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I was at Borders (Wheelock Place) recently and I was blissfully browsing when I came across a delightful book, “Shakespeare On Toast – Getting A Taste For The Bard” written by Ben Crystal. The size of the book, the paper stock and texture, and the irreverent cover design somehow reminded me of Stephen Fry’s book, “The Ode Less Travelled”, which had the noble intention of making poetry more accessible (such a short description doesn’t really do the book justice! I’ll try to review the book one day soon). “Shakespeare On Toast has a similar purpose, that of making the study of Shakespeare’s works more accessible and appealing to audiences who might otherwise be intimidated by the Literary God-like status of the bard. After 3 days of perusing its pages while walking out of school to the bus-stop and while traveling on the MRT, I think the book has certainly fulfilled its objectives.

Author Ben Crystal is an actor and writer, and it says on the inside of the book jacket that he has co-written other books on Shakespeare (namely “Shakespeare’s Words” and The Shakespeare Miscellany”) with David Crystal. I’m guessing this is the same David Crystal who wrote “Rediscover Grammar” which I think was required reading for a grammar module in NUS. David Crystal has a very informal style of writing that aims to put readers at ease, and it seems Ben Crystal has that same gift (are they related?). Forget scholarly dissertations or technical analysis – the author makes his point in clear, concise English, with a generous helping of pop-culture references too.

The book is separated into Acts and Scenes like a typical Shakespearean play. Each act or scene deals with different aspects of approaching a Shakespearean play, such as understanding the context of the plays and Elizabethan society, or appreciating Shakespeare’s mastery of the language and why so much would be lost if the plays were to be abridged or translated. He does however take pains to convince the reader that Shakespeare can be enjoyed in a variety of settings and mediums. He mentions a “Brazilian production of Romeo and Juliet that made me sob, a Slovakian production of The Merry Wives of Windsor that had me rolling in the aisles, and a Japanese Pericles that was one of the most heartbreaking pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen…”.

The author’s own experience as an actor lends an authenticity to his voice, as he calls for us to appreciate the plays as they were meant to be viewed – in front of an audience, and certainly not through heavily annotated textbooks.

I found Act 1 Scene 6 where he discusses why students find it hard to appreciate or relate to Shakespeare’s plays very useful, and I now realize I may have to approach teaching Shakespeare differently to maximise the students’ appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the plays. Students may come to his plays with many preconceived ideas about Shakespeare, and this can be a barrier to enjoying or understanding the plays. One approach that may work, especially with 15-16 year olds, is to break down the plays to their simplest denominators first – a tale of greed, and jealousy, passionate love, betrayal, the fall of a great man …. and then work our way up. Although the lines are couched in elaborate poetry, it is the ideas which will resonate with the students first, because these are universal ideas. Crystal quotes Orson Welles: Shakespeare speaks to everyone. It is these fundamental ideas which make us able to relate to his plays, even though they were written for audiences 400 years ago. The last thing we should do I guess is to scare students by diving into the deep end immediately, floundering in the currents of Iambic Pentameter and soliloquies.

I found the same bit of advice in an old book the Literature Mentor Teacher in my school lent me, “Teaching Shakespeare” by Veronica O’Brien. She suggested starting students off on more accessible plays like Merchant Of Venice or Julius Caesar. I’m actually thinking of doing that next year for my next batch of Secondary 3s who have never encountered Shakespeare before, since the play we’re studying for the ‘O’ Levels examination is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which may not be the best choice for an introduction to Shakespeare. The main issue though is time, and whether we can afford to ‘deviate’. Obvisouly, we couldn’t devote a whole term to another play as it would really set us back in terms of lesson hours. On the other hand, it may prove to be a worthwhile investment. Anybody out there have any thoughts on this?

Oops, guess I kind of digressed there…back to “Shakespeare On Toast”! It’s a great book, light reading, “finishable” in a day or two, and (I know this is shallow) it just looks nice and cheery with its cover design. The size of the book makes it ideal for reading on the go. Ben Crystal has made it easier for readers new to Shakespeare to approach his plays, and he has also given possibly jaded Shakespeare teachers and students a light and breezy refresher course.


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