Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
Ben Crystal
England
2016 edition

If the number of copies available in the state of Ohio is anything to go by, Shakespeare on Toast isn’t an overwhelmingly popular title. My local library didn’t have a copy, but fortunately—back in January when everything was still open—it was easily requestable from outside the system, as it has turned out to be one of the most valuable Shakespeare resources I’ve yet come across. Indeed, I’m tempted to say, “the only Shakespeare aid you’ll ever need!” although that might be overstating the case a bit. (After all, you’ll probably still need at the very least a dictionary.) But it does prove a very helpful resource, all shared in a light breezy style.

Crystal’s enthusiasm for his topic shines through the entire book, from his introduction of Shakespeare’s times in Act 1 to the more technical dissection of Shakespeare’s language and style in Acts 4 and 5. His excitement is such that at times while I read, I felt an impulse to read the complete works, immediately.  (Other obligations have prevented this, however.) He is not interested in who Shakespeare was (the authorship question is glanced over; Crystal considers it unimportant) but what he achieved. We are first given context for the times: what was Elizabethan theatre like? The staging, the costumes, the audience? Then the continued and universal relevance of the plays is touched on, before Crystal takes us into the heart of the matter, starting with the characters:

Many people hold that the main reason why Shakespeare has become so universally thought of as just plain brilliant is because of the characters he wrote. It wouldn’t be my first reason (which we’re coming to), but without doubt, he had a way of creating memorable and pretty fantastic characters that make most other writers’ creations seem amateur. (62)

Shakespeare’s characters are doubtless memorable. It is the reason I’ve seen previously for why Shakespeare was so great. It’s not a bad reason, but Crystal sees even more, and in laying out his explanation of Shakespeare’s genius, I feel like for the first time, I’ve finally been given a reason to understand why, of all the playwrights that have ever lived, it is Shakespeare that we continue to hold in high esteem.

There’s a growing number of people who feel that you can get rid of the Olde language, make it all fresh and modern, and it’ll stay the same.
It won’t, of course. Part of the problem with Shakespeare’s plays, as we saw earlier, is that the stories aren’t original. Nor are they flawless. Translate, update, adapt Shakespeare’s writing, and all you’re really left with is the story. Take the poetry away, and you very quickly realise you’re pulling at a piece of string that will make everything unravel. (79-80)

Starting with Act 3, Crystal lays out his argument that it is Shakespeare’s language that makes him truly great. At the same time, he shows us how to approach Shakespeare – not merely by reading the words on the page, but by understanding how Shakespeare used his dialogue to direct the actors and the settings, to convey meaning not merely through word choice and meter but through how he chose to disrupt the patterns.

This is the key to Shakespeare. Not in understanding Shakespeare – I hope I’ve made it clear that you can understand and enjoy Shakespeare without learning these literary terms and conceits – but in owning Shakespeare. Because what he did with this very popular style of poetry, this type of metre, was revolutionary.
He turned it on its head, made it do things that other writers didn’t, twisted it and played with it and broke every single one of the rules I’ve just explained to you, improvising like a great jazz player. (129)

Crystal is a Shakespearean actor and approaches his topic from that perspective. But instead of just privileging the performance over the written word, he provides his readers the tools to approach Shakespeare from the actor’s perspective—to allow us to see the play even when a staged version isn’t available. He also makes a compelling case for the First Folio as the edition of choice – despite its archaic spellings and mistakes. After all, it is the edition that was made by the actors who had performed Shakespeare’s plays with Shakespeare – and if anyone knew how to convey Shakespeare’s actual meaning it should be them.

There is also a brief discussion of the Sonnets, part of the larger explanation of meter. I imagine even the most basic high school classes cover iambic pentameter and English sonnet form in their units on Shakespeare; but mine certainly didn’t tell me this: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and only one of them is in pure iambic pentameter. One of 154! Crystal compares Shakespeare to a jazz great, improvising on a theme. A friend of Crystal’s believes the reason Shakespeare wrote exactly 154 sonnets is because that is the greatest number of syllables a sonnet can contain. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating idea to consider, and one I find greatly intriguing.

In the last portion of the book (excluding appendix-type material, here called “Props”), Crystal dives into a close read of a part of Act 2, Scene 2 from Macbeth. We see him apply the tools he’s educated us in, and the scene bursts to life. I can feel the tension, even without a recollection of what the full context is. This is what Crystal’s goal is, to enable those of us who are reading, rather than attending, a play to fully engage in it, even if we can’t see physical actors before us, and to enable us to own Shakespeare for ourselves. He leave us with one final bit of advice – and encouragement:

Despite the fact that he was as human, flawed and fallible as the rest of us, the one rule that has always guided me straight and true with a tricky bit of Shakespeare is this:

     There is always a reason for it.

No matter how complicated, no matter how ostensibly random, how annoying, boring or just plain bad a scene or a line appears to be, there is always a reason for it being there.
You just have to find out what it is.
And I promise: the search is always worth it. (259-260)

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