Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
Ben Crystal
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)

Completed: The Taming of the Shrew

Cover: The Taming of the ShrewThe Taming of the Shrew
William Shakespeare
(England, c. 1590-91)

This was a reread, I believe. (Going by memory.) At the very least, I have seen it performed live, locally (out-of-doors, actually, with a mock-Tudor (c. 1920s) gatehouse for a backdrop–a great setting!). Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies–or perhaps like any play–, the actual humor is better seen performed than read. But that did not mean it was not an enjoyable read, though I fear I do not fully understand it.

I believe it is fairly well known: a young man, Petruchio, desiring to increase his wealth, agrees to marry a shrewish woman, Katerina, so that her father will permit her sister, Bianca, to be wooed and wed. (A friend of Petruchio’s is one of Bianca’s several suitors.) He then proceeds to “tame” Katerina, by methods that, if taken at face value and/or by 21st century standards seem downright abusive. But if they are rather seen as part of the farce of a play–no, not merely a play, but a play within a play–perhaps I begin to now see the value of the Induction?–then perhaps the story is something different, a comedic look at relationships between men and women and how they play each other rather than purporting any moral or life lesson.

Interestingly, reading around, including the introduction to my copy, it seems to be a play that is tricky to interpret: while it is easy to assume, especially based on Katerina’s last speech, that Shakespeare was indeed a product of his time and to be reminded that in that era women were property, it seems that the director’s interpretation is what really guides our understanding. Perhaps Katerina has truly been “tamed”–or perhaps she has simply learned a better way of controlling her husband and winks at the audience. It does seem, though, based solely on the words on page, that she really is a vile character, for she treats her sister dreadfully. Though, one has to wonder: is this jealousy of Bianca or a desire to avoid marriage and its risks and constraints at all costs?

After reading this, I also watched the 1967 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor. Which, while amusing, I must confess my favorite adaptation remains 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, which is both a clever high-school-set modernization and a perhaps tamer version of all characters involved. I’ve still to watch Kiss Me Kate, though, and I do have a weakness for musicals, so…

I read The Taming of the Shrew as part of my original Classics Club list.

Completed: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Cover: A Midsummer Night's Dream A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare
(c. 1594-1595, England)
Bantam Books, 1988
David Bevington, Ed.

Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck, 3.2.114-115

My overwhelming impression of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, having finished it just in time for the start of summer (it’s taken me a bit extra time to write about), was that it is absolutely delightful! I don’t think I’ve ever thought that word, “delightful,” in connection with the works of Shakespeare before–there are plays I’ve enjoyed, adaptations I’ve revisited many times, but none I’ve experienced before this have provided for me quite the wonderful impression of magic and fairy tale that this one brings.

No doubt this is largely due to the plot thread involving Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. They are feuding, and in spite, Oberon decides to use a potion to cause Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees–no matter what it may be. But he also decides to play Cupid for two pairs of young Athenians–Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius–that their loves woes  may be solved (at play’s start, both young men are in love with Hermia, though she loves Lysander and Helena loves Demetrius). Of course it doesn’t quite go to plan when his mischievous accomplice, Puck, applies the potion to the wrong young man. On the other hand, Oberon couldn’t be happier with the results with Titania–the first creature she should see on waking may be a man, but a fool of a man, Nick Bottom, whom Puck has only too appropriately just provided with an ass’s head.

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

[Helena, 1.1.232-239]

Interwoven with all this are the threads of the marriage of King Theseus of Athens with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the theatrical production that a small group of local laborers–Bottom among them–wishes to put on as part of the wedding celebrations. The wedding story serves primarily as a framing device for the rest of the action–it is with this background that the young Athenians flee (or chase) into the forest, and it is later at the wedding celebrations that the “tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth” (5.1.56-57) is performed by our hapless players. I do feel in part that these last scenes, all of Act 5, feel out of place compared to the magic of the middle section. But on the other hand, as I watched the 1999 adaptation some days later (Michael Hoffman, dir.), this was the portion of the play that was most laugh out loud funny; the full effect of the haplessness of the amateur players is best seen rather than read. That does seem to be often the case with Shakespeare – I read the play, understand it, but finish feeling I still want more. At least with A Midsummer Night’s Dream it was not just a production that I wanted to see–but to experience more of the magic and delight that the forest provided. Thank goodness, there are always plenty of bookish solutions to that problem!

I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of my Classics Club titles and for Shakespeare 400.

Completed: Titus Andronicus

Titus AndronicusTitus Andronicus
William Shakespeare
(c. 1590-1593, England)
The Pelican Shakespeare, 2000
Russ McDonald, Ed.

I began my reading of Titus Andronicus knowing little about the play or its plot, not even whether it was based on a true story from Roman history or a purely fictional invention (answer: fictional). The only thing I knew was that it has a reputation for violence and gore and even a bit of cannibalism–all of which is true enough, and let’s not forget adultery, rape, and racism. That these are the takeaways from Titus Andronicus –in contrast say to fellow revenge play Hamlet or tragedy King Lear–suggests what is indeed true: Titus is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps his earliest tragedy, and he is still feeling his way. There are no grand philosophical monologues and what humor that is here to temper the horror is of such a nature that you are almost afraid to take it as such. That is, other than some clearly humorous lines from the Clown, one cannot be sure if the seemingly purely evil Moor, Aaron, is making twisted jokes and if we should even laugh at them. (For that matter, I am not even sure if the racism is Elizabethan, Roman, both, or somewhere in between.) Although I often find on finishing a play that I want to see a production, here I find that the stark violence of the imagery–even though the worst is off-stage–causes me to hesitate at seeking any version out. It is perhaps too easy to understand why the play fell out of favor, especially with the Victorians.

On the other hand, acknowledging the horrors of our nightly news–beheadings and revenge and mass slaughter did not depart our world simply because we for a time removed them from stage–perhaps there is something to be learned from the play. The entire cycle of violence is put into motion, when at the end of a successful military campaign, the protagonist, Titus, brutally murders the son of Tamora, the conquered queen of the Goths, both his prisoners of war. This war crime–as we would now style it–sets into motion a series of ever increasing horrors, until the reader or audience begins to wonder if anyone will be spared. Revenge begets revenge. Yet, in the same tradition as contemporary horror cinema, you cannot look away, even if watching between your fingers. The cycle of violence is not the only motivation explored, either. Lust–for both power and flesh–is evidenced in several characters, and in the end leads to the the same terrible consequences as the mad revenges of Titus and Tamora.

But perhaps what is most important to take away from Titus Andronicus is this: in the end, the person our hatreds and revenges will ultimately destroy is ourself, leaving our battered loved ones to pick up the pieces.

I read Titus Andronicus as one of my Classics Club titles and for Shakespeare 400.

Completed: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
William Shakespeare
England, c. 1589-91

I don’t recall how, exactly, I came to decide which five Shakespeare plays I wanted to include on my Classics Club list (other than I really wanted to reread Much Ado About Nothing). I suspect I included The Two Gentlemen of Verona because it is believed to be Shakespeare’s first play. Always good to go in chronological order.

Valentine. Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus;
Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.
Were ‘t not affection chains thy tender days
To the sweet glances of thy honour’d love,
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of the world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardiz’d at home,
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.
But since thou lov’st, love still, and thrive therein,
Even as I would when I to love begin.
Proteus. Wilt thou be gone: Sweet Valentine, adieu!
Think on thy Proteus, when thou haply seest
Some rare noteworthy object in thy travel.
Wish me partaker in thy happiness
When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,
If ever danger do environ thee,
Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers,
For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine!

The play tells the story of two young men, Valentine and Proteus, good friends from the city of Verona. As the play opens, Valentine mocks Proteus’s love of Julia, before he embarks on his journey to Milan where, sure enough, Valentine falls for Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. It soon becomes a love triangle: Proteus is sent by his father to Milan where, despite his pledge of love to Julia, he also falls in love with Silvia. Add to this Silvia’s third suitor, Thurio, who her father prefers, and Julia’s arrival in Verona, disguised as a boy, and we have the makings of a typical Shakespearian comedy. As is usual, we also have the servants of Valentine and Proteus, Speed and Launce respectively, who bring a clownish humor to the stage.

Speed. If you love her, you cannot see her.
Valentine. Why?
Speed. Because Love is blind.

One passage that I couldn’t help but notice, was this from Valentine in the third act:

A woman sometimes scorns what best contents her.
Send her another; never give her o’er,
For scorn at first makes after-love the more.
If she do frown, ’tis not in hate of you;
If she do chide, ’tis not to have you gone;
For why the fools are mad if left alone.
Take no repulse, whatever she doth say;
For ‘get you gone,’ she doth not mean ‘away!’
Flatter and praise, commend, extol their graces;
Though ne’er so black, say they have angels’ faces.
III.i.93-103 (Valentine)

Pride and Predjudice immediately sprung to mind: Did Mr. Collins have this passage in mind when he assures Lizzy that young women will often turn down a man they wish to marry?

This is believed the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays, and while elements of his later plays are present, a quick search suggests that most Shakespeare critics do not hold it in very high regard, at least not as compared to his later plays. (Although some point out that this may be an unfair comparison, considering the high level of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.) It struck me more as a typical sort of play, nothing terribly remarkable or memorable—I certainly don’t expect to recall much of this in the future, at least not the way I do some of the tragedies or better-known comedies.

In addition to reading the play, I also found a staged version to watch on DVD, produced by the BBC in 1983 for their BBC Television Shakespeare series. I’ve watched both live productions and film adaptations in the past, always feeling they enhanced my understanding of the plays, including my understanding of the pacing. Too often when I simply read through a play (any play, not just Shakespeare), it feels like everything is happening so quickly, but somehow adding staging and music helps me envision the passage of time. Certainly that was true here. However, I was surprised at how many times I had to pause the adaptation and pull up the play text because the witty banter was so fast I missed most of the meaning. Perhaps it was the British accents, or maybe I’m just out of practice! I was also surprised at the portrayal of Sir Eglamour as so over-the-top. He’s just a bit character, but I hadn’t read him that way at all. It struck a bit of a false note with me, so I remain surprised they staged it that way.

Button: Shakespeare 400


I read The Two Gentlemen of Verona as part of Shakespeare 400: The 2016 Bardathon Challenge and for the category “a classic which includes the name of a place in the title” for the Back to the Classics 2016 Challenge.