Category Archive: Reviews

    “Engaging” — Folger Magazine

    A new review just in, from the Spring edition of the esteemed Folger Magazine in Washington, USA (home to the Folger Institute and the biggest collection of First Folios!):

    Notions that Shakespeare is stuffy, elitist, or just plain boring are knocked soundly on their heads in this engaging look at Shakespeare’s plays, characters, and language.

    Click here to read more…

    Folger Magazine Review of Shakespeare on Toast

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    Folger Magazine – Spring 2009

    Actor Ben Crystal takes a lighthearted, personal look at why the bard is not only fun, but “good for you” in Shakespeare on Toast

    Notions that Shakespeare is stuffy, elitist, or just plain boring are knocked soundly on their heads in this engaging look at Shakespeare’s plays, characters, and language.

    Novices and longtime fans alike will delight in getting a taste of what Elizabethan theater-going was like, the nuances of poetry vs prose, and why putting witches on stage was such a bold, brilliant move.

    Amy Arden

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    The Sydney Morning Herald – Review of Shakespeare on Toast

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    The Sydney Morning Herald – February 7th, 2009 – Pick of the Week
    If you have a friend of member of your family who is about to study Shakespeare and they find the Elizabethan English and profound poetic utterances intimidating, then this book should be read before attempting the greatest intellectual journey that literature can offer.

    Alternatively, if you have read Shakespeare or seen a Shakespearean play and you have not been swept off your feet by the sheer power and beauty of the drama and the language, then you, too, should read this book.

    Shakespeare is not only the greatest playwright, he is so far ahead of other dramatists that they seem shuffling and stunted beside him. It is rare to find a book that takes his genius as its premise, refuses to become excessively intellectual about his work and encourages readers to enjoy the simple pleasure of great plays written superbly.

    This is the modest aim of actor and English language and linguistics graduate Ben Crystal and, in spite of the dubious title (subtitled Getting a Taste for the Bard) this is a book that argues pervasively the case for reading, seeing and enjoying Shakespeare.

    Crystal’s approach is simple: he teaches the reader how to understand the plays in the context of the sparse stages of the Elizabethan era and the original audience’s familiarity with the stories.
    He discusses in detail the rich subtlety of the language and points out that modern audiences should not be daunted because “of the 900,000-odd words in Shakespeare… only 5 per cent of them would give someone wandering around in the 21st century a hard time”.

    Most critically, he explains what iambic pentameter is, how it is used and what its vital function is in the plays.

    It has often been said that the greatest Shakespearean actors know how to read the poetry. Certainly, this remarkable book explains why the poetry is so important and so great.

    This is a remarkable primer for anyone who wants to understand the true genius of the greatest writer the world has ever known.

    — Bruce Elder

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    The Guardian – Review of Shakespeare on Toast

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    The Guardian – Jan 31st, 2009

    At first this seems insufferable: a matey attempt to make Shakespeare “relevant”, to rescue him from being considered as boring old “Literature with a capital L”, and to persuade the reader that Macbeth is really like Scarface, that iambic pentameter is like rap, and that – heaven help us – if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be writing for EastEnders. (He would of course be writing miniseries for HBO.)

    Yet along the way Crystal, who is also an actor, paints in a lot of useful context about Elizabethan playhouses, explains very well the business of textual comparison (lamenting the habits of conflation and punctuation-meddling of modern editors, with a particularly convincing example from Romeo and Juliet), illuminatingly tracks changes from “thou” to “you” and back again in a single scene; and conducts an excellent technical discussion of metre, which culminates in a genuinely thrilling dramatic exegesis of an extract from Macbeth itself.

    There are gems of close reading and theatrically focused attention throughout. It would be a shame if the style, which often reads as though desperate to hold the attention of a reluctant GCSE student, put off older readers (his habit of saying something “bakes” his “cake”, in particular, might not roast your chicken).

    Crystal ends up admirably succeeding in his ambition to provide a toolbox for getting to grips with Shakespeare’s plays.
    Steven Poole

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    In The News Reviews Shakespeare on Toast

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    In The News

    In a nutshell…

    Enjoyable, light-hearted, accessible guide to Shakespeare.

    What’s it all about?

    Shakespeare On Toast is a step-by-step manual to unlocking the ‘difficult bits’ of Shakespeare, and bringing his works to life. Covering everything from context to metre, Crystal blows the cobwebs from the Bard and reveals his plays for what they are: thrilling and uplifting drama.

    Who’s it by?

    Ben Crystal is an actor and writer who regularly gives talks and workshops on Shakespeare. He co-authored the acclaimed bestseller Shakespeare’s Words and The Shakespeare Miscellany with his father, David Crystal.

    As an example…

    “Too many people forget that at the end of the day, Shakespeare was just a man. He ate, he drank, he had sex, he laughed he p****d, he cried, he woke up hangover, he wrote, he ran out of ideas.”

    Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood Blockbuster

    Perhaps more a small-screen success than a box-office hit. There is definitely the potential here for an engaging, interesting mini-series about Shakespeare. Could Ben Crystal be the Simon Schama of literature?

    What the others say

    “A light-hearted look at Shakespeare which dispels the myths and makes him accessible to all. I love it!” – Dame Judi Dench

    “An ideal way to gain an understanding of why Shakespeare is so brilliant and so enjoyable.” – Sir Richard Eyre

    “Like going to the theatre with an intelligent friend.” – Independent

    So is it any good?

    The celebrity endorsements that adorn the front of this book make such astounding claims that one might well be dubious. However, Crystal more than lives up to the hype generated by these ‘luvvies’, and succeeds in providing a pacey, informative and accessible ‘manual’ to Shakespeare.

    Unlike many books that promise to ‘unlock’ Shakespeare, Crystal successfully avoids becoming too bogged down in literary technique or individual scenes, and rather gives readers an understanding of the basics. His superbly simple strategies (from historical background to just what iambic pentameter really is) are underscored with relevant and humorous analogies ranging from Mos Def’s rap lyrics to Miles Davis’ musical experimentation.

    It is this infectious enthusiasm for all things Shakespeare that ensures the book remains fast paced and good humoured, sweeping the reader along through strategies which even had this drama-phobic reader chanting scenes aloud.


    Ashley Cook

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    Times Educational Supplement Reviews Toast

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    The Times; Educational Supplement

    ‘Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare?’ asks the jacket cover of this little treasure rhetorically and concedes ‘just about everyone’. I remember Dame Helen Mirren claiming that “When you do Shakespeare they think you must be intelligent because they think you understand what you’re saying”, implying that even actors didn’t know what Shakespeare means half the time.

    So Ben Crystal, also an actor, sets himself quite a challenge to convince us that Shakespeare is neither elitist nor inaccessible. As I don’t need persuading, I read the book with my sixth formers in mind – many of whom, sad to say, don’t like reading anything, let alone Shakespeare, despite having chosen literature as a specialism.

    Shakespeare on Toast is set out like a 5-Act play, beginning with a prologue and ending with the ‘credits’ like ‘Supporting Artists’ and ‘Stage Management’. A nice little touch and one that ensures no chapter is too long, each ‘act’ being divided into ‘scenes’ like a Shakespeare play. Throughout, Crystal’s sense of humour pervades. Opening with the Lear line ‘Never, never, never, never, never’ [A3 Sc5 L306] he proceeds to tell us first what the book is not. Scene 1 made me think it might turn out to be a collection of amusing anecdotes as he tells the tale of Schwarzenegger playing Hamlet! Then Scene 2 reminded me that ‘Shakespeare invented the word assassination’, something I’ve read before, but my students probably haven’t. Likewise, the assertion that ‘if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be writing soaps’.

    But very soon I found myself engrossed and actually learning interesting things. More than that, I was beginning to envisage work-sheets, Power Points and role-play activities that could breathe life into the text for students based on what Crystal was sharing.

    His writing style is chatty and clear, easy enough for a bright year 8 or 9 to follow and any reasonably competent GCSE student with the desire should have no trouble. However, the book is one that both Literature and Drama students who are anything more than seat-warmers at AS and A-Level ought to read. It will certainly be on my students’ reading list and I’ve already recommended it to the librarian as well as our English Advisor.

    So, what is it that makes Shakespeare on toast worth paying for? It is packed with anecdotes, many of which bring at least a smile to the face, all of which are interesting. And there are those bits of fascinating trivia that students should be gathering from somewhere that sometimes prove to be just the nugget you need to add an engaging touch to work. It also has a scattering of apt quotes by writers, producers and actors that are useful and informative.

    Nonetheless, that’s what I expected. Act 2 is where the real action starts, with thorough, yet simple to follow explorations of contextual issues surrounding Shakespeare as performed: the stage, costumes, settings characters and language. In each case Crystal’s experience of the theatre and understanding of Shakespeare as a man working in theatre make sense of oddities that often alienate those who assume Shakespeare is too highbrow for them.

    As in a real play, act 4 is where the action really hots up. Crystal discusses rhythm. I knew iambic pentameter closely resembles English speech patterns and the ‘de-DUM’ of the iamb is also like our heart-beat. But how well Crystal explains it and then enthuses, ‘What’s even more exciting is that Shakespeare used this very human-sounding poetry to explore what it is to be human.’ Wow – that’s it in a nutshell, just what I’ve spent decades trying to open doors in student minds to!

    Act 5 brings it all together in a close analysis of a short section of Macbeth, where Crystal fully explains his theory that Shakespeare wrote his plays in such a way that the actors could quickly and easily work out how he wanted them to say the lines and where they needed to fill in with some acting. And consequently, if we read it correctly, we should be able to follow exactly what he meant, visualise and feel the emotions we’re meant to feel by not only making sense of the words but also using the rhythm.

    The structure of a poem is the ‘body language’ that should support the meaning of the content – or makes us doubt it! That’s something I’ve always tried to excite my students about in poetry lessons. Seeing the same thing holding true in the Bard’s plays shouldn’t have come as a revelation, but it’s the detail that Crystal brings to the analysis that gives the ‘AHA!’ moment its momentum.

    Even on toast the Bard is absolutely amazing and Ben Crystal is a ‘restaurateur’ par excellance for serving up a seemingly simple smack that actually has enough complexity to delight a gourmet.

    He leaves us with a tip worth framing: ‘No matter how complicated, no matter how ostensibly random, how annoying, boring or just plain bad a scene or a line seems to be, there is always a reason for it being there. You just have to find out what it is. And I promise: the search is always worth it.’

    Like Juliet I say, ‘Amen to that’
    Edna Hobbs

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    The Times – Review of Shakespeare on Toast

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    The Times – Sept 20th, 2008

    You gotta love a writer who opens his book with action hero lines and stage directions for Hamlet the Terminator (“shoots Polonius with an Uzi… lights his cigar, castle explodes”).

    You can dismiss it as dumbed-down Shakespeare if you like, but Crystal starts and ends his short book of basic Shakespeare with the rule of thumb that the Bard never writes anything without a reason.

    Neither does Crystal, whose lively, sometimes excitable, search for the reasons behind the words, lines, rhythms, allusions and stage directions adds up to a masterclass for modern beginners and old hands alike.

    Iain Finlayson

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    The Shakespeare Bookshop Reviews Shakespeare on Toast

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    The Shakespeare Bookshop

    Ben Crystal will be familiar to readers as one half of the father and son double-act that brought us the brilliant Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion and The Shakespeare Miscellany. In Shakespeare on Toast he trades reference for irreverence with a much more personal book, aimed at encouraging both students who are new to Shakespeare and older Bardophobes haunted by the unpalatable version of Shakespeare they were served up at school (this last group, endearingly, includes Crystal’s Gran). Presented in five acts, it tackles in turn the Shakespeare myth; Elizabethan theatre and the world of the play; Shakespeare’s language; blank verse and iambic pentameter; and practical approaches to the text, concluding with a close reading of Act 2 Scene 2 from Macbeth. Keen-eyed readers will notice that some of the spangly bits from the Glossary and the Miscellany – the section on the Elizabethan theatre, for example, and areas of linguistic discussion such as false friends and Shakespeare’s use of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘thou’ – have been recycled here but rightly so, as this is all useful stuff for the uninitiated.

    In a recent radio interview, Crystal was introduced as ‘the Jamie Oliver of Shakespeare’. The comparison goes beyond the culinary metaphor of the title in conveying something of Crystal’s missionary zeal, his boundless enthusiasm for his subject, and a colloquial style – cheeky and unpretentious – that speaks directly to the young generation. Similarly, popular cultural references abound in the book – Eastenders and Corrie, The OC, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, rather brilliantly, Wallace & Gromit all get a mention. It’s not one for the serious-minded academic, then, but Crystal manages to be populist without dumbing down. The book may open with Schwarzenegger’s skit on Hamlet in ‘Last Action Hero’, but from there a chain of thoughts takes us neatly to Shakespeare’s coinage of the word ‘assassination’, to Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605, to a note on Macbeth, probably written the following year.

    Indeed, for Crystal, the book is absolutely about not dumbing down, its aim rather to wean readers off the white bread sterility of ‘Shakespeare Made Easy’ for the real thing, Shakespeare wholemeal. His naked chef approach involves stripping away any academic pretensions or myths about Shakespeare’s life and getting back to the basics of blank verse;

    “the foundation of it all… is poetry. Understand how iambic pentameter works and you can talk to Shakespeare. I mean it. You can have a conversation with him.”

    Here, the author is indebted to Patrick Tucker ’s Secrets of Acting Shakespeare, which Crystal squarely acknowledges as unlocking Shakespeare for him. The idea that the First Folio – with its peculiar punctuation, half lines and capitalized words – is a Da Vinci Code of direction for the actor to decipher may be regarded with suspicion among academics (not least, Crystal wryly admits, ‘my Father the Linguist’) but Crystal the actor makes an exciting case for it in the practical masterclass that concludes the book.

    I was reminded too of Dominic Dromgoole’s Will & Me. Like Dromgoole, Crystal is an unashamed Shakespeare fanatic, whose infectious enthusiasm leaps off the page. In Shakespeare on Toast he has written an exhilarating and impassioned introduction to Shakespeare’s plays, for students mainly but grandmothers too.

    — Adam Sherratt

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    The School Librarian – Review of Shakespeare on Toast

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    The School Librarian

    Crystal, who is both an actor and the co-writer of several books about Shakespeare’s language with his famous father David Crystal, has billed his latest book as ‘an instruction manual of Shakespeare’.

    This fun and fascinating book reminded me in its style of a more sophisticated version of the ‘Horrible Histories’ in that it has the ability to both entertain and to inform in equal measure. One major advantage over the ‘Horrible Histories’ approach is that hits book has a very good index so it would be useful for the English teacher or student to dip into for help with particular areas.

    For example, I found the explanation of the Bard’s use poetic form particularly well written and easy fir the novice to understand. It might be too quirky for the traditionalist but for any student struggling to understand Shakespeare’s work as a poet and dramatist, this would be a very good ‘instruction manual’ indeed. Crystal states that he wants to ‘make Shakespeare’s works accessible without dumbing them down’ and this he does admirably.
    English staff would be delighted with Crystal’s practical suggestions to help the reader in deciphering and appreciating Shakespeare’s works as they stand rather than ‘in translation’. I would imagine that any reader using it to help with a specific concept would be hooked into reading it in its entirety… I certainly was!

    Highly recommended for the school library (and to pass on to the English Department).

    — Anne-Marie Tarter

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    The Independent – Shakespeare on Toast Review

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    The Independent – 26th Sept, 2008

    A tasty snack with genius.

    The front cover of Ben Crystal’s new book makes daring claims. A glowing recommendation from Dame Judi Dench calls it “brilliantly enjoyable”. The title is explained inside: “[This book] is quick, easy, straightforward, and good for you. Just like beans on toast.” It is a good job the book is so compelling, or the author would look like a blinking idiot. All that glisters is not gold.

    These last two expressions (Shakespeare’s, both) are among Crystal’s armoury in his valiant battle to demystify the Bard. He is a linguist and an actor, but most of all a fan. He is convincingly blown away by Shakespeare; he would just like everyone else to be, too.

    This educated enthusiasm is Crystal’s greatest strength as a writer. In his previous books Shakespeare’s Words and The Shakespeare Miscellany, written with his linguist father, David Crystal, he proved that he is more than capable of deconstructing a text. Here, he constructs an argument out of convincing statistics (95 per cent of of Shakespeare’s words are perfectly understandable to a modern audience), historical background (Elizabethan audiences would have heckled the players), modern parallels (including Miles Davis and hip hop artist Mos Def) and theatrical anecdote (iambic pentameter is designed for the size of an actor’s lungs and his ability to memorise a script).

    All of this is conveyed with a touching enthusiasm that borders on geekiness. And a thoughtful recap chapter on spondees and dactyls will thrill rusty English students. But who is likely to buy this book? Is Crystal preaching to the converted? Or at Bardophobes who are unlikely to pick it up? It would be a shame if they didn’t, because having Crystal as a companion through the stickier parts of Hamlet and Macbeth is like going to the theatre with an intelligent friend.

    Katy Guest

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