Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal and Shakespearana around the Web

Before I go into what Shakespeare on Toast is all about, I’d like to tell you what it isn't.
  •  It isn't a biography. Crystal doesn't concern himself with Shakespeare the man except when it has a bearing on his writing. You’ll learn very little about Shakespeare’s life that you didn't already know.
  •  It isn't about conspiracy theories.  The book doesn't explore the authorship question. Crystal makes it quite clear that he doesn't really care who really wrote Shakespeare. The book doesn't delve into any of the other theories or speculations about Shakespeare either. Was he gay? Is he addressing a secret lover in his sonnets? Was he a bad husband? Don’t know, don’t care is the book’s answer.
  •   It isn't Shakespeare for Dummies. The book doesn't attempt to deconstruct, simplify, summarize or try to feed you Shakespeare with a baby spoon. Some guides to Shakespeare are undoubtedly helpful when starting out with Shakespeare (the no fear series for instance) but so many of them seem either patronizing or so simplistic that they take all the beauty and complexity out of the plays.
  •   It isn't a textbook. There are no discussions of facts or figures or grammar or chronology.

William Shakespeare is probably the most widely read and widely feared playwright in English literature.  His play’s have been acted, adapted and re-interpreted in so many different ways over the centuries. The very fact that they have thrived and provided entertainment in so many different era’s and cultures makes them deserving of respect. Unfortunately, this respect has, over time morphed into a snobbish reverence that scares away anyone who isn’t scholarly enough to ‘get’ Shakespeare.  Ben Crystal tries to break it down for you without dumb-ing it down.   Here’s what Shakespeare on Toast is essentially about:

Who was Shakespeare writing for?
According to Crystal, understanding the Bard’s intended audience is key to understanding his work. We are taken back in time to Elizabethan England to meet the people Shakespeare actually wrote his play’s for. Crystal explores the minds of these people. What scared them? What made them laugh? What were their cultural and political influences? This isn’t a boring history lesson. It really gives you a back story for Shakespeare’s work. For instance, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (about the murder of a king) right around the time of the Gunpowder Plot. Topical or what?

Why he wrote the way he did?
Shakespeare never meant for his plays to be published or read. He meant for them to be performed. By actors he knew. Crystal shows us how each play is written with instructions to the actor coded into it. The way the sentences stop and start, the metre and rhythm of each verse, it’s all meant to help the actor create the maximum impact on stage. When you start to read it that way, you see a really different pattern emerging.

Crystal sprinkles the book with several amusing anecdotes and trivia. I especially liked the one where Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet and throw’s Claudius out of a window.  There’s also a really good breakdown of one particular scene in Macbeth, done to illustrate how Shakespeare wrote with his actors in mind.

I must confess though, Crystal lost me in the rather involved chapter on Iambic Pentameter.  I read poetry that feels good to me and have never really bothered with its structure or mechanics. So all this talk of syllables and metrical feet bored me a little. But even this is really just me being a nag. The book does just what it sets out to do. It de-mystifies Shakespeare and shows you what awesome fun he can be.

This is going to be my last entry for Shakespeare reading month, though definitely not the last I read of Shakespeare. This event has really rekindled my love for the Bard I’m really glad I played along. I hope Allie thinks about making this an annual event.

Here are some rather novel adaptations of Shakespeare. More proof, if you needed it, that Shakespeare can work in any setting or form.
Raymond Chandler’s Hamlet by Jonathon Voss Post
This is a short story I found, which is a version of Hamlet written Raymond Chandler style. If you’re a fan of Chandler you’ll enjoy this I think. It’s a very short piece. Read it online here
Stick Figure Hamlet
Don’t have the time or patience to read through Hamlet? Have a go at this stick figure comic here


  1. Sounds like an interesting read. I've always been a Shakespeare fan.

    1. It is a fun read. For Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.

  2. This sounds like a fun read, but I have to admit that I do enjoy reading about the crazy conspiracy theories!

  3. The whole authorship question regarding Shakespeare makes for a really great story. But this book is pretty interesting even without it.

  4. I saw this book in the shop but had my heart set on Bill Bryson's book about the Bard. It does look interesting though. I like the fact that he is written about the society Shakespeare was writing for. That appeals to me.

    1. I really wanted to read Bryson's book for Shakespeare month, but time got away from me. I still intend to though.

  5. Sounds interesting. I'm reading The Shakespeare Miscellany by the same author. It's fun, but it's hard to sit down and read a book of just random facts. He doesn't organize them in anyway - they're truly random. It's fun info to know, but I find myself just picking it up and reading a few entries and putting it down again. This sounds a bit more put together!

    1. I had no idea Crystal had written another book about Shakespeare. It sounds like a good reference book to have on my shelf.

  6. I'm really excited to read this book. It's on my TBR. I think what you say about the "snobbery" associated with Shakespeare is interesting. It's only since (I think) about the 20th century that he's been perceived as so scholarly and untouchable. During the nineteenth century in America, he was performed on stage for people of all education levels, seen more as a source of entertainment than a work of scholarly literature. I wish we could get back to that, because he really is hilarious, and something tells me he'd have raised his brow at the snobbery. the fact that he didn't race to publish in print tells me he was more concerned with performing and entertaining -- than in being dissected by professors. :D

  7. Absolutely! Shakespeare was primarily an entertainer and he is such fun when you don't over-complicate him. I agree that his work's weren't written to be dissected by professors but to be played out by actors and watched by an audience. This is exactly why Crystal's book works. He looks at Shakespeare with the eye's of an actor (and sometimes an enthusiastic fan), so it doesn't read like lessons in school.

  8. Sounds like a really good read - perhaps just what I need to inspire me to pick up some of Shakespeare's plays again! I really enjoyed studying them at school (a huge minority :s) but never really went on to read more than the handful that I racked up during my years in education.

    Thanks for the review. Will look out for this next time I'm in a bookshop. :)