After reading “The Shakespeare Wars” by Ron Rosenbaum (review here), I sunk into a lethargic stupor. What can I read that will topple Rosenbaum’s book? I’d “Shakespeare on Toast” on my TBR Pile for a while. It went there just when it came out, but I thought it’d be something of a pastiche on Shakespeare's works, and I was not in the mood for that. What finally made the decision for me was my subconscious. I wanted something that could be used as a counterpoint to the Rosenbaum’s book. At least that was what I thought, but the book is nothing of the sort. It’s instead a nice complement to the Rosenbaum’s book. It didn’t exactly rock my socks off, ie, it didn’t revolutionize the way I see Shakespeare, but it gave me a fresh, zingy insight into his work.
Ben Crystal’s book tries to demystify Shakespeare by putting a new twist on the usual Shakespeare reference works. It attempts to explain the idiosyncrasies of Shakespeare’s language (the usual much vituperated iambic pentameter, which is the main stumbling block, where most people fall when dealing with Shakespeare), as well as giving us the context of the plays. In the Elizabethan and Jacobean days, Shakespeare's plays weren't viewed by the audience as something deep and meaningful that should be analyzed again and again ad nauseum. Instead, it would be something along the lines of a soap opera.
One of the reasons I love writing book critique is because it allows me the pleasure of close reading. Invariably this leads to question: “Why do you think the writer did that?” The ‘that’ could be a technique, a literary device, a plot point or some clever thing (like the iambic pentameter). Close reading is a wonderful technique to tell us how the writers use language for effect. It’s all about grabbing our attention. They just wrap it up in a nice little phrase that make us think before they answer the questions they always answer. “Shakespeare on Toast” also successfully attempts to answer this question in a roundabout way, ie, tackling the technical aspects that make Shakespeare unique. All by themselves, the several “chapters” dealing with the close reading of the iambic pentameter justify reading the book.
As a trivia snippet, this close reading apparently, when applied to Shakespeare, results in a documented and observed phenomena studied by a British scientist (Professor Philip Davis): “the extra work that the poetry and the unfamiliar words require makes a part of the temporal lobe of your brain known as the Sylvian Fissure light up like a Christmas tree.” (From scene 4). I must say that I’ve never felt a thing in my head (ie, the light bulbs) in all the years I’ve been reading Shakespeare…
Themes the book attempted to address:
Why are we talking about Shakespeare and not one of his contemporaries (eg, Christopher Marlowe)? I’ll give you a clue: it’s got to do with iambic pentameter…Mum’s the word.
This line from the Star Trek VI film pin-points the book’s spirit:
Klingon chancellor Gorkon: “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingonese.”
Klingon: “Tak Pah, Tak Beh…"
The Germans have Goethe, the Russians Dostoevsky, the Spanish Cervantes, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (and Camões). The English-speaking world has Shakespeare with a difference. Shakespeare “speaks” to us from a 400 year gap, while Goethe, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Pessoa are much closer to us. Their language is basically the language that we speak today. Not so with Shakespeare. Early Modern English is “another” language. This is what makes Shakespeare different, as well as the fact that we know next to nothing about him, which makes him harder to read and interpret.
To those who are in my age bracket, ie, long past childhood, foreign native English speakers on their Shakespearean quest, somewhat fazed, but still fascinated by the English language, I would simply give you one piece of advice: "Hang in there!" There are plenty of meticulously edited scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays. Take your pick and embark on your personal journey (see beneath my personal Shakespeare's bookshelf). Yes, it's very difficult. I'm quite aware of that. But it might just be worth it. There is no easy way to start reading Shakespeare, no easy paved path to understand and appreciate his writing. It requires lots of hard work.
Whether it's worth it or not, that's up to you. Keep in mind that if you don’t get Shakespeare, don’t trouble yourself. Shakespeare is like that.
Rosenbaum's book is one of those that should be in every personal Shakespeare's bookshelf, along with a few others:
(NB: No Harold Bloom reference work…)
For the plays I want re-read, I also (re)-read the relevant sections in these reference books. When I pick up the next play in my Shakespeare reading list, I start by reading the relevant section in the reference books, and also to refer back when necessary to get the background, history of performance and the critiques.
I’ve always pondered whether I should tackle this book. And “tackle” is the right word here. When the book came out in 2006, the controversy surrounding Bloom’s book “Shakespeare: The Invention of Human” was rampant, and I was not interested in reading something along the same lines. Big mistake. What Ron Rosenbaum does with his book “The Shakespeare Wars” is quite a feast, and it should be read by all, Shakespeare aficionados or not. It’s refreshing to read something about Shakespeare that invites thought.
If one wants to understand what reading Shakespeare is all about, what language should be, “The Shakespeare Wars” is the answer.
Nevertheless Shakespeare critique may seem an odd theme for a pleasure book but between deep love for this subject and breezy, journalistic prose, Rosenbaum pulls it off rather nicely. This book’s close reading approach to Shakespeare is what allows the book to make its mark. While reading it I was invaded by a sense of transcendence, bedazzlement and wonder. Even the most acerbic chapters are oddly charming (eg, the chapter on whether “The Funeral Elegy” was in fact written by Shakespeare). In my mind it accomplishes something marvelous: it proves that centuries-old language can produce evident fulfillment.
This book mimics almost in full my thoughts on Shakespeare: Going on incessant cycles of re-reading the plays, watching them played (Kenneth Branagh comes to mind). With each new reading iteration I find, time after time, a quantum leap to a new level or new depth of understanding. Each new iteration resulted in further wonderful glimpses of ultimate enigmas represented by Shakespeare’s writing. Only Shakespeare doesn’t bring forth diminishing returns with each re-reading. Rosenbaum is able quite aptly to show us why with each re-reading we get increasing returns.
“What’s all the fuss about [Shakespeare]?” as Rosenbaum asks? We feel that there is something in his writing beyond what we find in other authors, namely Shakespeare’s polysemy, ie, the capacity of Shakespearean language to generate an unbounded supply of meaning in the readers. As Rosenbaum states in his “exceptionalist question”, ie, “is Shakespeare on the same continuum of other great writers, perhaps the greatest, but still understandable in the same terms as other great writers, or does he occupy – has he created – some realm of his own, beyond others?” (To see Rosenbaum’s take on this you’ve got to read the book lol).
His chapter on Shakespeare on film and stage is almost the price of the book alone. Very useful insights on Stoppard (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”), Olivier (“Richard III”), Gielgud, Garrick, Brook (“King Lear”), Burton (“Hamlet”), Welles (“Henry IV”), Branagh (“Hamlet”, eg, this little snippet, which came as surprise when I saw the movie for the first time: “consider Kenneth Branagh’s decision in his often admirable full-length four-hour Hamlet to give us a flashback scene of Hamlet and Ophelia rolling around naked in bed making love.[…]. Setting aside Branagh’s understandable decision to err on the side of rolling around naked with Kate Winslet, who plays Ophelia, it’s not exactly an Originalist device.[…] But I was grateful that he did it and in doing so gave us John Gielgud’s last Shakespearean moment. […]. A sad, beautiful, silent farewell for Gielgud.”
This book was such a Shakespearean source for me that I found myself underlining so much of it that underlining lost the point of underlining…
Sometimes along comes a book where the collision between reader and text takes place at a perfect time. This is one of those books and I’m one of those readers. I’m glad I didn’t read it in 2006. I wouldn’t have appreciated it properly. If you are into Shakespeare in a big way, do yourself a favour, and get this book. You won’t regret it.
NB: His assertion that “Germany is Hamlet” came as a surprise. I’d never thought about it in those terms (when discussing Germany’s romanticism, and feverish intellectualism).
People often ask me, "Why do you keep reading Shakespeare (in English)?" Well, I'm not really sure. That's why I never know what answer to give. Mainly because it's meaningful to me, which invariably raises the question, "Why is it meaningful to you?", and on and on.
First of all I find Shakespeare a tremendous source of inspiration, because there's no situation that I've come up against that somehow hasn't been described in those plays.
When I read him over and over again, it's like going back to some great piece of music. It’s dramatic poetry/prose, so each time you hear/read it, it reacts on you in a different, usually a richer, way. Why in English? Because Shakespeare in translation is a different beast altogether. Not better or worst. Just altogether different.
Why this book in particular at this junction in time? I've always been interested on the link between Shakespeare seen from the medieval and Renaissance lens. As this book confirms, Shakespeare is both a Renaissance and Medieval man. Much of what made him unique, in fact, was that he synthesizes both those traditions in his dramas.
This volume uses as premise that the 'medieval' can be identified not only in specific works Shakespeare read, which were the foundation for his works (eg, Chaucer's Troilus, which supplied the entire love half of Trolius and Cressida), but also in his conception of language, theatre and culture.
Shakespeare's medieval elements have a tendency to show up as no more than mere cyphers in his work rather than as the foundation for his works that this volume rectifies.
This book comprises 12 papers, all of them, from Shakespearean luminaries (they're both versed in Medieval as well as in Early Modern English/Literature):
1 - "Shakespeare's Middle Ages" by Bruce R. Smith
Synopsis: Shakespeare's interest in 'middles', and the valency they carry in terms of time and space as well as history, in theatrical and medical, as well as in conceptual senses.
2 - "Late Shakespeare and the Middle Ages" by Bart van Es
Synopsis: Looks to the early 17th century as the fulcrum in the understanding of the medieval, the tipping-point between the inherited medieval and a conscious medievalism, with Pericles as the text that makes the distinction most apparent.
3 - "The mediated 'medieval' and Shakespeare" by A.E.B. Coldiron
Synopsis: Gives an overview of the range of texts and habits of mind entering England from continental Europe.
4 - "Not my voice?: Shakespeare corrected; English perfected - theories of language from the Middle Ages to modernity" by Jonathan Hope
Synopsis: Duality between spoken vs written Shakespeare. One of the most interesting papers. It explores the Shakespeare’s contribution to the English Language. Shakespeare’s works were built on the accumulating absorption into English of French, Latin and words of different etymologies. This imparted to English a subtlety of register unique in Europe that he was able to exploit to the full. Even the speech of the common folk is marked by its heavy reliance on Old-English-derived words. The juxtaposition of text derived from German monosyllables and text created based on Latinate terms is one of the traits that makes Shakespeare unique. What makes Shakespeare one of a kind is not only his ability to create outstanding texts, but also how he used the lexical resources of the whole language he inherited.
5 - "The afterlife of personification" by Helen Cooper
Synopsis: Concerned with the practice, developed with a high degree of sophistication in the Middle Ages, of treating abstract nouns as agents.
6 - "Shakespeare and the remains of Britain" by Ruth Morse
Synopsis: Shakespeare's incursions into the legendary prehistory of the island conquered and populated by the Trojan refugee, Brut, contributed to prolonging the influence of rhetorical historiography as as attitude towards possible pasts.
7 - "King Lear in BC Albion" by Margreta de Grazia
Synopsis: Tackles what is perhaps the most divisive critical issue in Shakespeare's most comprehensive tragedy: whether it offers a Christian message beneath a historically necessary veneer of paganism, or whether it takes its paganism seriously to present a God-forsaken world without any providential control.
8 - "The art of playing" by Tom Bishop
Synopsis: Overview of the question of the role of Play in Shakespeare, and the inheritance of certain ideas of play as the foundation for theatrical activity in his drama.
9 - "Blood begetting blood: Shakespeare and the mysteries" by Michael O' Connell
Synopsis: Focuses closely on the practices of such 'play', in its remainder of how extensively medieval religious drama was still being acted in the early decades of Elizabeth's reign.
10 - "From scaffold to discovery-space: change and continuity" by Janette Dillon
Synopsis: Overview of the Early Modern understanding of stage space in terms of place-and-scaffold staging (medieval practice of dividing the performance space into the place or platea as the main staging area, and the one or more platforms or booths around or behind it that served to define the particularities of place or to move the action to a different plane).
11 - "Performing the Middle Ages" by Peter Holland
Synopsis: Studies the varying ways in which successive directorial practices, from Macklin and Garrick to Branagh and Al Pacino, have tried to resolve the choices between representing a fake-authentic medieval, and modern methods of supplying a visual equivalent to all the many meanings the plays can reveal.
12 - "Conclusion: the evil of Medieval" by David Bevington
Synopsis: Shakespeare and the Middle Ages are not just two contiguous categories that can be linked; nor is it enough to speak of Shakespeare's Medievalism, as a position he consciously or unconsciously adopts towards a 'medieval' already appearing anachronistically in his own lifetime.
Despite the fact that concepts such as “The Middle Ages” (from the birth of Bede c 673 to the establishment of Caxton’s printing press in 1476) or “The Renaissance” (from 1476 to the Restoration in 1660) must be somewhat arbitrary, this collection of papers makes a clear and convincing case for the interpretation for Shakespeare as both a Medieval and Renaissance Man.
As this book also confirms, Medieval Shakespeare is anything but simple. Nevertheless it’s still a fascinating subject.
“If we can’t all be Shakespeares, it doesn’t make us less in the world; the understanding makes us more.”
“I want your children to be inspired by Shakespeare for the many years to come when they believe that they can do anything as long as they work hard enough at it”.
The above quotes are both from the epilogue, and they both fitting conclusions to an extraordinary book. Ludwig’s love of Shakespeare is evident and he makes us want to learn more and to develop a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s works. I feel myself more knowledgeable in terms of Shakespeareana after having read it.
Personally, I adore Shakespeare.
Thanks to my British Council's teachers for forcing it upon me, but in a way that made it relevant and meaningful to my teen life. I had a passionate teacher, Vicky Hartnack (vide her paper “Hamlet, Wounded Knee, The Atomic Bomb and the Future English Teacher”), that brought out the essence of Shakespeare's plays, the themes, the emotions and things that I could connect to, with less emphasis on the English text itself, but rather the meaning. I still fondly remember my "first contact" with Shakespeare. It comprised a multitude of woes of love, hate, despair, jealousy, greed, and so on.
I've always compared Shakespeare to foreign language learning (which I can relate to, because I always aspired to be quadrilingual in English, German, my native tongue, and Shakespeare...).
When I was at the British Council I thought Shakespeare used many words that were really hard to understand. It was really complicated for those of us that didn't have strong English skills. I remember a friend that used to complain that Shakespeare used Old English...! (Gasp) Not so. Shakespeare used Early Modern English to write his plays. Middle (old) English was essentially gone by 1485. Old English is more German than English, and I wouldn't be able to understand it without taking a foreign language class (which I did).
For me, the beauty of Shakespeare was not so much the content in the British Council curriculum, but rather, how it was delivered (I once had a teacher that made me fall in love with Physics...). When the passion is there, even the most antiquated, disliked and old fashioned subject can be brought to life and spark an interest in us.
In this book, Ken Ludwig’s assertion for learning Shakespeare is that he is "The bedrock of Western Civilization in English.” By exposing our children to Shakespeare, Ludwig asserts that we're providing them with a head start in life. I couldn't agree more. Too bad I didn't find this book when my children were born, but it's never too late to start...I quite understand Ludwig’s purpose for exposing our own children to Shakespeare. It's to give them the tools to comprehend Shakespeare's works for the rest of their lives, to appreciate literature and the arts.
Parents are given quotations pages (also available online), which have the text divided up into small chunks, making it more accessible to children and parents.
I've just downloaded all the passages for future reference.
Another added bonus emanating from the book were Ludwig’s paraphrases of some of Shakespeare’s most difficult snippets:
To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.
To live or not to live.
Is it more honorable to live or to end one’s life? Is it nobler to suffer by living through all of the slings and arrows that life shoots at you, or is it better to fight against that sea of troubles by ending your life?
The real magic of Shakespeare is his insight into human nature, and that much can learned by each generation that studies him. I know I did learn a lot.
My last Shakespeare binge undertaken in concentrated form filled a summer. It's about time I embark again on a Shakespeare binge by re-reading (and watching) my favourite plays: Hamlet (Branagh), Macbeth (Branagh), Twelfth Night, and Henry V (Branagh).
NB: Just a personal note on one of Hamlet’s most known aphorisms: "To thine own self be true"- NOT! (Polonius said it, but it was heavily laden with irony. I always thought Polonius was a self-serving prick…)