Perhaps you are past your college years but still like to learn, and would prefer a book to tote around rather than sitting in front of your computer for a “MOOC” (massive open online course). Maybe your kids are studying Shakespeare in school and you want to participate. Or maybe you just love Shakespeare, as I do. For any of these reasons, this book has a lot to recommend it.
The book is short but still includes summaries of all the key plays and sonnets. The authors also provide a lot of background historical information (for example, a guide to the family trees in the history plays, or how illegitimacy and insanity were viewed in Elizabethan times). Some of the most famous speeches are reproduced in the book (although in truth, there are so many, they had to be selective), as well as lists of some words and phrases that Shakespeare introduced to the English language.
There are nice “bonus” compilations within as well, such as descriptions of some of Shakepeare’s best minor characters and most dastardly villains, and a list of some of his best insults. (He coined so many: there are a number of websites that highlight them for you, such as this one, where you can find “Thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch!” from Henry IV Part 1. Sounds like the perfect way to express road rage!)
Occasionally, the authors include side-by-side modern translations of famous speeches, but there probably could be more. (You can find a larger selection on a website called “No Fear Shakespeare,” here.)
[And about those websites – yes, there are a gazillion of them relating to Shakespeare, and they are very fun. But this book manages to include much of the same information all in one place.]
There is an annotated list of great Shakespearean actors, and it would have been nice as well to have a list of best Shakespeare “retellings” – especially those in movie form – (e.g., “Scotland, PA,” or “Forbidden Planet”) and take-offs (such as “The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet,” or “The Third Witch,” although the authors do reference Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead”). Some of the modern movies could provide a good way to generate interest in Shakespeare among younger people. “10 Things I Hate About You,” the popular movie with Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger, may induce delighted viewers to read Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Similarly, when newcomers to Shakespeare discover that “West Side Story” is a recapitulation of Romeo and Juliet, might that not spark their interest to see how they differ? (The answer is: not all that much! Compare, for example, the song “Tonight” from the movie to passages like Act III, Scenes 1 and 2 in Romeo and Juliet. The rival gangs (Capulets and Montagues on the one hand, Sharks and Jets on the other) are getting ready for a showdown with each other when it gets dark. Meanwhile, Juliet, like Maria, bemoans the endless day, and can’t wait for night to come when she can see Romeo. Shakespeare’s words are beautiful, but Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics do a pretty good job in expressing the same sentiments.)
Many people have no idea how many books, movies, plays, operas and television plots come directly from Shakespeare, and it would have been useful, in my opinion, to point that out. Shakespeare is far from “irrelevant” to today’s world!
But just as there are many different schools of interpretation of Shakespeare (the authors provide a list explaining eleven of them), it’s clear there is no guaranteed way to please everyone. This book, which tries to provide a soupçon of much of Shakespeare’s work, makes a great start.
At the end of the book, there is a compendium of quotes arranged by subject matter, and a fun quiz to test your Shakespeare knowledge.
Published in the U.S. by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015