August 14, 2012

Review: Shakespeare on Toast

Title and author: Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal
Publisher: Icon Books
Pages: 263
Release Date: September 11, 2012
ISBN:  9781848310544
Source: NetGalley

Summary (from Goodreads):

Who's afraid of William Shakespeare? Just about everyone. He wrote too much and what he did write is inaccessible and elitist. Right? Wrong. "Shakespeare on Toast" knocks the stuffing from the staid old myth of Shakespeare, revealing the man and his plays for what they really are: modern, thrilling and uplifting drama. Actor and author Ben Crystal brings the bright words and colourful characters of the world's greatest hack writer brilliantly to life, handing over the key to Shakespeare's plays, unlocking the so-called difficult bits and, astonishingly, finding Shakespeare's own voice amid the poetry.

Told in five fascinating Acts, "Shakespeare on Toast" sweeps the cobwebs from the Bard - from his language, his life, his time - revealing both the man and his work to be relevant, accessible and full of beans. This is a book for everyone, whether you're reading Shakespeare for the first time, occasionally find him troublesome, think you know him backwards, or have never set foot near one of his plays but have always wanted to ...It's quick, easy and good for you. Just like beans on toast.

My Thoughts:

Ben Crystal attempts the “impossible”: to make readers feel relaxed, calm, and comfortable with The Bard. If the title does not relax you and lure you into reading it with a cup of coffee, then Crystal’s writing style surely will.

The author has a relaxed style that is inviting to even the most hesitant reader. After all, we’ve all read books on and/or about Willy Shakes, right? Well, this is not a typical biography. Actually, it’s no biography at all. It is a well-executed piece of literature that covers all facets of Elizabethan England as well as James I.

The layout of the book mirrors that of a Shakespearean play, Acts I to V. He brings readers into the world of Shakespeare with a light-hearted, realistic approach to Shakespeare’s life and work. The historical context in which he places readers helps create a world that is accessible instead of one that is ancient and far past. This is not about Shakespeare, or Queen Elizabeth I, or King James I – this is about how life and culture merge and how Shakespeare created a theater experience through his writing.

There are biographical elements, ones that I found interesting and plan to share with my students. These biographical snapshots are necessary for context of the information, not just there to say, “Hey, look at me and what I know about Shakespeare!” and I appreciate that.

With interesting tidbits such as an American Civil War soldier finding himself so wrapped into the world of one of Shakespeare’s plays that he found it necessary to act himself, Crystal makes Shakespeare’s writing accessible to even the most novice reader.

But what I loved most about the book as a whole is how approachable the material truly is. The author teaches readers how to relish the words of Shakespeare, and through providing a meter lesson with Hamlet and Macbeth, he helps teachers like myself to take his strategy and apply it within my own classroom. I even found myself counting meter with him as he explains Shakespeare’s genius in not only using exact meter but also in breaking it, begging the audience to pay attention to the character/plot at that particular moment, asking themselves why, and opening a discussion about meaning.

And while this is not a teacher’s guide to Shakespeare, Crystal made me feel so comfortable with the book that I found myself nodding along, counting along, cheering and laughing as he delved into the writing of Shakespeare. I teach Hamlet, and I plan to take his meter lesson and using it in my own classroom, which is a sneaky way to teach students how to measure meter without realizing they are truly “learning.”

I recommend this book to everyone – teachers and anyone who has felt he/she did not understand Shakespeare.

And a final plug for why you should read this book: "A brilliantly enjoyable, light-hearted look at Shakespeare which dispels the myths and makes him accessible to all. I love it!” – Judi Dench

Judi Dench has spoken. If it's good enough for Judi, a Shakespearean actress of awesomeness, it's good enough for you too!

For more, visit Shakespeare On Toast online

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