Shakespeare On Toast:
Getting A Taste For The Bard
By Ben Crystal
Published by Icon Books UK in 2009, elsewhere in 2012.
Ben Crystal is an accomplished actor and writer, and son of the acclaimed linguist, Professor David Crystal, with whom he has co-authored other books about Shakespeare, and this book is equally as riveting.
This is one of the comparatively rare books which overcomes the difficult "jump" between producing overly-simplified books for young people and producing excellent introductory books for adults with no prior knowledge of a specific topic.
Many people find the thought of Shakespeare off-putting and disheartening, particularly if they have had less than happy experiences studying the plays at school, and the very language and historical context of the plays can seem very alien indeed to the uninitiated. This is an ideal introduction to the Bard, amusingly and thoughtfully written in easily digestible chapters, or Acts.
Right at the start, we are introduced to Hamlet by way of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film "Last Action Hero" and the fact that Shakespeare invented the word assassination. The influence of the Bard throughout the English speaking world is assessed, and the uncertain reader reassured that 95% of the words Shakespeare uses are still in common usage to this day, which makes reading or watching the plays much less intimidating. I loved all the historical details about how much it cost to attend a play in Elizabethan times, and what the experience would have been like, as well as description of the controversies about the Bard's true identity.
Writing a manuscript, the difficulties of getting it approved by the authorities and then published, let alone finding a wealthy patron to help underwrite the costs of a troupe of players and provide a suitable venue for the productions to take place - these are all vividly described. Ben Crystal compares Elizabethan plays with modern popular culture such as TV soaps, emphasising the fact that the way Shakespeare is often taught and analysed minutely in modern times is the complete antithesis to the way Elizabethan audiences would have experienced the plays, a fact which is overlooked far too often. What authors may have lacked in scenery, sets and lavish props, they had to make up for in their drama, verse and stage directions. There is no substititute for seeing a live play in order to really "get" Shakespeare, and having read this book, the reader will be far less hesitant about taking the plunge and experiencing a play.
Thorough, witty and utterly absorbing, any Shakespeare fan would enjoy this book and it would be an ideal introduction for anyone standing hesitantly on the brink of the wonderful world of Shakespeare.