I thought I knew what I was getting into with Shakespeare On Toast by Ben Crystal. The introductory chapters left me thinking that I’d like to hang out with Ben, he seems like my kind of guy. His book, he writes, was targeted at the audience between the “for dummies” crowd that loses the poetry, and the academic crowd that studies this stuff for a living. All, he adds, while trying to keep the level of appreciation and ownership of the text very high. Starting off with a comparison of Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Gielgud, he certainly captured my attention quickly.
He then goes on to mention Authorship, dismissing it in much the same way I do – let’s talk about the works, not the man. Though he did not miss the opportunity to make his feelings about the subject of Authorship known, such as the emphasized “some of the contenders were dead several years while Shakespeare was still writing!” he sneaks in, while saying he’s not going to talk about it. :)
But then he starts talking about soap operas (British ones, at that!) which lost me a bit. I appreciate the “Shakespeare got to get paid” analogy, but I don’t think I agree quite so strongly that what Shakespeare was doing 400 years ago was the equivalent of what soap opera writers do now, especially when one turns out 5 episodes a week and one turned out, what, 2 or 3 plays a year? It’s hard to compare.
There’s a lengthy discussion of the Globe itself, the audience, the costumes…even the lighting. It was here, near the beginning, that I began to understand Mr. Crystal as an actor. (I’ve always contended that my “hook” for being a Shakespeare geek is that I have no other claim to the work, not being an actor/director/writer). I find it hard to make this leap. People who have never acted Shakespeare will never understand what it means to act Shakespeare, anymore than people who don’t play jazz will know what it means to play jazz (the author makes the Shakespeare/Miles Davis connection frequently). We the audience are the ones that listen to the music, or see/hear the play. I prefer the focus on that. Tell me what the lighting means for me as audience, not you as actor.
Then it gets pretty deep, even for me. There’s a lesson in vocabulary, which is fine, explaining that Shakespeare didn’t really use *that* many words that are no longer used, it’s the ones that he used differently than we do that are the most confusing. But then we get a grammar lesson in when to use “thou” instead of “you”, and I’m flashing back to conjugating the verb “to be” in Latin (“eram eras erat, eramus eratis erant….”). The point? Once you realize that sometimes the address is casual and sometimes it is formal, you will spot when each is used, and you will better understand the context of the conversation. Makes sense. A little scary if you think about it – people are worried that they’re not going to understand all the words, and we’re splitting hairs about when to use thee versus thy?
And then we get to the point that I expect will perk up the ears of several regular readers (I’m looking at you, Carl). Half way through the book, Crystal brings up iambic pentameter. Not in a general “I have to tell you what this is” way like most introductory books do. In this book, iambic pentameter is everything. The rest of the book (we’re half way done at this point) is all about the details of the meter. We even dive right into “trochees” and other variations of the meter, and suddenly I feel like I’m having a conversation about the sonnets again. When did Shakespeare use true iambic pentameter, and when did he mix it up? More importantly, *why*?
But this book isn’t about the sonnets. They’re barely mentioned. Crystal is talking about the plays, and it’s his contention that right down to the syllable level, Shakespeare was providing detailed direction to his actors. If Macbeth delivers 10 syllables and then 6, what happens with the next 4? Does Lady Macbeth come in immediately, as if she’s interrupting him? Or is there a pause before she starts in again? What sort of beat did Macbeth end on, and what does that mean?
It’s in this discussion where the book clearly differentiates itself from any other “intro Shakespeare” I’ve ever seen. I can’t disagree with Crystal’s argument – you really can dig down into this level and consider every last syllable of what a character speaks as a form of insight into the character. I just think the audience for that level of understanding is very different from what I thought he was going for. This book isn’t a trip through the works, this book is the key to unlocking the works, and it’ll be up to you to take what you learn here and go reread your favorite work keeping all these new tricks in mind.
To that end, the book includes a lengthy discussion of a particular scene from Macbeth, broken out according to all the rules the author has laid out (including graphs depicting changing syllable counts!). Honestly at this point I think that Crystal gets so overexcited and caught up in this “unlocking the secrets” stuff that he sometimes trips over his own argument. For instance he lays out his example scene, and then says “I don’t like that layout, let’s change it….even though, I have to admit, that’s how the Folio laid it out.” Wait, what now? You’ve spend the whole book telling us that Shakespeare left us all the clues for exactly what he wanted, but you’re just going to go ahead and reformat the play the way you think it should be? Hmmm…
People speak of the bottomlessness of Shakespeare, or cracking it open to release the infinite energies, and books like Shakespeare On Toast serve to give you..well, a taste … of what we mean by that. Go see a show. Did you like it? How about that lead actor, what did you think of him? What was your favorite scene? How about the way he delivered that famous line? Did you particularly like the emotion he used to stress the third word? How about how he chose to emphasize the first syllable instead of the last?
There are some folks that will read that and say, “Umm…yeah, sounds real fun. You’re crazy.” And then there are those like we Shakespeare geeks who grok everything I just said, and crave more. I can’t say that this book will convert any Shakespeare haters – if anything it’ll probably confirm their fears. No, this is a book for Shakespeare geeks, and those who want to be Shakespeare geeks. I quite liked it – in fact, I finished it about two days into my vacation and didn’t think to bring another book :). I have complete faith that the next time I see Macbeth or Lear I will be looking for the little details that Crystal describes.