Shakespeare on Toast, by Ben Crystal

A short book aimed at dispelling the myth that Shakespeare is "hard". Crystal wants to persuade us how good the bard is, and what to look for in his work that helps to bring it alive.

This did the job pretty well: having read the book I am more impressed with what Shakespeare did. I think the main thing of interest for me was iambic pentameter, which I'm sure I could have read up on in Wikipedia, but is very nicely explained and justified here.

Crystal points out how Shakespeare sticks to iambic pentameter much of the time, but on occasion will break the rules: this is his way, says Crystal, of providing direction about the thoughts and feelings of the characters. So in a scene from Macbeth, for example, the broken rhythm is used to indicate the confused state of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after a murder.

He also gives examples where different characters have lines which begin and end the same line of iambic pentameter, which indicates that one person talks directly after the other, to maintain the rhythm. At the beginning of the book he claims that "Never, never, never, never, never" from King Lear is one of the most stunning lines in Shakespeare, and I think he does provide some good reasons why as the book goes on.

All pretty interesting, and quite convincing, although I think that much of this is more for the benefit of the actors than the audience - I saw Twelfth Night just before I finished the book, and I couldn't notice use of pentameter during the play, although it's obviously there, even in the first line. I guess perhaps the Elizabethans were more attuned to this and so it had more effect on an audience of that time.

Some of the things Crystal says seem a little ingenuous: for example he says that Shakespeare's language is not difficult, and that only five per-cent of the words he uses are ones that would be unfamiliar to a contemporary audience. But I worked through the script of Twelfth Night and there seemed to be quite a lot of words that needed glossing: perhaps five per-cent is right, but a lot of the ones that are not familiar seem fairly important to the meaning (considering that the ninety-five percent includes "the", "and", "but", etc.). But, it's true that when you see the play performed, the actors are able to show what they mean as well as say it.

There's an explanation of the "folios" and "quartos" which act as the reference for Shakespeare's writing: Crystal doesn't like it when people attempt to touch up the text from these sources because it moves away from what (we think) Shakespeare intended.

While he makes a fairly convincing case though, I can't help but have a niggling feeling that there's a danger of over-interpreting. E.g. he says "No matter how complicated, no matter how ostensibly random, how annoying, boring or just plain bad a scene or line seems to be, there is always a reason for it being there.". And he suggests that the reason is that Shakespeare is a genius - which may be right, but it must also be possible that we're finding reasons that were never intended or even thought of by Shakespeare.

Anyway, there was quite a lot of useful stuff in here and I'll keep hold of the book for reference (there's a handy checklist of things at the back, to be used when working through a play).

Completed : 01-Mar-2009

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