Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review : Bardisms, by Barry Edelstein

UPDATED September, 2010: Putting my money where my mouth is, I've released my own "more than just a book of Shakespeare quotes." Hear My Soul Speak is a hand-picked collection of over 100 quotations and sonnets specifically chosen for their usefulness in all parts of a wedding, from best man speeches to writing your own vows. Each is grouped according to who might use it (and when), and details about why you might want to use it (the how and the why) are included.

Anybody can write a book of Shakespeare quotes – just get a Complete Works and a highlighter marker and go to town.  It takes a real Shakespeare Geek like Barry Edelstein to produce Bardisms, a guide to not only *what* to quote, but *how* and *why* to quote it.
This is great stuff.  Quoting Shakespeare properly is about more than just searching for keywords, after all.  It’s not like Shakespeare mentioned the commute to work, or college graduation, or changing diapers, yet it’s not hard (with a little imagination) to find quotes relevant to each of those.
The author goes a bit “meta” ( is that only a computer geek expression? ) by organizing the book itself according to a Shakespeare quote – in this case, the ages of man.  Perhaps you need some quotes about the birth of a new baby, or a lullaby to sing to your own children (my own ears perk up at that one).  Or maybe a toast for a wedding?  A coworker’s retirement?  Edelstein has you covered.  And everything in between.
The bit that perhaps we Shakespeare geeks can appreciate the best, though, is that Edelstein doesn’t just offer quotes.  He doesn’t just explain when and why to quote it.  He actually gives lessons on *how*, from proper pronunciation to which words you might want to swap out to fit the occasion (boys for girls, and so on).  It is a workbook not just in spotting a good phrase, but being comfortable enough with it that you might really bust it out at that retirement party, and not just keep it stuffed in your pocket scribbled down on a cocktail napkin.
Respect the source material!  I love that there’s a section, right in the introduction, that covers the topic.  It’s not necessarily important that the context of the play fit the situation you need – after all you’re probably attending a graduation, not a coronation – but it is crucial that you understand the words coming out of your mouth.  I remember when I wanted to put that “I will swear I love thee infinitely” quote on my wife’s bracelet and it was very important to me to understand whether that was heartfelt or sarcastic.
Edelstein’s step #1 to properly quoting Shakespeare is “Know what you’re saying.”  Amen, brother.  He goes on include “stress the juxtaposition of opposites”, the swing between high poetry and simple prose, “heightening agents”, scansion and metre, and watching syllables.  Truthfully if somebody picks up this book because they’ve got a specific event and they need a specific quote, I don’t expect they’ll spend much time in this section (and honestly perhaps that person needs more of a generic reference book like I described in the first paragraph).  But for those of us who want to deeply appreciate the source material, those of us who understand that we’re quoting it in our daily lives because of the infinite depth of Shakespeare’s words, I think we’d love it.  Maybe you can memorize a couple dozen quotes on your own, and maybe with Edelstein’s tips you can double or triple that number.  More Shakespeare is a good thing.
There are times, I’ll admit, when Edelstein goes so far off the geeky scale he makes me want to turn in my own credentials.  I may enjoy singing Sonnet 18 to my kids at night, and I might drop the occasional “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” in answer to when am I going to cut the lawn, or a “When the wind in southerly Daddy knows a hawk from a handsaw” when the kids tell me I’m being silly.  But it never occurred to me that I might have a quote from Winter’s Tale (“You gods look down, And from your sacred vials pour your graces Upon my daughter’s head”) ready and rearing to go as the first words my children heard upon their birth.  When they’re crying I don’t whisper anything about coming to this great stage of fools.  Maybe one day I’ll turn into that level of Shakespeare geek, who knows.
But when he uses the line “She must have change, she must!” (Iago, Act 1 scene 3) on the occasion of diaper changing, and then goes on to suggest that “One of the ways Shakespeare manages to speak to all occasions is by virture of having survived long enough to address them” and “that speech’s applicability to the present circumstances is what truly counts,” then I think he might go off the deep end a little teeny bit.   I have to say, when I read that it brought to mind people who see Jesus in their morning toast.   I love Shakespeare, but just because he turned a phrase with the word “change” in it does not mean that he was offering up wisdom on diaper duty.  (I’m also reminded of the poster who came in looking for some Shakespeare to use as a command phrase for his dog, and everybody came up with “Cry Havoc!”  - but that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was making a statement on dog obedience, does it?)
Overall I have to say I’m loving this one, especially the easy organization into life events.  Need something for a wedding?  Got it covered – and not just Sonnet 116, thank you!  He also brings in some Tempest, Cymbeline, As You Like It and others.   Or maybe it’s not an occasion where you’ll get up to speak, maybe you’ll just write a little note to someone in need of comfort.  The section on grief and loss is particularly moving, given how much of Shakespeare’s best work was in tragedy.  I was curious if a certain passage would be in there, and it was – King John’s “grief fills up the room of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me…” speech.  I hope to never have occasion to use that one, either for myself or anyone I know.  But man is it powerful.
Summing up?  I want to find people to talk to and occasions to talk to them just so I can have an excuse to talk like this.  I want to be the kind of guy, like Edelstein, who can bust out the Shakespeare at the drop of a hat.  At any given time I can pull a couple out of thin air, but not nearly the level that could be possible with the help of a book like this.


Bill said...

"They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps." (LLL)

amusings_bnl said...

thanks for this review duane, i'm picking this one up.

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