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The most influential person ever?

 Posted: 2:00 AM February 08, 2013

Like any good term paper, Stephen Marche's book "How Shakespeare Changed Everything" has a thesis.

He puts it right out there in the opening sentence: "William Shakespeare was the most influential person who ever lived."

Really? You might be a gushy Shakespeare fan just like me, but Marche's statement seems a tad overblown.

Perhaps he is the most influential person when it comes to Ashland's history.

But in my mind, there's a whole slew of leaders from the world's religious traditions —at the least — who are in line ahead of Shakespeare for the title of world's most influential person.

Whether you agree with Marche or not, "How Shakespeare Changed Everything" is an often-entertaining look at how Shakespeare changed our language, and arguably, our attitudes toward sex, age, race and a host of other subjects.

"Shakespeare has changed your life, even if you've never read him or seen one of his plays," Marche writes. "When I was a professor teaching Intro to Shakespeare, I started telling the stories in this book to impress upon students the vital importance of his plays to their lives."

Marche's claims are a bit far-fetched at times. He states that President Barrack Obama could not have attained his present office if not for Othello, who Shakespeare portrayed as noble and dignified despite the rampant racism of the day.

But Marche does provide an interesting story of the history of Othello productions.

The skin color of the actor who played Othello varied based on the historical time and place, with white actors in the pre-Civil War South only lightly bronzing their faces to take on the controversial role of the Moor who weds a white woman.

Marche argues that black actor Paul Robeson helped pave the way for the civil rights movement with his strong portrayal of Othello in the early 1900s.

When it comes to teenagers, Marche says that Shakespeare has shaped our attitudes about teens.

Shakespeare certainly captured teenagers, with his portrayal of Romeo's friends and their lewd jokes, and the intense crushes Romeo and Juliet developed on each other.

As with many of the arguments in Marche's book, I have to ask myself whether Shakespeare shaped the teen state, or created a reflection of it that is so perfect it still resonates with us today.

Does Shakespeare's greatest influence lie in the fact that he actually shaped human nature, or that he reflected it?

Marche appears to favor the former, while many readers may lean toward the latter.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare profoundly affected our language.

Quoting from British journalist Bernard Levin's partial list of words and phrases coined by Shakespeare, Marche notes that we are speaking the Bard's language whenever we say knitted your brows, hoodwinked, in a pickle, slept not a wink, played fast and loose, flesh and blood, crack of doom, rhyme or reason, good riddance, eyesore, laughing stock, the devil incarnate and hundreds of other inventive phrases that have become clichés.

Love of Shakespeare has also created unintended consequences, as when fan Eugene Schieffelin's released 100 starlings in the 1800s as part of his plan to introduce all bird species mentioned in Shakespeare's plays to America.

Today, 200 million starlings are spread across North America, annoying people with their raucous cries and taking over the habitat of native birds.

Not all people would agree that Shakespeare is the most influential person in history, but for the starlings in our backyards, they would not even have a history without him.

"How Shakespeare Changed Everything" is available at the Ashland Public Library.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.


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