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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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