Most helpful critical review
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.