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 hereStick Figure Hamlet
Don’t have the time or patience to read through Hamlet? Have a go at this stick figure comic here