Love The Quick 10: 10 Ways Shakespeare Changed Everything
by Jamie Spatola – December 2, 2011 – 2:21 PM
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The basic thesis of Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare
Changed Everything becomes obvious very early on (as in, it
is expressed in the title). According to this fun, lyrically written
and well-researched book, here are just ten of the many
ways that Shakespeare changed everything:
1. He gave us a lot of new words
Just say some words real quick and you’ll probably say one
he coined – nearly 10% of his 20,000-word vocabulary was
new to his audiences. You may consider yourself quite
fashionable or softhearted. You may consider this post to be
lackluster. But you couldn’t consider any of those things to be
those ways if Shakespeare hadn’t made up the words for
2. He inspired an assassin
On November 25, 1864, actor John Wilkes Booth starred as
Marc Antony alongside his brothers, Edwin as Brutus and
Junius, Jr. as Cassius, in a one-night benefit performance of
Julius Caesar at New York City’s Winter Garden Theatre —
incidentally raising money to place a statue of Shakespeare
on Central Park’s Literary Walk. Five months later, on April
14, 1865, JWB would put on a more impactful performance
at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, as a real-life Brutus,
assassinating the leader of a nation.
3. He inadvertently caused a pigeon problem
His statue in Central Park is covered in pigeon droppings,
and strangely it’s kind of his fault. (Yes, the same statue for
which the Booth brothers’ benefit raised the funds). It’s hard
to believe that the veritable starling infestation of New York
City came as the direct result of an innocent bird-lovin’, Bard
-lovin’ pharmaceutical manufacturer named Eugene
Schieffelin but, alas, ‘tis true.
In March of 1860, Schieffelin released a mere sixty starlings
into the Central Park air as a part of his effort to introduce
every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to North America.
Scientists estimate that the descendants of this and another
small 1891 Schiefflin-released flock now number in the area
of 200 million.
4. He named a lot of babies
Simpson, Biel and Rabbit, just to name a few. The name
“Jessica” first appears in Shakespeare. The original Jessica
was Shylock’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice.
5. He cleared the path for Freud
Shakespeare thought sexual repression was for the birds.
His plays are bawdier than anything the Farrely Brothers
have devised and, while his own rowdy Globe Theatre
crowds ate it up (they were all drunk anyway), future
generations found it necessary to censor the Bard
substantially. Bell’s Shakespeare from 1773, the first
collection of Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed
on the English stage, contained only 2/3 of the original
6. He helped us understand teen angst
Those who want to see Romeo and Juliet as the
embodiments of purity and love, like 18th-century English
playwright David Garrick, are met with an imposing editorial
task. Garrick’s first cut was the elimination of the character of
Rosaline, the source of Romeo’s heartsickness at the play’s
outset (she’s the one making his “sad hours seem long” in
Act I, Scene 1) and one of many examples of the young
man’s rash and impetuous teenage behavior. Apparently,
people enjoyed the wishful notion of the purity and sensibility
of teenage love, Garrick’s edited version of the play survived,
unchanged, for over a hundred years.
7. He invigorated Nazis and anti-Nazis alike
While it’s difficult to categorize Shakespearean politics, it’s
easy to find justification of one’s own prejudices and beliefs
in the Shakespeare canon. Many groups and movements
have sought to claim him as their own. Shortly after Hitler
became Chancellor of Germany, the Nazi Party issued a
pamphlet entitled Shakespeare – A Germanic Writer. Three
years later, during the height of Hitler’s rule, there were more
performances of Shakespeare’s works in Germany than the
rest of the world combined.
But those opposed to Hitler’s ideals could also find support
in Shakespeare’s works, particularly in Shylock’s well-known
speech from The Merchant of Venice.
8. He raised questions about race and prejudice
Just ask Paul Robeson – African-American actor, athlete,
activist, and all-around rock star who, in 1943, played the
role of Othello on Broadway. To this day, that show’s run of
296 shows is the longest ever for a Shakespeare play on
9. He ticked off Tolstoy
Big time. The works of the very-bearded Russian great
aside, Shakespeare’s literary influence is immeasurable.
Dickens and Keats credited nobody more. Eliot claimed that
the modern world can essentially be divided into two
categories: those things influenced by Shakespeare and
those influenced by Dante. William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley,
Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace each titled one
of their works directly from a line in Shakespeare.
But perhaps the influence Shakespeare had on Tolstoy’s
writing was even more profound, since Tolstoy wrote a whole
book about his disdain for the Bard. Tolstoy on Shakespeare
reveals, unequivocally, that Tolstoy did not merely lack delight
in Shakespeare’s work, he derived from it, “irresistible
repulsion and tedium” and found the literary world’s reliance
on and reference for Shakespeare to be “a great evil – as is
every untruth.” Yowza.
10. He killed a tree in Bidford
And he did so years after his own death! Legend has it that a
retired lush of a Bard stumbled under said tree – the crab
variety – and slept off a night of competitive drinking with
Bidford’s supposedly prolific booze hounds. Tourists tore the
poor tree to shreds, taking home souvenirs of old Willy’s wild
night. In the absence of any really reliable biography, we cling
to legends and potentialities to help us understand anything
at all about the man whose writing has helped us to
understand so much.
And he could have changed even more!
Marche reminds readers of the tantalizing fact that there are
lost Shakespeare plays – two, at least, that scholars know
existed but we have never had the pleasure of reading or
seeing performed. One is Love’s Labors Won, the sequel to
Titus Andronicus (just kidding). Love’s Labors Won is
mentioned in two different sources, one being a bookseller’s
list, meaning the play was likely in print at one time.
The other is Cardenio, which scholars assume from the title
is an adaptation of scenes from Don Quixote. 18th-century
editor Lewis Theobald allegedly discovered a copy of this
manuscript and developed his own play, The Double
Falsehood, based on the manuscript. But he never showed
the manuscript to anyone and lost it in a fire — either that or
he made the whole thing up. Many scholars do believe,
however, that The Double Falsehood does, indeed, contain
elements of a play originally crafted by Shakespeare.
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