Everyone meets Shakespeare at school. Which play stripped you of your Shakespeare maidenhead? Hmmm? Romeo and Juliet? Macbeth? King Lear? Othello? Much Ado About Nothing? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Julius Caesar? Antony and Cleopatra? Chances are it was one of those, and chances are it was one of those for your parents as well. And their parents also.
But have you read a whole play he wrote since you cast aside your school uniform and went out into the wide world? Go on – be honest now…
Teaching Shakespeare is riddled with difficulties: about four hundred years of linguistic evolution means that his English isn’t quite ours – it’s a moderate, but present language barrier. Then, of course, great slabs of the plays are written in verse. All students seem to be allergic to poetry at first – seriously, you need an EpiPen in clear view and the patience of a saint to convince them that they won’t suffer catastrophic anaphylactic shock if they read and try to understand a poem.
Taking on the knotty task of bringing the mountain that is Shakespeare to the people since relatively few of them will go to Shakespeare is Ben Crystal (son of the linguist David Crystal), with Shakespeare on Toast.
The title rather leads you to expect a relentless dumbing down of the Swan of Avon, but although Crystal can be a bit puppyish and twee from time to time, you’d have to know a hell of a lot about the Bard to get through the whole book without once saying ‘Egad! I didn’t know that!’ or something similar.
The book is tricked out with a handy index (I do love a good index, don’t you?), a neat little glossary of key terms and a recommended reading list that is a tiny bit suspect because three of the ten books on it were penned by members of the Crystal family. In a rather too cutesy touch, the whole thing is divided into acts and scenes rather than chapters, but that’s the sort of thing it’s relatively easy to forgive Crystal for.
‘Here’s a thing: Shakespeare is partly responsible for the film career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger got his first part in an American film (Hercules in New York) because Joe Weider, his friend and promoter, convinced the film’s producers that Arnie had been a great Shakespearian actor in Austria, which, of course, he hadn’t.’
It’s hard not to love a book that opens like that. Sprinkled through Crystal’s enthusiastic guide to understanding and loving big Will are hordes of neat and shiny little factoids, such as:
‘Shakespeare invented the word assassination… Even-handed, far-off, hot-blooded, schooldays, well-respected are Shakespeare’s too, as are useful, moonbeam and subcontract.’
Crystal writes engagingly about the Elizabethan theatre and times and he’s refreshingly honest about how difficult it is to edge your way into the world of Shakespeare when the Bardolators (Bardolatry: obsessive worship of Shakespeare) are guarding the portals. But the best bits of all come when he starts to look closely at the writing itself.
Act Four is entitled ‘Catch the Rhythm’, and it’s easily the best section of the book. Here Crystal lives up to his name, with a lucid and fascinating look under the hood of Shakespeare’s writing. Without swamping us in terminology of questionable utility (can you name five metric feet? What’s the difference between an anapaest and a trochee? Can a line of eleven syllables still properly be considered to be iambic pentameter? C’mon, c’mon: I’m waiting…) he takes us on a gentle walking tour that shows all the craft that goes into Shakespeare’s writings: and crucially, he’s not afraid to gush when gushing is in order.
The most useful contribution that Crystal makes, overall, is proving to us that Shakespeare doesn’t need to be modernised. Big Bill was so far ahead of his time that we’re still catching up to him.
We’ve all seen what happens when a director gets a rush of cocaine to the head and decides to do a modern Shakespeare, haven’t we? It all ends with Leonardo DiCaprio screeching unintelligible things at the rain, or Heath Leger hamming it up in Ten Things I Hate About You or the utterly, unspeakably hideous O (a pathetic re-hashing of Othello that – preposterously – reinvents Othello as captain of a high school basketball team).
Shakespeare on Toast is scholarly enough to be informative, populist enough to be entertaining and good enough to eat. It’s a minor triumph.