Esquirecolumnist Stephen Marche gives an expansive and exciting look at WilliamShakespeare’s pervasive influence on every aspect of modern culture—showing ushow we can find Shakespeare even where we least expect him. In the spirit ofAlain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life,Marche reveals how Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere—from politics topsychotherapy, broadway to botany, emo teenagers to outrageous baby names, even zoology (didyou know it’s the Bard who is responsible for the starlings terrorizing NewYork City’s Central Park?). Fans of literary trivia and readers of StephenGreenblatt’s Will in the World and Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: TheWorld as Stage will be captivated by Marche’s artful reading of how everyday can bring a fresh reading of the Immortal Bard of Avon.
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About the Author
STEPHEN MARCHE is a contributing editor at Esquire magazine. He also writes regular features and opinion pieces for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Walrus and elsewhere, and is a weekly contributor to CBC Radio. His books include four novels, The Hunger of the Wolf, Raymond and Hannah, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea and Love and the Mess We’re In, as well was a work of non-fiction, How Shakespeare Changed Everything. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.
Read an Excerpt
How Shakespeare Changed Everything
By Stephen Marche
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 Stephen Marche
All right reserved.
"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
Americanthe bootstrap Americanwas 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 racistso 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 criticsand let's not hide from
the fact that they were some of the most intelligent men
of their respective times and placeswas 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 whitefacehis 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 faceeven a
Caucasian face slightly smeared with burnt champagne
corkmight 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 parlorthat 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 stereotypesof Moors, of Welshmen, of the
Frenchbut 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 himthus!
He stabs himself
Othello's Christian side destroys his pagan side, and
vice versa; his civilizationhis 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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“An ambitious and entertaining new book...[How Shakespeare Changed Everything] explores the many, often unsuspected ways in which the great playwright shaped just about every facet of contemporary culture.”
“We are lucky that Stephen Marche had his mind blown by Shakespeare; we are luckier still that in making the argument for Shakespeare’s inextinguishable relevance, he has given us a contact high.”
“This is a wonderful book about seeing the world through Shakespeare-tinted glasses. You’ll never look at the food court, Justin Beiber—or, for that matter, the English language—the same way again.”
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