It would be nice to start this post with a semi-snappy line like “Stephen Marche has written a monumentally stupid book about Shakespeare” or “How Shakespeare Changed Everything may be the most ignorant book about Shakespeare published this century.” Neither statement would be inaccurate, exactly. But Marche’s book is so preposterous in its claims, so poorly researched, so ludicrously over the top, and so slight that it’s hard to see it as anything other than a bad joke, a deliberate (if potentially lucrative) send-up of the excesses of Bardolatry. I don’t think I’d find the joke especially funny, but at least its author could lay some claim to the intelligence one might expect from someone who was, until recently, a professor at a major US university. Taking this book at face value seems almost impossible to me.

Here’s a sampling of introductory inanities to illustrate my point:

“When you become familiar with Shakespeare, you see him everywhere. … Chilean miners are stuck half a mile underground: ‘The earth has bubbles as the water has.'”

“There would be no Obama if there were not first Othello, just as there would be no Leonardo DiCaprio if there were not first Romeo.”

“Nothing in literature captures the surging cacophony of voices and perspectives of the dazzling diversity of present-day cities such as London, New York, or Mumbai more than the plays of Shakespeare.”

These aren’t just stupid sentences — although they are that. They’re sentences so recklessly and obviously out to lunch that I don’t want to believe anyone could actually mean them.

Their inanity comes in different flavours. The first one indulges a habit Marche elsewhere decries, the impulse to quote Shakespeare out of context. The “bubbles” of the earth Banquo refers to in that line from Macbeth are where the witches come from — or possibly they are the witches themselves. I did not follow the story of the Chilean miners as closely as I might have, but I don’t think supernatural forces were involved. And if it’s just a vague connection to the subterranean Marche was after, why not go full-bore with the rescue mission as “call[ing] spirits from the vasty deep”?

The second sentence is bizarre as a statement about Shakespeare or Shakespeare’s influence (if one needed to find the decisive factor for Obama’s election in a work of fiction, 24 and its president David Palmer would be more plausible candidates than Othello, but why look in that direction at all?). But its specific vapidity — flavour #2 — is rhetorical: that “just as” is just too precious. Marche casts the historical election of the first African-American US president in parallel with the rise of a young Hollywood actor to stardom; on one side of the analogy, we have an actor playing a particular role, on the other we have a 17th-century play preparing the ground, somehow, for an electoral milestone. As far as Marche is concerned, these are equivalent historical developments and analogous forms of Shakespearean influence. Or at least that’s what his “just as” suggests.

Beyond the sheer weirdness of the argument, there’s a distance from factual accuracy here that characterizes the entire book. Never mind the Othello claim, Leonardo DiCaprio already was a star when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out. I know, because when the film opened I sat behind a row of giggling teenage girls in an Oxford cinema, all of whom got up and left when their Leo died — they weren’t there to see an unidentifiable blob be transformed into a heartthrob under the magical influence of Shakespeare’s Romeo, their hearts were already throbbing when they bought their tickets. As was James Cameron’s (a quick IMDB search taught me): DiCaprio’s most blockbusting film, Titanic, was already in production by the time Romeo + Juliet opened. Playing Romeo obviously didn’t hurt young Leo’s career, but neither did it launch it. And the part doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect on the kinds of roles he has chosen to play. So, to sum up: as an argument about Shakespeare’s influence, this is weak; as an argument about Leonardo DiCaprio’s career, it is factually wobbly; and as a comparison of the importance of Shakespeare for Barack Obama and DiCaprio, it is fatuous.

Lastly, the third sentence is an archetypal instance of the kind of exaggeration that keeps the entire book afloat. Apparently “nothing in literature” — in any language, of any period — speaks more directly to the contemporary metropolitan experience than Shakespeare (why bother writing anymore: Mr Bard has already said it all, and so much better). I don’t really know where to begin with that one. Shakespeare isn’t even the best at representing the realities of early modern city life. Jonson, Middleton, Dekker, and yes, even Lording Barry were far more interested in doing that, and far more adept at it. And obviously, as cities have grown, as cultures have diversified, a host of authors around the world have written more pertinently about the metropolitan experience than any early modern dramatist. Marche must know this — unless his grasp of “literature” is as weak as his grasp of Shakespeare. (Which may just be possible: he does, after all, think of Shakespeare and Cervantes as “the original playwright and the original novelist.”)

In any case, Marche’s unreliable command of Shakespeare may be the most offensive aspect of this book: the least one would expect of a gushing Bardolator is a thorough knowledge of the bardic canon. Alas, no.

One certainly can’t turn to him for information on the plays’ publication history. “There are twelve extant versions of Richard III. Pericles exists in just one single terrible quarto,” he tells his trusting readers. Close, but not quite: there are indeed twelve editions — though not twelve “versions” — of Richard III, if one counts all four Folios (the last of which was printed almost 70 years after Shakespeare’s death, in 1685, but never mind that). Pericles? Well: 6 quartos, 2 folio appearances (the third and fourth). Eight texts, not one, though none of them are especially great. I’m picking nits, sure, but these nits need picking.

How about Marche on Othello? His “eloquence is the definition of gentlemanliness: martial, plainspoken, decisive.” “Plainspoken?” Seriously? A character who speaks of “reluming” lights, of “portance in my travailous history,” who talks of how “the flinty and steel couch of war” is his “thrice-driven bed of down;” Mr “Anthropophagi,” Mr “flaming minister,” Mr “medicinable gum” — plainspoken?

And then there’s Marche on sex in Shakespeare: “There’s no necrophilia or incest in Shakespeare but almost everything else.” Fine: calling what happens or is fantasized about in Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline “necrophilia” might be pushing it. (Though Marche pushes it all the time, all over the place, so why not here?) But no incest? I assume our good author hasn’t cracked open that “single terrible quarto” of Pericles lately?

Of course, if he had, he might have had to rethink his claim that Shakespeare embraced all forms of human sexuality openly, liberally, generously. The incestuous couple in that play is, after all, burnt to a crisp by divine fire. Though I suppose that may still not mean Shakespeare didn’t want them to be happy. Just as I suppose that Antonio’s inexplicable “sadness” in Merchant of Venice or the other Antonio’s irreducible loneliness at the end of Twelfth Night could, in Marche’s Shakespeare’s mind, be easily remedied if they only went out and realized their sexual impulses. Oddly, that never happens in the plays, much as we might want it to.

I could go on about this, but there’s probably little point. Many of Marche’s claims for Shakespeare’s cultural or historical influence are highly debatable, but they aren’t matters of fact: we might disagree, we might come up with stronger or more persuasive arguments for one side or the other, but proving either “wrong” may not be possible or desirable (an absurd claim can still be true). The same is not the case, happily, when it comes to Marche’s assertions about Shakespeare’s power as an inventor of words. Calling any word Shakespearean is a bold move, as Marche acknowledges, since someone else may have used it before without writing it down. The hunt for Shakespearean inventions is thus a slightly futile exercise, but at least marginally justifiable. What Marche actually does, however, is a bit more of a head-scratcher: he misidentifies coinages that demonstrably were used by other authors before they first appear in Shakespeare’s printed works (which is the OED’s standard for primacy).

I’ll present the evidence in the briefest — and possibly the most tedious — form I can think of: a list. Here, in the order they appear in his book, are the words Marche calls “Shakespearean terms,” words that are “all his invention,” words one would have “hear[d] for the first time” at a Shakespeare performance, “his invented words.” Where relevant, I correct the OED’s false attribution of words to Shakespeare with reference to Short-Title Catalogue items found through full-text searches on EEBO (which access less than a quarter of the corpus of early printed books at this point).

  • “jaded” — Not Shakespeare: 1538 (STC 21752.5).
  • “fortune-teller” — Not Shakespeare: 1582 (STC 16946).
  • “pander” (v.) — Maybe Shakespeare, but a shortening of the earlier, and common, “panderize.”
  • “widowed” (adj.) — Not Shakespeare: 1592 (STC 5577). Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED.
  • “employer” — Maybe Shakespeare.
  • “bloodstained” — Maybe Shakespeare.
  • “bandit” — Not Shakespeare. Nashe used it the same year (1594) and is cited in the OED. In any case, Marche’s claim that Shakespeare “anglicized” it “from the Italian banditto” is incorrect; it’s “bandeto” in 2 Henry 6. The word didn’t become “bandit” until the early 17th century.
  • “cow” (v.) — Maybe Shakespeare (impossible to do a reliable full-text search on this), and it’s certainly the kind of coinage I would associate with Shakespeare: not just a verbing of a noun, but a metaphor to boot.
  • “domineer” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (earliest citation there is 1591).
  • “advertising” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (earliest citation there is 1530).
  • “manager” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (earliest citation there is Florio in 1598, the same year as Love’s Labour’s Lost).
  • “excitement” — Maybe Shakespeare, but not in modern sense (he uses it to mean “motive, encouragement,” by analogy to the earlier “incitement”).
  • “skim milk” — Maybe Shakespeare, but it might also have been a compositor’s error — or incomprehensible to his contemporaries. Either way, the spelling was changed to “skim’d Milk” in the 1623 folio.
  • “abstemious” — Not Shakespeare. Used by Cotgrave in 1611 (see Lexicons of Early Modern England) as the definition of French “leuneux,” which suggests wide currency.
  • “academe” — Maybe Shakespeare (but not in current sense).
  • “accused” — Not Shakespeare. As adjective, first OED citation is 14th-century. As noun: 1582 (STC 4537).
  • “addicition” — Not Shakespeare. First OED citation: 1532. OED doesn’t list a single Shakespeare citation for this.
  • “alligator” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (earliest citation there is “Lagarto” in 1568, “Aligarto” in 1591).
  • “amazement” — Not Shakespeare: 1553 (STC 6142). Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (earliest citation there is Spenser in 1590).
  • “anchovy” — Not Shakespeare: 1582 (STC 18250) — in one of Richard Mulcaster’s wordlists!
  • “arouse” — Not Shakespeare: 1483 (STC 24873). The earlier sense of the word was “spray,” and that remained current in Shakespeare’s day (the word is also used in that sense in STC 24873, but not in this instance).
  • “assassination” — Maybe Shakespeare. But OED citations for “assassinate” are earlier (c. 1600).
  • “auspicious” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (Selden in 1614). It’s listed as a “hard word” in John Bullokar’s 1616 English Expositor, so must have had wider currency.
  • “farmhouse” — Not Shakespeare (unsurprisingly): 1569 (STC 3114).
  • “eyeball” — Maybe Shakespeare (the metaphorical quality may suggest as much, or at least someone’s poetic coinage).
  • “softhearted” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (Marston in 1602; also earlier, in 1580, as “softhartednesse”).
  • “sanctimonious” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (Dekker & Middleton in 1604).
  • “lacklustre” — Maybe Shakespeare.
  • “fashionable” — Not Shakespeare. OED has many early 17th-century citations, including one in the modern sense from 1609 (same year as Shakespeare’s).
  • “consanguineous” — Adjective may be Shakespeare. But the noun “consanguinity” is very early (OED: 14th-century) and was common in the 16th century. “Consanguine” as an adjective also predates the Shakespeare citation (1613).
  • “buzzer” — Not Shakespeare: 1598 (STC 16918). Also not a “crazy” word, contrary to what Marche claims. “Buzz” was an entirely commonplace verb.
  • “zany” — Not Shakespeare. At all. Earliest OED citation is Lodge in 1596, but the word is probably older. In any case, it’s not a coinage but a Commedia dell’arte term that was common in early 17th-century English.
  • “kickshaw” — Not Shakespeare, but the story is complicated. The word is a corruption of “quelque chose” that was in common use in late 16th-century texts, in a multitude of spellings.
  • “to dawn” — Not Shakespeare. Earliest OED citation is 1499. OED doesn’t list a single Shakespeare citation for this. And yet, it’s on the back cover of Marche’s book as a verb “Shakespeare gave us.”
  • “to elbow” — Maybe Shakespeare (again, the combination of verbing and metaphor “feels” very Shakespearean).
  • “hint” — Not Shakespeare. Marche claims it’s a “resuscitated Middle English” word, but in its early modern usage, the verb seems to be merely a spelling variation of “hent” (which is indeed a medieval word, and was very common in Shakespeare’ time). The noun also predates Shakespeare’s uses (OED has it as 1600).
  • “hush” — Not Shakespeare. Many OED citations from the 16th century.
  • “deafening” — Not Shakespeare. OED has earlier 17th-century citations of “deafen.”
  • “tightly” — Not Shakespeare. Also not attributed to Shakespeare even in OED (Ben Jonson in 1601). But not in modern sense (nor are the Shakespearean citations).
  • “metamorphize” — Not Shakespeare. Earliest OED citation is 1576. OED doesn’t list a single Shakespeare citation for this.
  • “glow” (n.) — Maybe Shakespeare.
  • “gnarled” — Not Shakespeare, but its an interesting story. The folio spells it thus (which doesn’t mean Shakespeare did), but the more common spelling was “knurled” (first OED reference is 1611, but the word has medieval and/or dialect origins). “Gnarled” became the predominant spelling in the 19th century thanks to the influence of Bardolatry. So in a sense, “Shakespeare” “gave” “us” that word.
  • “hobnob” — Not Shakespeare, but a complicated story. Shakespeare doesn’t use it in anything like the modern sense. And Shakespeare’s sense goes back at least to the early 16th century (in many different spellings).
  • “gossip” — Not Shakespeare (kind of obviously). Earliest OED citation as verb is 1611.
  • “traditional” — Not Shakespeare: 1545 (STC 24355).
  • “eventful” — Maybe Shakespeare.

In sum: no more than 14 of those 46 words could possibly be Shakespearean coinages. All others appeared in print elsewhere, in some cases centuries before Shakespeare first wrote. And some of the 14 so-called “inventions” involved no more than adding a suffix to a familiar word (as in “employer,” or “excitement,” or “assassination,” or “consangineous”) or shortening an existing one (“pander” for “panderize,” “skim milk” for “skimmed milk,” “academe” for “academy”). None of those terms would have been in any way astonishing to hear in a theatre, although a few others do fit that profile. Hearing “cow” used as a verb may indeed have been surprising, enlightening, delightful. “Eyeball” may have been revelatory. “Elbow” might have done the trick. But the vast majority of Marche’s words are neither Shakespearean nor particularly remarkable. Astonishingly, he manages to out-Bardolate the notoriously Bardolatrous OED, attributing words to Shakespeare for which the venerable Oxford tomes don’t list a single citation despite the editors’ typical tendency to include a Shakespeare reference wherever possible. Just to be clear: my point is not that Shakespeare didn’t coin a lot of words. But he didn’t coin most of the ones Marche says he did.

I ought to point out that it took me less than a day to run searches on these words in the OED, on EEBO, and on LEME. It’s not like this is the kind of arduous, wearisome research one shouldn’t expect of the author of a popular book (PhD or not). Marche and his publisher, however, seem to consider fact-checking a negligible exercise as long as the claims are loud and blurbworthy enough (note: I just “invented” a word).

Finally, on the heels of all his false claims and misidentifications, Marche delivers this breathtaking line:

More even than so many wonderful words and expressions, his greatest gift was the spirit he bequeathed to the English language, a spirit of expressive appropriation rather than economical clarity. … Shakespeare made language theft acceptable in English. The result has been the largest vocabulary of any language on earth.

In a book rife with silly pronouncements, this one takes the cake. English isn’t the rich language it is because of conquests (Roman, Danish, French, etc.), or of colonialism, or because Britain has always been a multilingual island, or because English is the most global of languages (for now), but because one man in the 1590s sat down at his desk and thought, “Huh. ‘Incarnadine’ has a nice ring to it.” Yeah, I know, I’m being facetious. That didn’t happen until 1604 at the earliest.

Again, like the three sentences with which I began, Marche’s revision of the history of the English language is the sort of posturing I find almost impossible to take seriously. He must know that it’s imbecilic to say that Shakespeare is the source of English’s rapacious linguistic colonialism. You don’t have to be a linguist to know where English words come from — the basics are primary school stuff. The expansion began centuries before the Elizabethans and it has carried on unabated to this day. Sure, Shakespeare’s time was a good time for the language, but his evident delight in making up new expressions was not original to him, let alone a solitary pleasure. A large cultural tendency isn’t the sort of thing that could meaningfully be tied to any one person, but if someone had to be declared responsible for the expansionist wave, John Lyly is a more likely candidate than Shakespeare.

I’ll leave it at that. I wish this book were a prank, though that’s not how it is being received. Reviews cited on the author’s website call it both informed and informative (though others have been less kind). Sadly, I also have reason to believe Stephen Marche is entirely, depressingly serious. But more of that anon (a word Shakespeare invented in 1 Henry 4. Not many people know that).

12 Responses to People Being Stupid About Shakespeare III

  1. […] discussions, reactions, debates. This is why I’m grateful to people like Holger Syme, whose review of Stephen Marche’s book was inflammatory, certainly, but also expressed a real expectation […]

  2. […] reactions, debates and comments. This is why I’m grateful to people like Holger Syme, whose review of Stephen Marche’s book was inflammatory, certainly, but also expressed a real expectation […]

  3. Marche is another example of critics down the line (I remember reading “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary” eons ago) who want to “update” or make him “relevant” and in so doing tear the work asunder. Thanks for calling Marche out.

    BTW, his article in the NY Times magazine was similarly weird. I must confess I am an agnostic when it comes to the authorship question, but I’ve read enough to be intrigued, and Marche’s resort to invective when people really do have questions about authorship made me angry. So here is what I wrote to the Times:

    “Methinks Stephen Marche doth protest too much. Because Oxford was a lord and not a commoner, Marche accuses Oxfordians of “snobbery,” which is the “surest sign of their ignorance,” while accusing them of “anti-elitism” in the same breath. I’m not sure how one can be an anti-elitist snob, but there it is. Indeed, Marche’s effort to debunk Oxfordians by invective backfires, in large part because he assumes that he, as a duly-anointed “legitimate” scholar, knows the truth, and all else is apostasy (“not everyone does deserve a say,” is a point often made by religious extremists and those who would love to see Occupy Wall Street go way as well. Talk about snobbery).

    I, for one, am interested in the De Vere theory (among other possibilities) because the case for authorship has never been nailed shut. (Obviously smart people like Dickens, Freud, and Mark Twain, who also had trouble with the notion that the glover’s son from Stratford could have written the plays, were anti-elitist snobs too.) Faced with scant physical proof of the Stratford man’s genius (a line in a will about a “secondbest bed” doesn’t really cut it), they simply shut their ears and sing “la-la-la” at the top of their lungs (in Marche’s case, apoplectically) if anyone questions them. I suspect that Marche’s fears of undergraduates coming to him for the next ten years to “waste…time explaining the obvious” will come true, and good for them. Anything that gets undergraduates — or anyone else, for that matter– to read the plays and ask questions is something profoundly to be wished.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth. It’s so fascinating to see how people use Shakespeare, like Jesus, for their own ends….

  4. […] of words. (For my critique of some recent assertions about Shakespeare’s invented words, see this post from a few months […]

  5. Thanks Holger. That’s a book I intuitively didn’t want to buy, and now will never even succumb to mere curiousity.

    I do love your other rants on the Sh stupid theme. I re-posted the link on my fb group page.


  6. jewelbomb says:

    Spot on. This atrocity has been on my radar for some time now. As a PhD candidate writing a dissertation on Shakespeare that I’d eventually like to turn into a book, the fact that this type of thing gets published by a reputable (?) press really makes my blood boil. Granted, I’d like to see more books about Shakespeare published with a popular audience in mind, but far too often such efforts seem to advance utter nonsense while rigorous, groundbreaking scholarship has a difficult time finding a home.

  7. ak says:

    did you check the website you are linking to? It is advertised as being appropriate for “Ages: 1 and Up”

    That should explain it.

  8. Toby Malone says:

    Beautifully argued, Holger. Now to read the other page about Marche’s response. I’m giddy with anticipation.

  9. By the way, my husband’s surname is Syme, as well. Are you related to a bunch of coal miners from Scotland?

    • Holger Syme says:

      I took my partner’s name, so can’t lay claim to any of the Syme relatives. But her parents are indeed Scottish (very), though not from the mines as far as I know!

  10. I love this post! How do books like this make it to publication, I wonder?

Leave a Reply