I’m a sucker for a good word play and so my favourite sentence from Ben Crystal’s “Shakespeare on Toast” is catapulted into the title of this blog post. It makes me giggle and that can only be a good thing.
The problem with Shakespeare is that he is taught in schools when kids are just too young to appreciate him. Dry as dust explanations of iambic pentameter and even dryer reading aloud sessions can scar for life. I certainly haven’t read any Shakespeare since Henry IV Part I – my “O”-level text – and I was blessed with a cracking English literature teacher. I did go to the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow about 10 years ago with my son’s school class to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I howled with laughter. I now watch the Kenneth Brannagh version whenever I need cheering up. Since then, I catch any play I can, when I can. It doesn’t mean that they’re all great- I didn’t enjoy Troilus and Cressida or Romeo and Juliet (’tis a disadvantage when you take a dislike to the lead actress in that play …). Tears of laughter once more at Twelfth Night.
My experience is that Shakespeare is better watched, not read and analysed to death. Forget the difficulty of the language. It only takes a couple of scenes into a play and the language suddenly clicks into place. Ben Crystal, an actor, agrees with me – arguing that we should see Shakespeare in the context of the Elizabethan theatre. Plays rolled off the production line in those days to satisfy a public who went to the theatre for entertainment, not analysis. It was their equivalent of television.
Crystal also demystifies the issue of Shakespeare’s difficult language. It’s not the vocabulary, for only 5% of Shakespeare’s language is no longer current! It’s this iambic pentameter thingy, isn’t it? The key, Crystal argues, is not to read Shakespeare, but to listen. De-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum – that’s the iambic pentameter and Shakespeare’s default metre. It’s the variations he plays that injects life to his theatre, emphasises important issues and directs his actors all at the same time. Crystal fills his very readable and entertaining text with many examples of this, explaining with his actor’s eye (or rather ear) why King Lear Act 5, Scene 3, lines 304-7 are his favourite in the whole cannon and why line 306 is sheer genius.
Why should a Dog, a Horse, a Rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button.
The book is divided, quite appropriately, into 5 acts: Act 1, Setting the Scene; Act 2, Curtain Up; Act 3, Listen Carefuly; Act 4, Catch the Rhythm; Act 5, Enjoy the Play. Chapters in each act are scenes and Act 5 Scenes 6-8 capitalise on all previous content with a detailed analysis of Macbeth . Putting the play in its Jacobean context he first explains how the audience of the time would have found the witches truly terrifying, and how the murder of a king was a weighty subject in the days of the Gunpowder Plot. There follows a detailed and fascinating analysis of Act 2 Scene 2, the scene in which Lady Macbeth is waiting for her husband returning from killing Duncan. Analysing the language, he exposes the true nature of Macbeth’s marriage. Analysing the variations in metre, he exposes the beginning of Lady MacBeth’s madness and the unspoken direction that Shakespeare gives his actors.
This is a fascinating read – Shakespeare toasted lightly and buttered, slice by slice, by an author/actor whose passion for the subject shines through.
I recommend this book to all who bear the scars of a British secondary education. (Robaroundbooks, are you reading this?). I fear, however, that it may have sentenced my prized Folio Society Shakespeare edition forever more to the dust-collecting shelves. I’m now coveting the BBC Shakespeare DVD collection. I’m told, from reliable sources, that it contains many brilliant performances.