How Shakespeare Changed Everything

When a book's title is "How Shakespeare Changed Everything", one expects either hyperbole or an underwhelming list.  But Shakespeare, it turns out, did change everything.

He changed the nature of adolescence.  When he wrote "Romeo and Juliet", most children (whether rich or poor) were expected to become apprentices at around the age of 10 or 12. It was Shakespeare who described roving bands of young people, thugs and mall rats, and the impact of raging hormones.  Essentially, he invented teenagers and how society perceives them.

He of course changed the English language but I was surprised by the extent to which he did.  Apparently, even in his day, a full 30% of the language would be new. How he could get people into a noisy, unmiked theater where they couldn't understand a significant portion of the words is beyond me.  The author points out how so many phrases we use are Shakespearean in origin. Without even knowing it, we quote Shakespeare every day.

But where the book really excels is in talking about how Shakespeare, without really meaning to, changed the world. For example, Othello is a racist play, relying for much of its power on the audience's visceral reaction to seeing a black man and a white woman on stage. Yet, the play did change how we see race. Similarly, the character of Shylock was anti-Semitic, and even the famous "I am a Jew, do I not bleed" speech only attributes animal characteristics to Jews. Yet, it too changed the world. Slowly, but surely.

The funniest part of the book is the story of how Shakespeare was indirectly responsible for some of the worst environmental damage the United States has experienced.  Some Connecticut banker, obsessed with introducing every bird Shakespeare mentioned in his plays to the US, brought in nightingales and starlings. The nightingales died off but the starlings became a major pest, and continue to be responsible for much environmental disaster.

Towards the end of the book, the author loses his way. The book would have been good at 150 pages. But his publisher probably made the author pad it, and that spoils the book. Still, this is a book worth savoring.

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