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Shakespeare on Toast, by Ben Crystal
A tasty snack with genius
The front cover of Ben Crystal's new book makes daring claims. A glowing recommendation from Dame Judi Dench calls it "brilliantly enjoyable". The title is explained inside: "[This book] is quick, easy, straightforward, and good for you. Just like beans on toast." It is a good job the book is so compelling, or the author would look like a blinking idiot. All that glisters is not gold.
These last two expressions (Shakespeare's, both) are among Crystal's armoury in his valiant battle to demystify the Bard. He is a linguist and an actor, but most of all a fan. He is convincingly blown away by Shakespeare; he would just like everyone else to be, too.
This educated enthusiasm is Crystal's greatest strength as a writer. In his previous books Shakespeare's Words and The Shakespeare Miscellany, written with his linguist father, David Crystal, he proved that he is more than capable of deconstructing a text. Here, he constructs an argument out of convincing statistics (95 per cent of of Shakespeare's words are perfectly understandable to a modern audience), historical background (Elizabethan audiences would have heckled the players), modern parallels (including Miles Davis and hip hop artist Mos Def) and theatrical anecdote (iambic pentameter is designed for the size of an actor's lungs and his ability to memorise a script).
All of this is conveyed with a touching enthusiasm that borders on geekiness. And a thoughtful recap chapter on spondees and dactyls will thrill rusty English students. But who is likely to buy this book? Is Crystal preaching to the converted? Or at Bardophobes who are unlikely to pick it up? It would be a shame if they didn't, because having Crystal as a companion through the stickier parts of Hamlet and Macbeth is like going to the theatre with an intelligent friend.
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