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10 Ways Shakespeare Changed Everything

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In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday tomorrow, we’ve teamed up with Uncommon Goods to create a printable party kit to celebrate the Bard! (Oh, and we're reposting some of our favorite Shakespeare stories to get you in the mood.)

The basic thesis of Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything becomes obvious very early on (as in, it is expressed in the title). According to this fun, lyrically written and well-researched book, here are just ten of the many ways that Shakespeare changed everything:

1. He gave us a lot of new words

Just say some words real quick and you’ll probably say one he coined – nearly 10% of his 20,000-word vocabulary was new to his audiences. You may consider yourself quite fashionable or softhearted. You may consider this post to be lackluster. But you couldn’t consider any of those things to be those ways if Shakespeare hadn’t made up the words for you.

2. He inspired an assassin

On November 25, 1864, actor John Wilkes Booth starred as Marc Antony alongside his brothers, Edwin as Brutus and Junius, Jr. as Cassius, in a one-night benefit performance of Julius Caesar at New York City’s Winter Garden Theatre — incidentally raising money to place a statue of Shakespeare on Central Park’s Literary Walk. Five months later, on April 14, 1865, JWB would put on a more impactful performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, as a real-life Brutus, assassinating the leader of a nation.

3. He inadvertently caused a pigeon problem

His statue in Central Park is covered in pigeon droppings, and strangely it's kind of his fault. (Yes, the same statue for which the Booth brothers’ benefit raised the funds). It's hard to believe that the veritable starling infestation of New York City came as the direct result of an innocent bird-lovin’, Bard-lovin’ pharmaceutical manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin but, alas, ‘tis true.

In March of 1860, Schieffelin released a mere sixty starlings into the Central Park air as a part of his effort to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to North America. Scientists estimate that the descendants of this and another small 1891 Schiefflin-released flock now number in the area of 200 million.

4. He named a lot of babies

Simpson, Biel and Rabbit, just to name a few. The name “Jessica” first appears in Shakespeare. The original Jessica was Shylock’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice.

5. He cleared the path for Freud

Shakespeare thought sexual repression was for the birds. His plays are bawdier than anything the Farrely Brothers have devised and, while his own rowdy Globe Theatre crowds ate it up (they were all drunk anyway), future generations found it necessary to censor the Bard substantially. Bell’s Shakespeare from 1773, the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed on the English stage, contained only 2/3 of the original material.

6. He helped us understand teen angst

Those who want to see Romeo and Juliet as the embodiments of purity and love, like 18th-century English playwright David Garrick, are met with an imposing editorial task. Garrick’s first cut was the elimination of the character of Rosaline, the source of Romeo’s heartsickness at the play’s outset (she’s the one making his “sad hours seem long” in Act I, Scene 1) and one of many examples of the young man’s rash and impetuous teenage behavior. Apparently, people enjoyed the wishful notion of the purity and sensibility of teenage love, Garrick’s edited version of the play survived, unchanged, for over a hundred years.

7. He invigorated Nazis and anti-Nazis alike

While it's difficult to categorize Shakespearean politics, it's easy to find justification of one’s own prejudices and beliefs in the Shakespeare canon. Many groups and movements have sought to claim him as their own. Shortly after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Nazi Party issued a pamphlet entitled Shakespeare – A Germanic Writer. Three years later, during the height of Hitler's rule, there were more performances of Shakespeare’s works in Germany than the rest of the world combined.

But those opposed to Hitler’s ideals could also find support in Shakespeare’s works, particularly in Shylock’s well-known speech from The Merchant of Venice.

8. He raised questions about race and prejudice

Just ask Paul Robeson - African-American actor, athlete, activist, and all-around rock star who, in 1943, played the role of Othello on Broadway. To this day, that show’s run of 296 shows is the longest ever for a Shakespeare play on Broadway.

9. He ticked off Tolstoy

Big time. The works of the very-bearded Russian great aside, Shakespeare’s literary influence is immeasurable. Dickens and Keats credited nobody more. Eliot claimed that the modern world can essentially be divided into two categories: those things influenced by Shakespeare and those influenced by Dante. William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace each titled one of their works directly from a line in Shakespeare.

But perhaps the influence Shakespeare had on Tolstoy’s writing was even more profound, since Tolstoy wrote a whole book about his disdain for the Bard. Tolstoy on Shakespeare reveals, unequivocally, that Tolstoy did not merely lack delight in Shakespeare’s work, he derived from it, “irresistible repulsion and tedium” and found the literary world’s reliance on and reference for Shakespeare to be “a great evil – as is every untruth.” Yowza.

10. He killed a tree in Bidford

And he did so years after his own death! Legend has it that a retired lush of a Bard stumbled under said tree – the crab variety – and slept off a night of competitive drinking with Bidford’s supposedly prolific booze hounds. Tourists tore the poor tree to shreds, taking home souvenirs of old Willy’s wild night. In the absence of any really reliable biography, we cling to legends and potentialities to help us understand anything at all about the man whose writing has helped us to understand so much.

And he could have changed even more!

Marche reminds readers of the tantalizing fact that there are lost Shakespeare plays – two, at least, that scholars know existed but we have never had the pleasure of reading or seeing performed. One is Love’s Labors Won, the sequel to Titus Andronicus (just kidding). Love’s Labors Won is mentioned in two different sources, one being a bookseller’s list, meaning the play was likely in print at one time.

The other is Cardenio, which scholars assume from the title is an adaptation of scenes from Don Quixote. 18th-century editor Lewis Theobald allegedly discovered a copy of this manuscript and developed his own play, The Double Falsehood, based on the manuscript. But he never showed the manuscript to anyone and lost it in a fire — either that or he made the whole thing up. Many scholars do believe, however, that The Double Falsehood does, indeed, contain elements of a play originally crafted by Shakespeare.

If you want to celebrate the Bard's Birthday in style, don't forget you can up the Shakesperience with one of our Shakespeare Soiree Printable Party Kits!

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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