Dan Sandman

25: Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

In Books, Literature, Non-Fiction on 20/06/2014 at 12:00 pm

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben CrystalReading or watching Shakespeare’s plays can be boring and difficult, but reading Shakespeare on Toast, or hearing Ben Crystal give a talk will inspire you to think again. What Mr. crystal does, so well, is open up Shakespeare’s language, giving us a set of tools to work with whilst watching or reading the plays. In an informal, yet expertly informed way, the actor and writer uses witty references, scholarly knowledge, and close textual analysis to make the plays more easy to digest. This book is full of interesting facts, written in a down to earth style, and will be enjoyed by bard beginners and seasoned fans alike. Crystal’s writing is full of warmth, displaying the infectious enthusiasm of a great teacher whilst making his specialised chosen subject fun.

For many, early modern English – the language spoken in England during the Tudor and Stuart dynasties – is wrongly deemed irrelevant, and incorrectly thought to be a nightmare to understand. But, however, by reading this book, you’ll find out that it’s not necessarily the words themselves which encourage such derision – the vast majority remain unchanged since Elizabethan times – but that we lack the help of a clever friend to teach us a few things about them. For example, in Tudor times thou was what one might say to friend whereas you was what one might say to someone of higher rank. As Crystal demonstrates (pg. 106-7), knowing this little nugget of information will help immensely when it comes to enjoying the evolving spousal relationship in the play Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth stops calling her husband thou and starts calling him you, you know things have taken a turn for the worse.

Then there’s the way with which Crystal uses modern reference points, such as Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Big Brother Live. The first reference is used to illustrate a point about how Shakespeare has been remade in many ways, including a funny scene where Arnie plays Hamlet, and the second reference demonstrates how boring an undramatic version of life would be on stage. All of the quirky comparisons in the book, always backed up by scholarly research, help breathe life into the plays, pushing them forward 400 years or so. Shakespeare becomes Miles Davies, riffing around a ten syllable iambic pentameter.

My reason for reviewing this book is that I saw Ben Crystal give an inspiring talk in Primrose Hill on June the 11th 2014. My mother and I had walked over the road beside the hill, entered the liberal St. Mary’s Church, grabbed some peanuts and poured two glasses of water. Having been welcomed with churchly hospitality, we then sat down ready for Mr. Crystal to be introduced.

The priest who gave the introduction, keen to convert new followers, was very groovy and even wore denim trousers with a silver buckled belt. Afterwards, Ben was kind enough to give me a book signing – he has artistic handwriting – and came across as a very nice bloke. Shortly later, the priest came over to meet my mother and I, seeing that mum had picked up a couple of church based flyers, and I was fingering a bookmark advertising the TV mini-series The Bible. The approachable clergyman did his charming best to welcome us – as good priests and rabbis usually do – and chatted briefly about the talk.

The talk itself was outstanding, perfectly paced and echoed resoundingly around the church hall. The congregation (not necessarily of the religious kind) were treated to an acted out snippet of Romeo and Juliet spoken using original pronunciation. Original pronunciation (OP) – sounding like an exciting mix of all kinds of funky dialects – is a very close approximation of the way Shakespeare’s company would have talked 400 years ago. In contrast, received pronunciation (RP) is the posh way that the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were taught to enunciate the language. Personally, I think both ways of acting Shakespeare are great in different ways. OP gives the poetry an authentically old feel and helps with the occasional rhyme, whereas RP heightens the drama and increases the emotional intensity. Other highlights from the talk included amusing anecdotes connected with Ben’s father David Crystal, the renowned linguist, whose books many students of English will know, and a segment from the book about how the puritans banned Shakespeare – and Christmas. All in all, for a  host of interesting bard based facts passionately given with verve, read and buy Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal.

Signed copies available from my local bookshop Primrose Hill Books.

  1. Romeo and Juliet is one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare plays ever. I really miss the summer fests on Niagara-on-the-lake where Shakespeare comes alive every evening to a varied crowd. Love sitting in the grass watching this play. I think it’s awesome!

    • Wow, that Niagara-on-the-lake festival sounds exciting, will google it in a second, need to go to more literary type events. Last Christmas, my parents presented me with the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection on DVD – all 37 plays done in the late 70’s and 80’s – which you can also find on line. I have been watching them all, upon recommendation from my father, in alphabetical order. I just finished Richard II (no. 27), which means I am edging very close to – as you mentioned – one of your absolute favourites. Got to get through the dark Richard III first, then it’s R & J time – very awesome!

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