You know Chandler from Friends? You know how in Friends, somebody would say something stupid, and Matthew Perry would do that thing where he would fling his whole body into one large, frantic gesture of utter incredulity? That is how I felt all the way through How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Exactly like that. I kept flinging the book across the room (really satisfying, by the way! A nice thing about ARCs is you can dog ear pages and throw them across the room or even rip out pages if you want, and it doesn’t matter because they belong to you, but you don’t need them to last).
How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a really short book, more of a long essay than a book. Yet it managed to irritate me exponentially more than anything else I’ve read this year, and y’all know, this has been a good year for people in the news being irritating. If I tried to enumerate all the things about this book that were irritating, I’d end up with a blog post nearly as long as the book itself, so I’ll try to limit myself.
Marche comes from journalism, and without wishing to insult journalism, a profession I really truly admire and I often love reading journalists’ books, his roots are showing. He makes these grand, extravagant claims like he’s designing catchy headlines (what I mean when I say his roots are showing), but he does nothing to back them up. He’ll say “Shakespeare invented teenagers!” and then spend the chapter nattering away about how Sampson and Gregory are just like these annoying kids he saw at a football game one time. Or “Shakespeare is the reason you enjoy sex!”, then he says how Freud couldn’t have happened if not for Hamlet, and without Freud we’d still be Victorians, but because of Freud and Shakespeare Americans get to enjoy lots of freaky-deaky practices like oral sex.
(You think I’m kidding but I’m not kidding.)
I mean it’s not even good storytelling. Someone like Malcolm Gladwell can come up with these unwarranted conclusions, and yeah, experts debunk them all over the place, but you can’t deny, the man can construct a narrative. Marche’s stories don’t make any sense. One chapter is devoted to a comparison of Lincoln’s assassination with the assassination in Julius Caesar. This could be (and surely has been?) done well; John Wilkes Booth’s father was actually named Junius Brutus Booth. He really was. This story should almost write itself, but although Marche has in mind the points he wants to make, he makes them poorly and fails to bring them together into a coherent narrative.
Then there’s stuff like this (quotes from ARCs may change in the finished product):
The minor industry of mugs and magnets offers pearls of Shakespearean wisdom extracted from context and often misquoted. They drive me insane….The much-T-shirted line from Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from the wisecracking scumbag named Dick the Butcher. In context, the line is a testament to why we need lawyers.
Hands up everybody who thought Shakespeare was actually advocating we kill all the lawyers. What? Nobody? Everyone except Stephen Marche got the point that it was just another good line in the long tradition of lawyers-should-die jokes?
I’m not demanding that everyone who writes about Shakespeare must be a prestigious Shakespeare scholar. But if you’re going to write nonfiction, and you can’t be bothered doing exhaustive research and spending loads of time figuring out and preemptively refuting the objections that are going to be made to your thesis (I’m saying that without judgment), at least be able to write a good story.
I received an ARC of How Shakespeare Changed Everything (along with other, better books) for review from Harper. It’s scheduled for release on 10 May 2011.