This is a post-script of sorts to my review of Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Go read that post if you haven’t yet.

Two days ago, I gave voice to my increasing frustration with Marche’s book. Like so:

Yesterday, as I was working on my review, I received an email response to my tweet from, lo and behold, the author. What a nice surprise:

Dear Professor Syme,

I noticed in a recent tweet that you claimed that of the 44 words I mention are created by Shakespeare, you believe only 11 of them might possibly be coined by Shakespeare. Fair enough, I suppose. My book of course is not a scholarly work but really a popular history, and I relied on other scholarly research in nearly every chapter, in the case of the chapter on language, David Cyrstal’s Think on my Words (Cambridge 2008) and the Meriam-Webster book by Jeffrey MacQuain and Stanley Malless. (Both dutifully cited in the Bibliography.) I am genuinely curious: Do you have any legitimate reasons for doubting their claims? I mean other than the fact that finding perfect sources for any etymology is difficult, which I do acknowledge in the book and which I mention every time I discuss the subject on the radio. I would like to know.

All best wishes,
Stephen MArche

(If you’ve read the review, you’ll know that I revised my numbers slightly since the tweet.)

I hadn’t exactly expected to catch Stephen Marche’s attention with a mere tweet, so I was a little taken aback by his email — given the insubstantial nature of my 140 characters, I felt almost like he had caught me red-handed. Of course I was working on the post and had done what little research it took to back up my assertion, but still. I also didn’t particularly relish the thought of beginning a conversation with an author in one medium even as I was in the midst of eviscerating his book in another. That struck me as altogether too hypocritical, which is why I decided to reply thus:

Dear Stephen (if I may),

I’m working on a lengthy blog post on the subject. I’ll let you know when it’s up and would be more than happy to have you respond.

I should probably say that I’m less than thrilled with your book. I’ve never understood the impulse to be hyperbolic about Shakespeare (Harold Bloom’s work of the last twenty years gives me an intellectual rash), but your claims seem unusually outlandish even in a field full of exaggerated assertions. It’s not like the public doesn’t overestimate Shakespeare’s influence or exceptionality already — which is why it strikes me as far more important for those of us who can claim some kind of expert knowledge of the subject (and I’d include you in that group, given your qualifications) to lead people to a more nuanced understanding. Simply reiterating Bardolatrous positions in more extreme form doesn’t seem to me particularly worthwhile.

All the best,


I don’t know what sort of response I expected, but it wasn’t this:

O I didn’t mean to confuse you. I certainly don’t care what your opinion is. You are an irrelevant pedant. I just wondered whether you had any new scholarship, which it appears you don’t have.

It may just be me, but Stephen Marche’s first email seemed to imply at least a degree of interest in my opinion. I also have no idea on what basis he assessed the existence or absence of my “new scholarship.” On the other hand, he may well be right about my irrelevance — I don’t know his criteria, after all. In the intriguing world he inhabits, whatever I have to say is almost certainly of extremely limited relevance, and happily so. Pedantry isn’t something I’m often accused of, but I’ll add it to the list. Though I do wonder what was especially pedantic about my email. Should I not have said “if I may”?

The exchange went a little further, in a similarly productive vein (I called him a blowhard, etc.). As conversations go, this one went south with remarkable speed. I do wonder if he’s going to have a look at the “new scholarship” he asked for, though. As irrelevant and pedantic as it may be, I’d be genuinely interested to hear how he responds to it.

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6 Responses to Nice to Meet You Too, Stephen Marche

  1. […] rambling. He admits that, despite being a former professor of Shakespeare, his book on the Bard is not a scholarly work. His bumbling career annoys men and women equally – so, at least in one aspect, he is an […]

  2. Giulia says:

    The classic “your opinion matters if you liked my book.” He’s not really aware of the constructive critics concept, I believe.

  3. Joanne says:

    Stephen was one of Sandy Leggatt’s supervisees; he defended in 2005. He was my TA for my first stab at teaching Shakespeare in 2001, and he was remarkably good then. This background should suggest some interest in academic approaches to the subject. It’s not even that “Think on my Words” isn’t a good source — it’s published by Cambridge, which should make it trustworthy. I assume that he’s asking if there’s another secondary source that you’re drawing on for your “assertions”.

    I’m a bit sympathetic to Marche here: after all, I just heard a paper yesterday (I’m at the WSC in Prague) that drew on the OED for evidence of linguistic shifts in terms related to “entertainment”. Apparently the person who delivered it hadn’t considered that the reason these shifts might be recorded between 1580-1620 is because the OED focuses on texts that the OED readers were familiar with. I don’t remember when EEBO became so easily searchable, but it’s probably since 2005, when he defended.

    None of this excuses the rest of the broad-strokes Bardolatry, which is the real issue.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I didn’t know Marche when he was here (we barely overlapped), so I don’t know how much he has fallen. There are certainly passages in the book that show him to be a talented reader (he has some very insightful things to say about Ophelia, for instance), but that doesn’t help: knowing that this could have been a much better book only makes its overall badness all the more depressing.

      I do take issue with the methodology, though. Sure, David Crystal is a respectable source published by a leading press. But Think on my Words isn’t exactly high scholarship — it’s a book for a popular audience. So Marche went out, read two easily digestible books on the subject (plus two other, tangentially related ones), picked a sizeable list of words he fancied from his readings, wrote it all up, and was done. That’s not just unscholarly, that’s sloppy. It’s an approach that might be justifiable in writing a column under the pressure of a looming weekly or monthly deadline, but as the basis for a book chapter, it really strikes me as not good enough. What he’s done is no better than what I’d expect from a decent, if misguided, undergrad essay — and why should anyone pay money for that?

      I agree with what Virginia wrote: “popular history” doesn’t mean history written without real research. It means scholarship presented for a popular audience, but produced by means as rigorous as work addressed to an academic audience. At the very least, I would have expected him to cross-check all the words he lists with the OED (which he evidently didn’t do). So as it stands, the chapter isn’t based on any kind of real research at all; it isn’t a distillation of difficult and hard-to-access scholarly work for a broader audience (there’d be a place for that, too); it’s simply a half-baked rehash of the sorts of things Bardolators have said for forever, typically in newspapers. Whatever interest in academic approaches Marche may have had once, there’s no evidence of that background in this chapter.

      Sorry to hear about that WSC paper! (But at least that person did use the OED itself….)

      • Joanne says:

        Oh, I wasn’t suggesting that his past excused his errors, but rather the reverse: he should know better, as he does have a background in research and scholarship. And yes, if his primary ‘source’ is a book written for a popular audience, that only compounds the error.

        And from what I can see (and think, after a litre and a half of Czech pilsner) his book is unmitigated, lazy crap. It’s just unfortunate that he didn’t bother doing any better. He certainly does know better!

  4. Virginia Strain says:

    With regard to your pedantry: you might remove the charge by taking your argument further, beyond the facts. In your review, you made your point well about what is or isn’t an invented word of Shakespeare’s, and more importantly, that this kind of information is quite easily accessed and checked. But even more important still is the general cultural gap between the historicized understanding of Shakespeare’s contribution (the connotations of “invention” in the 1590s) and the desperate and popular 20th and 21st century attempt to nail down Shakespeare’s originality or contribution without considering literary history. What is ultimately riding on Shakespeare’s “genius” in this study? If it isn’t historical reality/accuracy, what in our present in at stake? Can we get at Marche through appropriation politics/theory/methodology?

    With regard to Marche’s “popular history” (“My book of course is not a scholarly work but really a popular history”): How could a “history” be unscholarly? Isn’t that a legend? And surely a popular history should paint in broad strokes that encompass (rather than exclude) the finer tensions and relationships that surface through a sustained academic study. The difference between an academic and popular history should be analogous, I think, to the difference between a close-up and a long-shot.

    Have you taken a look at the sources that Marche quotes in his first email?

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