Bloomsbury £6.99 each

Review: Springboard Shakespeare: King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, By Ben Crystal

A guide to Shakespeare’s work that should be in every theatre

Having come within a hair’s breadth of being put off Shakespeare for life by a turgid teacher and her O-level Henry V, the first play I saw on stage was The Tempest at Stratford when I was 16. And I was bored rigid because we were simply thrown in at the deep end without any preparation of any sort because this was supposed to be A Good Thing. How different it might have been if we’d had Ben Crystal’s sparky little books to introduce us. My Shakespearean epiphany – which came three years later and is another story – would have come much sooner.

Hard on the heels of his cosy, witty Shakespeare on Toast (Icon, 2008), each of Crystal’s first four Springboard Shakespeare books – on Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Macbeth –  leads newcomers into the play in question in a gentle, upbeat, unpretentious way. Fresh and slim, they’re about as far as could be from dusty, dry study guides relating to school exams or those dispiriting texts that are so heavily over-annotated that you’re hard put to find any of Shakespeare’s lines at all.

Each book has a “relationship circle” on the inside cover so that you know who everyone is and how the plot links them – a sort of diagrammatic dramatis personae. Then we get three sections – before, during and after – because Crystal, an actor rather than an academic, wants readers to have a bit of background before they see a 400-year-old play and wants them to understand something about the language, including the use of verse and prose.

Then he leads the reader gently through the play itself, scene by scene, with informative “interval whispers” and things to watch and listen for such as the dysfunctional second family in Hamlet and how Polonious should speak. Lastly comes a section suggesting things to reflect on once the play is over. He has some interesting thoughts about sleep, the passing of time and the play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example.

And at the end of each book is a glossary to help readers with the five per cent (that’s all – this is not, definitely not a foreign language) of words they hear in Shakespeare which might be unfamiliar or which have changed their meaning.

These pocket-sized books, which have lots of side headings and boxes and never resort to lengthy dense prose, are much better than the average theatre programme, and only marginally more expensive. I’d like to see them on sale in theatre bookshops, and/or wherever there’s a production of one of these plays.

As a former English teacher (who spent an entire career getting back at my own teachers by making  sure that Shakespeare, especially Henry V, was always fun and exciting for students) I’d also recommend them for classroom use. I really like the way Crystal continually refers to productions and interpretations – reminding the reader all the time that Shakespeare wrote scripts which need a company of actors, their supporters, and an audience to bring them to life, not fixed novels which can be read in isolation.

Or, as Crystal puts it with characteristic, friendly incisiveness: “Shakespeare was written to be learnt. To be spoken out loud.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering