sick neo-Puritan nonsense is this? Idiot left-fascists, get your blood-soaked paws off the English language. Hence I am choosing "male" under protest.

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