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Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 2 September 2009
"Shakespeare on Toast" is one of the very perfect books on Shakespeare I have ever read!

Crystal claims throughout the book that Shakespeare wrote for the actors and audience and expected his plays to be 'audited', not read - a perspective which Crystal makes very, very persuasive, and therein is REVOLUTIONARY.

Reading "Shakespeare on Toast" you suddenly realize you cannot be proud of having read all of Shakespeare's 39 plays and 6 poems - they need be heard, seen, audited, enjoyed on stage!!!

I particularly appreciate Crystal's frankness and open-mindedness, as he never claims every line of Shakespeare is sacred, but rather straightforwardly notes he was not enthusiastic about the Bard before, nor blindly accepts all the plays he wrote are equally brilliant.

The fact that Crystal himself radically changed his attitude to Shakespeare from hatred to conscious admiration gains him experience to be so considerate of his reader's presence. And very often, hardly has a question formed in your mind, he immediately points it out himself and gives a satisfactory answer.

The pages on iambic pentameter in a Macbeth scene are certainly one of the bestest interpretations of Shakespeare ever!

Crystal compares Shakespeare or Shakespearean notions to modern artists, works and films to be more clear and accurate in what he means to say. But I very much appreciate that he does not depict Shakespeare absolutely modern but always notes we should remember there are 400 years separating us from the Bard and he need be understood within his own 'native' framework of Elizabethan England. Often Crystal introduces First Folio excerpts and is persuasive that old spellings too can help to keep the balance between Shakespeare's relevance to us and his own world.

Crystal is a true pragmatist. There is not a line in the book which is a pure theoretical reflection. He calls for action, like Shakespeare. And like Shakespeare, despite the external 'easy' and relaxed reading of the book - you cannot fail but appreciate the enormous information gained by enormous research carried out by Ben Crystal.

I highly recommend "Shakespeare on Toast" which cannot but have a revolutionary and permanent influence on its readership.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 12 January 2009
Ben Crystal deserves an award for making the bard so accessible.

A conversation over dinner with mates in October about the relevance of Shakespeare in 2008 resulted in one of them buying me this book: "read it, Crystal's the Jamie Oliver of Shakespeare," said my friend. I grudgingly leafed through it only to become fixated with just how easy Crystal explains what is wrongly perceived as a difficult area. It was the stocking filler for all my friends.

I'm a convert and I hope to see more in the "Toast" series.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on 11 January 2009
It is amazing how things happen. I was in the car on my way to pick up my Granddaughter listening to the radio when I heard Ben Crystal being interviewed about a book called Shakespeare on Toast. I was intrigued by the title and Bens explanation about the key to understanding The Bard. Like many people I wished I could understand the plays but my only contact with his works had been at school in the 1960's. They were hard to understand when read by pupils who had no interest and seemed bored by the whole experience.

If only Shakespeare on Toast had been available then, it would have put the plays in context with the time they were written and explained something of the man and the times he lived and worked in. Shakespeare never intended his plays to be just read, but performed on stage. The book explains that if it had not been for two actors writing his plays down 20 years after his death his plays would have been lost forever.

The dreaded iambic pentameter is also explained in a simple and straight forward way. The way speeches should be spoken were included in the play by Shakespeare himself as an aid to the actors.

Ben Crystal hands you the key to understanding all this and more in this book. If you have a passing interest in the Bard but always thought he is elitist then, like me, I am sure you will enjoy this book as much as I did.
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62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on 20 December 2009
"This book is certainly not the only way into Shakespeare.
But it is quick, easy, straightforward, and good for you.
Just like beans on toast."

So now you know where the title came from. The author wrote this book for people who like the idea of Shakespeare but who don't like the idea of poetry, can't follow the language and fall asleep within thirty seconds of looking at a book of his plays. He sets out to take the reader through an introduction to Shakespeare step-by-step on the assumption that if he just explains the right way then you will see the light.
You might remember the comedy sketch programme The Fast Show on TV? One of the characters was a guy with a bobble hat who just walked as he talked to camera and said things like, "Books, what are they all about then? Brilliant! All them words and stuff, explaining things! And pictures too! Brilliant!" The experience of reading this book is a bit like that: blokey plain-speaking combined with 101% enthusiasm for the subject, and even an occasional "Brilliant" thrown in. He also uses personal experience, claiming that despite now having a degree in linguistics and being an actor he was Once Like You and Me, swamp-dwellers, until this or that helped him see the light.
When it works well the effect is impressive. The book builds up to his interpretation of a passage from Macbeth (where Lady Macbeth awaits her husband as he murders the king), where he points to the way the text is laid out on the page as an indication of how Shakespeare wanted the lines to be delivered and reflects on the differing emotions of the characters. This was very helpful, if a little long-winded, but actually left me wanting an interpretation of a different passage, possibly one that is a little more complicated.
The book finishes with a checklist of 5 questions to be thinking about when you read/watch a play. None of these are too threatening and could be helpful although how easy it is to think of all of them simultaneously is another thing. Practice makes perfect, I would imagine.
However, there are a few things about this book to be wary of:

The intention is not to frighten you off, but the tone then becomes a little self-conscious ("Take a deep breath and say it with me. Whisper it, `Iambic pentameter.'") and some would find it patronising at times. It can also overdo the enthusiasm: having acknowledged Shakespeare was just a human, it then seems he never wrote a dud line in his life. Crystal also assumes we can read Shakespeare's intentions about directing the play from the way the earliest versions of the play were set out on the page but earlier in the book he acknowledges the principle surviving manuscript was assembled several years after he died from notes kept by actors. And finally, the book takes too long to get going. In 250 pages Crystal could and should have got through more than 1 case study.

These are lesser issues, though. The barrier for most people is Shakespeare's language. Crystal repeats that only 5% of the words Shakespeare uses are not in common use today and that's not much is it? But this misses the point on two levels. First, 95% are familiar means 5% are not, which is in 1-in-20 but that's probably a word every two lines. So if a character has a speech which is 12 lines long that's going to be 6 words you didn't understand - at best, this is going to cloud the meaning. Second, it is not just the meaning of the words that `hides' the meaning but the complexity of the way sentences are assembled and interlinked. The answer here may be that you have to think and that thinking is hard work (!) but the book doesn't do enough to address this.

This is a helpful book that kept me reading to the end (which is becoming increasingly rare as I become more impatient wit mediocre authors and editing!) It uses a broad range of material, including Arnie's "Not to be" quote from `The Last Action Hero' and a speech from Wallace and Grommet to make his points in a memorable way. The book would have been more helpful if it had introduced the checklist earlier and applied it to case studies, and if it had helped tackle Shakespeare's language it would have truly been a breakthrough.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 September 2012
All too often people are put off reading Shakespeare for pleasure, because they think it is too difficult, too stuffy and too downright boring. What this book aims to do is demystify the bard by presenting snippets of Shakespearean anecdotes in easy to read chunks. From great actors, like Sir John Gielgud, who made Shakespearean interpretation all their own, to Shakespeare's introduction of over 1700 words into the English language, even to Elvis's Presley's use of Shakespeare in "Are you lonesome tonight?" - Shakespeare's literary contribution to the world as we know it today is boundless.

I really enjoyed this book, it contains answers to all those questions about Shakespeare you never knew you needed answers for, and presents the facts in a relaxed and easy to manage style. It even touches on the great debate as to whether Shakespeare actually wrote his own plays, or whether they were in fact written by someone else, I'll let you make your own mind up on that question.

Overall, this book is a delightfully informative look at the mystery that still surrounds the life of William Shakespeare, but the undoubted truth is that his literary legacy still lives on.

I only wish I'd had it to browse through when I was struggling to learn chunks of Richard III for my English A `Level.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 23 April 2012
I came across the title in a link with "Getting to know Shakespeare" and was intrigued by the title. It is written in a humorous style, and Ben Crystal (whose work "Shakespeare's Words" I own)has the knack of stirring up enthusiasm for Shakespeare. I thought I was quite well up on the Bard, but this book taught me a lot I didn't know. The Chapter on the First Folio is intriguing. I have recommended this book to friends.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 13 March 2009
A very good book - I am a Shakespeare lover so he was talking to the converted but the book works very well.
I love how he claims Shakespeare back from the Literary elite and places him firmly in his Elizabehan context.The football analogy is spot on!.
The only part that dragged for me was the end when the over analysis of one play Macbeth occured - that stopped me giving it 5 stars because that part didnt speak to me as vibrantly and powefully as the earlier parts.
Overall a great idea and very well presented - the overall premise is if you really want to apprecaite the great man go to a Theatre and not a class room - HEAR HEAR .
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2012
This book gets under the skin. I thought I was pretty much in with Mr Shakespeare but this small but persuasive book is what it says it is-a master class of 200 plus pages. As much as I like Bill Bryson, his book on Shakespeare did not do anything near Mr Crystal in unlocking some of the more gritty aspects of plays. Simple when it is explained that the plays were the writers code to the actors, need to be read with the rhythm they were written to deliver. The section on deconstructing iambic pentameter and other forms of metric torture were better then any daft English teacher down the years had ever gotten close enough to my cloth ears with. Astonishing! His logic in who wrote the plays and how the sonnets may have come about-the time of theatre closures, the playing with meter and form. Inspired. I was impressed and I thank the author for his wit, insight and at times ham acting in delivering up the bard on a plate.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2011
We were lucky enough to hear Ben Crystal speak about this book, and he was spellbinding. The book catches much of his engaging, refreshing views about Shakespeare and why he should be more accessible to everyone. His experiences in acting Shakespeare around the world inform a very different perspective on delivery, staging and the place of iambic pentameter. Particularly useful for those studying Shakespeare as part of the English Language syllabus: Crystal unravels the codes and clues in grammar and language which lead to a very different view of what Shakespeare intended. All written in an accessible, humorous style guaranteed to keep you reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The author set himself a tough assignment - keep this book light, breezy, and non-threatening enough for a YA or reluctant audience while still offering enough detail, analysis and insight to engage any reader familiar with Shakespeare's works. Mr. Crystal has succeeded admirably. The introductory chapters are a bit heavy on the disclaimers, warnings, and protests of no highbrow intent, and the book probably wouldn't have been so appealing if that tone had been maintained throughout. But, once the author hits his stride the disclaimers turn into something more like encouragement. There is sometimes a bit of a cheerleading tone, but there's nothing wrong with enthusiasm, especially if the content is there.

So, this isn't deep scholarship but it also isn't just empty calories. It is what the author promised - a solid, thoughtful enthusiast's introduction and guide to accessing and understanding Shakespeare's work. As such, it is well worth a close look.

(Please note that I received a free advance ecopy of this book in exchange for a candid review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.)
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