Sunday, May 1, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything

How Shakespeare Changed EverythingStephen Marche's How Shakespeare Changed Everything hits the bookshelves next week.  I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from HarperCollins during the Bard's birthday week.  With all the festivities going on for my son's concomitant birthday (including a co-ed slumber party where the guests were giggling and playing sleeping bag tag at 3AM), I've spent most of the week staring into space unable to think, much less read.  But Marche's book has been filling the little reading time I have this week just perfectly.  It is light reading, funny, and fascinating all at the same time.

"William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived," begins Marche.  I must admit I'm usually irritated by such hyperbole, but the author makes a good argument that the bard at least belongs high on the list.  Our view of humanity is shaped by the stories Shakespeare told and the characters he developed.  Our very language is saturated with Shakespeare's words.  And this seems as true today in our changing world as it did centuries ago.  As Marche writes, "The ground keeps falling out from under us.  Only Shakespeare keeps landing on his feet."  He concludes:
Shakespeare may reflect the dazzling beauty of the world and everything in it, of men corrupted by ambition or lust, wives triumphant and defeated, love of all shapes and all kinds and all degrees of force, death by surprise or by expectation, funny drunks, sexy middle-aged women, lovely falling leaves, guilty bloodstains, but he is himself is swallowed in the reflection, a dark origin to a vast illumination.  His art was to reflect the world as accurately as possible, and he achieved his goal by becoming as beautiful and surprising and mysterious and unfathomable as the world itself.
As a historian of the US South who writes about the racial politics of the Jim Crow system, I am especially intrigued by the first chapter of How Shakespeare Changed Everything.  The author makes clear that Othello uses racist stereotypes and storylines.  It also depends on its society's disgust at biracial marriage (as shown by many lines, including "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe").  And Othello's racial background is used to explain his downfall.  As Marche states, "Othello is a man whose inherent barbarism undies his civilization.... The inner truth of Othello is the unavoidable savagery of his blackness."

Nevertheless, as the author points out, "for most of its history, the problem with Othello was that it wasn't racist enough."  The relationship between Othello and Desdemona was an interracial romance played out for all to see.  And while white audiences could imagine the "black brute" raping and murdering innocent white women, they did not want to see or even imagine love crossing the color line.

Despite his downfall, Othello is a character of dignity--of nobility even--who commands our respect. Having a black character with both power and dignity created a huge challenge for racist audiences in Jim Crow America.  And the idea of having the role played by a black actor was an even bigger challenge in a world of segregated theaters and legal discrimination.  Into this position stepped Paul Robeson in 1930, "bringing the idea of a dignified black man and the possibility of racial love to the widest audience he could reach.  Robeson claimed that playing Othello set him free--and his role was, argues Marche, a major step towards the Civil Rights movement.

The fact that Shakespeare endowed his character with such deep humanity makes us identify with him, no matter what our sex, race, or religion.  "The fragility of civilization may have been an idea that Shakespeare saw as peculiarly relevant to a Moor living in Venice," says the author, "but it is equally relevant to everyone here and now.  We all have a barbarism we are trying to clamp down."  I would love to see Marche expand this argument beyond the paragraph it gets.  One of the elements of our own barbarism is the racism of our society.

Although I was fascinated by the history Marche presents and  by his larger argument of how Othello's meaning changes over time, I find the essay to be fundamentally flawed.  Marche draws a link between the Shakespeare play and the OJ Simpson story--which, while a stretch, he almost manages to pull off by cleverly comparing the handkerchief from Othello and the bloody glove of the OJ case.  Then he argues that Obama's campaign replayed the Othello story of the noble outsider who came to lead the Republic at a time of crisis.  Summarizes the author, "That's the 2008 election in a Hollywood pitch: Othello with a black wife."  I don't buy it, and Marche doesn't even really try to back up his argument.  It winds up seeming like pure ridiculousness.  But when Marche stretches just a little too far, it makes the book highly amusing and thought-provoking.

I'm very much looking forward to the chapter on place of The Merchant of Venice in Nazi Germany.  I'm also fascinated to find out "how Shakespeare changed our environment" via starlings in New York's Central Park.  I suspect this book will be on my nightstand for the next week or so as I read one or two short essays each evening.

4 comments:

  1. I'm interested to hear about the rest of the essays. My challenge book this month was a study of Shakespeare's tragedies that I picked up at the MLA ages ago, so I've been thinking about and rethinking the big four. Not something I do often, but having just read Macbeth for the first time, it was interesting to see some close textual analysis of the plays.

    If you are interested in Othello, you should check out George Cukor's A Double Life.

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  2. This was such an interesting post. Your responses to the book might be more interesting than the book itself! Sometimes a book has value for the argument you immediately begin to have with it. The Othello stuff just makes the hairs on my arms stand up. This topic is very close to home for me. I can tell you that interracial marriages are both widely accepted and widely disapproved. It is still uncomfortable to be in a place where the strangers feel free to approve or disapprove of your marriage. I agree with you that Obama as Othello is a stretch that defies reason. I'd love to hear more about your work as a historian. As always, your post is thought-provoking.

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  3. I can't wait to see your other posts about this book. I'm intrigued by the concept though I can't say I'm sold on it just yet.

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  4. This sound quite interesting. I need to read more Shakespeare, but then may find essays like this to be quite insightful....even if some parts of it are a stretch.

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