Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review: Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast
by Ben Crystal
Published: 2008
Publisher: Totem Books
Available: Amazon


Who's afraid of William Shakespeare? Just about everyone. He wrote too much and what he did write is inaccessible and elitist. Right? Wrong. "Shakespeare on Toast" knocks the stuffing from the staid old myth of Shakespeare, revealing the man and his plays for what they really are: modern, thrilling and uplifting drama. Actor and author Ben Crystal brings the bright words and colourful characters of the world's greatest hack writer brilliantly to life, handing over the key to Shakespeare's plays, unlocking the so-called difficult bits and, astonishingly, finding Shakespeare's own voice amid the poetry.Told in five fascinating Acts, "Shakespeare on Toast" sweeps the cobwebs from the Bard - from his language, his life, his time - revealing both the man and his work to be relevant, accessible and full of beans. This is a book for everyone, whether you're reading Shakespeare for the first time, occasionally find him troublesome, think you know him backwards, or have never set foot near one of his plays but have always wanted to ...It's quick, easy and good for you. Just like beans on toast.

When I was in junior high I took a Shakespeare class from my favorite teacher ever. Mr. Stefan was not only a teacher, he was also an actor in the local theater production that year of Fiddler on the Roof. Why am I writing about him in my review? Well, Crystal points out something that I had never considered about Shakespeare, and it's something that I think Mr. Stefan would have 100% agreed with - Shakespeare is meant to be heard and seen, not read. The experience of being in a Shakespearean theater such as The Globe, seeing the actors use minimal props, and understanding the subtle references in the slight changing of word usage from thou to you or in moving from prose to verse, can never be fully appreciated by simply silently reading one of Shakespeare's plays.

Mr. Stefan's Shakespeare class was not about reading Shakespeare (which we didn't even do!). It was about watching his plays being performed on the screen - whether big budget or film student versions, and most importantly learning about his life and times. Crystal's idea is that Shakespeare shouldn't be read like a novel, or even a modern play, simply because what Shakespeare needed to accomplish in his writing was more in direction to the actors on how to perform than to a reader on how to enjoy. Maybe that's why whenever I read Shakespeare I can't help but read it aloud, and yes, I do use a cheesy accent that I'm sure would horrify my Welsh and British relatives.

I had never considered how important all of these pieces were until I started reading Shakespeare on Toast. Crystal manages to point out how easy Shakespeare is to understand when you put him in context. Knowing who he was writing for, how his work was being presented, and most importantly the cultural influences he was under, makes certain things much easier to relate to. I have to admit there were certain things I had never even thought of, such as Shakespeare's use of the iambic pentameter, yet when it was explained in the book, I quickly found myself testing it out on random selections of Shakespeare.

Now that I've finished Shakespeare on Toast, I am feeling an overwhelming urge to read, ad watch, some Shakespeare. My husband on the other hand is rolling his eyes at my continued efforts to make him discuss The Bard :)

Shakespeare on Toast is a great book for anyone struggling with understanding works by Shakespeare, or just a general obsession with him!

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