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Shakespeare is everywhere
Nearly four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare permeates our everyday lives: from the words we speak to the teenage heartthrobs we worship to the political rhetoric spewed by the twenty-four-hour news cycle. In the pages of this wickedly clever little book, Esquire columnist Stephen Marche uncovers the hidden influence of Shakespeare in our culture, including these fascinating...
Shakespeare is everywhere
Nearly four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare permeates our everyday lives: from the words we speak to the teenage heartthrobs we worship to the political rhetoric spewed by the twenty-four-hour news cycle. In the pages of this wickedly clever little book, Esquire columnist Stephen Marche uncovers the hidden influence of Shakespeare in our culture, including these fascinating tidbits:
Stephen Marche has cherry-picked the sweetest and most savory historical footnotes from Shakespeare's work and life to create this unique celebration of the greatest writer of all time.
Esquire columnist and novelist Marche (Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, 2007, etc.) argues that Shakespeare is the most influential human being—in nearly every arena—who ever lived.
In what often reads like a pep talk delivered by an enthusiastic teacher, the author, who completed a doctorate on Shakespeare at the University of Toronto, focuses on key ways that the Bard has altered our lives and our world. Pegging his observations, for the most part, to specific plays, Marche shows how Paul Robeson's wildly popularOthello on Broadway in the early 1940s perhaps jump-started the civil-rights movement. He reminds us that Shakespeare contributed countless words to the English language and supplied quotations for people of all political persuasions—none more so, he notes, than Sen. Robert Byrd, who frequently seasoned his otherwise soporific speeches with Shakespearean salt. (The author also notes the popularity of Shakespeare in Nazi Germany and in Stalinist Russia.) Marche explores the gleeful, unashamed sexiness of Shakespeare and the importance ofRomeo and Julietto our modern conception of adolescence. "People just love," he writes, "to watch a couple of dumb kids make out and die." The author connects the murder of Caesar—via the Booths—to the assassination of Lincoln, links the current popularity of skull imagery toHamletand writes wryly about Tolstoy, the most notable writer to hate Shakespeare. He also retells the story about a Bardolater bringing the first starlings to Central Park because Shakespeare once mentioned the bird. Marche writes energetically about the various images of the Bard—though, oddly, doesn't discuss a current favorite, the Cobbe portrait. He also attacks the anti-Stratfordians, whom he labels "crazies." Only occasionally does the author commit an error—e.g., he quotes lines fromHamletthat he says the Prince addressed to his mother; nope, they were for Ophelia.
Informed, ebullient and profoundly respectful.
"Othello has taken away from me all kinds of fears, all
sense of limitation, and all racial prejudice," Paul Robeson
told reporters in London after his opening night
performance of the play in 1930. "Othello has made me free."
How did Shakespeare become a champion of civil rights?
How did he prepare the way for an African American
president four hundred years after his death?
I used to teach Shakespeare in Harlem, at The City
College of New York. I loved both the job and the
neighborhood. Walking through Harlem is a bit like strolling
through a run-down African American Florence, without
the American tourists. There's the Apollo Theater, and
nearby the house where Bessie Smith recorded her first
vocals, there's the housing project where hip-hop was
invented. I adored the students I was teaching, too. It's
not every university where they attend class even when
they're living out of their cars. The year before I was
hired, City College had its first Rhodes Scholar in half
a century, a Russian immigrant, and he had survived
for a time by collecting bottles and spending his nights
under the George Washington Bridge. My favorite
student in my Graduate Seminar in Early Modern Tragedy
lived with her mother and daughter in a single room in
the West Bronx. She asked me for an extension for her
term paper once. I asked for a reason. The father of her
daughter was getting out of jail, she said, where he'd been
in for murder, and since he had never seen his daughter,
nobody knew how he was going to react. A little different
from the "I'm a little depressed" or "I'm just so over-
loaded" I was accustomed to hearing at the University
of Toronto. In a way it was the most flattering possible
introduction to American life. I had thought this kind of
American—the bootstrap American—was a myth, and
yet there they were.
Maybe it was inevitable, given the surroundings, that
while I was teaching in Harlem I also became convinced
that Shakespeare was racist—so racist, I thought, that
certain plays shouldn't be taught at the high school level.
Since I had married a Jewish woman and we had a little
Jewish son by then, I was already quite sure he was a
rabid anti-Semite. There's no way that a play like Othello
should be taught to kids, I came to believe.
But even as I was developing this conviction, I knew
that Paul Robeson, the greatest Othello of the twentieth
century and a lifelong champion of the African
American struggle and human rights worldwide, would
have screamed his opposition. Robeson found himself
in Othello. And he found himself as an artist in Harlem.
When he switched to Columbia Law School in 1921, he
moved into an apartment across from the YWCA and
began performing in occasional amateur theatricals. The
Harlem Renaissance was peaking then, the neighbor-
hood swelling with immigrants and fresh ideas, with the
writings of W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, with
black music from every part of the United States and the
Caribbean and Africa. Robeson stumbled onto the lead
in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, the first serious
play to explore black themes in New York's theater
history, and later All God's Chillun Got Wings, the first
dramatic exploration of interracial love. Showboat made him
world-famous. Then Othello, which made him the most
famous African American to that point in history. With
its record-breaking Broadway run and extensive tour of
the rest of the country, Othello became one of the
primary expressions of black pride available in 1942, and
Robeson's performances laid the groundwork for the
civil rights movement twenty years later.
This, then, was the question I would ask my students
at City College, who were surrounded on all sides by the
evidence of African American suffering and triumph:
How can a racist play become a vehicle for liberation?
Othello was a racist play in its original conception and
incarnation. For sure. It relied for much of its effect on the
inherent prejudice of an audience that feared Africans and
Islam as a commonplace, an audience for whom a Moor
was inherently a barbarian whose very flesh was abject
and terrifying. In the play's opening scene, as Iago whips
the city of Venice into a fury over Othello's elopement
with Desdemona, Shakespeare keeps hammering home
the town's disgust with mixed-race sex: "an old black ram
is tupping your white ewe"; "you'll have your daughter
covered with a Barbary horse"; "making the beast with
two backs" and "the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" all
deploy within the space of fifty lines. Othello's first words
(" 'Tis better as it is") belie his persecutors' hysteria, but
the calm dignity of his bearing is always intended to
contrast with the brutality of his body. Just as Macbeth is
a good man whose inherent ambition undoes him, and
just as Lear is a good king whose inherent pride breaks
him, Othello is a man whose inherent barbarism undoes
his civilization. The action of the play is a long stripping
away of his superficial accomplishment to reveal the
burnished inner truth. The inner truth of Othello is the
unavoidable savagery of his blackness.
For most of its history, the problem with Othello was
that it wasn't racist enough. Three of the greatest
Shakespeare critics of all time singled out the love between
Othello and Desdemona for their disapproval. Charles
Lamb found "something extremely revolting in the
courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the idea that a white
woman could fall in love with an African was beyond the
realm of the believable: "It would be something
monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in
love with a veritable Negro." "To imagine is one thing,"
commented the scholar A. C. Bradley, "and to see is
The outrage of these critics—and let's not hide from
the fact that they were some of the most intelligent men
of their respective times and places—was stirred by what
Bradley, with characteristic self-consciousness and
brilliance of phrase, describes as "an aversion of the blood"
to the bedroom scene in the fifth act. A black man
murdering his wife in the marital bed. It is a testament to the
power of racial abjection, to the raw physicality of the
hatred of black flesh, that the setting of a black man with
a white woman in a bedroom is the ideal scene for the
most horrific murder in any of Shakespeare's tragedies.
The representation of the married mixed-race couple in
their nuptial bed has been, for many audiences in many
countries, more subversively horrifying than the murder
itself. Othello is perpetually being interrupted in private
moments with his wife. He is roused from his marital
bed at the play's beginning, and again in Cyprus in the
second act. Samuel Johnson found the scene "not to be
endured." But the various critical reactions do little more
than proceed from where the horrified Venetian spectators
onstage begin. Lodovico sums up their reaction perfectly:
"The object poisons sight: Let it be hid."
In the nineteenth century, actors and directors
solved the problem of Othello's offensive blackness by
interpreting "Moor" as "Arab," and toning down his
skin color. Thus the "bronze age" of Othello. Only
one African American actor, Ira Aldridge, managed
to make a go of it in the 1830s. Several British critics
of the day believed him to be entirely the equal of the
great Charles Kean, and he was so relevant an interpreter
of Shakespeare that he even performed other
characters in whiteface—his Macbeth was an enormous
success in Russia. (Shylock was his most famous role
other than Othello.)
He was widely praised when he was touring the provinces,
and was one of the most influential Shakespearean
actors in Continental Europe. He, too, like Robeson,
slept with white women in real life as well as in character
(his second wife was Swedish) and used his prominence
to advocate for his people. After one performance where
the ovations demanded a speech, an eyewitness recorded
his dignified statement: "He hoped the prejudice was
fast dying away, when one man should be deprived of
a hearing on the stage, because his face was of another
color, seeing the black man and the white were both the
work of the same Creator." Even before the abolition of
slavery, his powers as an actor allowed Aldridge a venue
to state his case for his common humanity.
All the success in the provinces could not earn
Aldridge praise in the places that mattered most, London
and New York. Aldridge appeared for two performances
of Othello at Covent Garden in 1833. The Figaro was
outraged: "A further act of insolence is to be perpetrated, by
the introduction to the boards of Covent Garden theater,
of that miserable nigger, whom we found in the provinces
imposing on the public by the name of the African
Roscius." In New York, the idea of an African American
performer on any stage at all was impossibility. In place of
Othello, the most popular dramatic show of the time was
the minstrel skit "Jim Crow." Thomas "Daddy" Rice,
the actor who originated that character, also invented a
minstrel burlesque Otello in 1847, a parody of "the
noblest nigger of dem all!"
Othello was a popular play in the antebellum South,
although the lead grew paler and paler with the approach
The playbill from the National Theatre in Cincinnati, 1847.
of the Civil War. By the 1850s, Othello was made to fit
into the novelistic convention of the "sad octoroon,"
played with light makeup and few black features. Actors
chose the lightest bronze skin tone possible, because
they were terrified of the reaction a black face—even a
Caucasian face slightly smeared with burnt champagne
cork—might provoke from Southern audiences.
When Paul Robeson arrived in the early twentieth
century with his strong black features, his physical
presence alone was an attack on the humiliated, blanched
Othello. His first chance at the part came in London in
the thirties, when he was touring with Showboat. The
contradictions of being an African American celebrity
were not quite as pronounced in England as they were
in the States but proved confounding nonetheless. As he
toured the British coasts giving concerts, he was
regularly received by huge greeting committees; he was given
the keys to various cities; cabdrivers refused payment.
And yet the Savoy Grill might decide, as it did when he
arrived as the guest of Lady Colefax, that it didn't serve
Negroes. Despite his misgivings about his own abilities,
when a London theater producer named Maurice Browne
offered him $15,000 a week to play the Moor, he couldn't
refuse. The part and the money were just too good,
although the stakes could not have been higher. While in
rehearsal, Robeson and the director received several
letters objecting to the sight of a black man kissing a white
woman, and that particular objection, more than any
other, upset and terrified Robeson, made him feel, as he
said, like "a plantation hand in the parlor—that clumsy."
The London version of Othello starring Robeson
featured bungled direction, terrible lighting, and stupid
costumes, and worse, did not provide its star with the
training he begged for. Still he received a standing ovation
on opening night and positive reviews in the daily
papers. The weeklies were colder. The discrepancy
between these responses might seem odd but makes sense
given the social context of the performance. The
audiences were overwhelmed by the political act they were
witnessing; only later did the quality of the artistic act
come to mind. Robeson was the first to admit that he
wasn't a very good Othello. He was too modest to admit
the equally plain truth that he was a great Othello.
History overtook Shakespeare in a uniquely
fortuitous way. Hindsight tends to make us see our ancestors
as more racist and prejudiced than they saw themselves.
Your grandmother uses the word negro and you squirm;
to her it's just a descriptor. Shakespeare is the opposite.
As time progresses, he seems more open-minded than he
would have been considered in his own time. Sometimes
it's better that we don't understand the consequences of our
actions. We can do good despite our corrupt motives.
Shakespeare's humanism saved him. His plays may
be full of stereotypes—of Moors, of Welshmen, of the
French—but he never loses his sense of shared humanity.
Integrating his time's contempt for the Muslim African
Other in his portrayal of Othello, he also reveled in the
glorious individuality of the character. Othello's Christian
and Moorish sides clash in a burst of self-destruction,
encapsulated perfectly by his suicide, which he himself
describes in his final speech as a struggle between his two
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him—thus!
He stabs himself
Othello's Christian side destroys his pagan side, and
vice versa; his civilization—his choice of Desdemona—
can only cover, it cannot change his primitive blackness.
But his dignity as well as his primitiveness is inescapable.
Excerpted from How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche Copyright © 2011 by Stephen Marche. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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