Billy The Bard

Everyone meets Shakespeare at school.  Which play stripped you of your Shakespeare maidenhead?  Hmmm?  Romeo and JulietMacbethKing LearOthelloMuch Ado About NothingA Midsummer Night’s DreamJulius CaesarAntony 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 assassinationEven-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.

9 responses to “Billy The Bard

  1. I can see the author of this book quoting your last paragraph, and conveniently omitting the last sentence. Love you work Mish.

  2. You’re far too good to me, Pat.

    Far too good. Not that I’m complaining.

  3. I taugh a poetry workshop at a high school a few months ago – a friend said to me before I went; “I wish someone had told me that poetry is about much more than just solving a verbal rubik’s cube for a good grade”… I think schools make poetry so dry for students that this hostile relationship between kids and Shakespeare is absolutely unavoidable.
    This book sounds like it should definately be compulsory reading for anyone who plans on teaching Shakespeare.

  4. Too true, Sam.

    Far too true.

  5. Thanks for the review — looks like this is one I’ll have to pick up myself.

    I appreciate your comment that Shakespeare himself is modern. But I’d be careful about throwing all the “modern” readings of Shakespeare into the same pile. It’s often these “modern” readings that are able to bring the “modern” aspects of the plays into a new light, and make them accessible to an audience that might not be inclined to read Shakespeare. Your thoughts>

  6. Cheers, Ted.

    I can see how you might interpret my comments on all modernisations of Shakespeare as being rather too sweeping – but the fact remains that I’ve yet to see one which brings ‘aspects of the play into a new light’, myself.

    Were there any you were thinking of in particular?

  7. The short answer is yes. The primary example I’m thinking of is Orson Welles, and his work with the WPA theater project with the “Voodoo Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar.” His work might be a good lens by which to analyze Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet” and broader adaptations like “10 things.” I’ll write up the long version at some point and post on my blog.

  8. Hmmm… I’ve read about the Welles stuff, but can’t say I was too moved by what I read. Does it survive on film?

    Orson tended to get a shellacking for his Shakespeare (Tynan opened a review of ‘Othello’ with the line “This production certainly has the confidence of its restrictions”).

    This may be a case of de gustibus non est disputandum.

    Whats the address of your blog, by the way?

  9. Scrap that last question, Ted.

    Just found it.

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