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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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