June 11, 2015


Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know about the Bard. By E. Foley and B. Coates. Plume. $16.

     Notwithstanding the universal acknowledgment that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language (and notwithstanding the views of the minority who opt instead for Chaucer or Milton), the actual knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and poems is at dismally low ebb these days. It is entirely possible for college students to go through a degree-granting four-year curriculum without taking a single course in Shakespeare – and then emerge to praise for their focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as the best route to success in life.

     But what sort of life would it be without Shakespeare? “A less confusing one,” some would no doubt argue – including those who may have heard phrases such as, “Oh what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practice to deceive,” and have assumed that Shakespeare must have created them (that one is actually by Sir Walter Scott). “A less boring one,” some who fear Elizabethan English and all its appurtenances would surely state. “One with lots more time for watching cat videos on the Internet,” a great many would surely and inarguably argue. For indeed, that is largely the life that many people have now, and they seem none the worse for it.

     Seem none the worse. But the reality is that we are all of us the worse because of the lesser understanding of and interest in Shakespeare in the 21st century, for what Shakespeare does in a way that no other English writer ever did is make all of us, all our foibles and frailties and failures, seem part of the commonality of humanity. He may write about obscure figures or mythic ones who never existed, he may tell allegorical tales or weave a story about historical events that we now know to have occurred very differently from the way he portrays them, but through it all, Shakespeare puts us in touch with what is most human about each and every one of us – for good, ill or (equally likely) both. Shakespeare inspires us – breathes into us the breath of someone who sees our darkest depths and highest capabilities and understands that they can and often do coexist. Indeed, Shakespeare’s inspiration of other great artists is incalculable: diarist Samuel Pepys may have hated A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he found “insipid” and “ridiculous,” but the play inspired Felix Mendelssohn to write some of the most-perfect incidental music of all time. And Coriolanus inspired Beethoven to produce one of his greatest concert overtures. Yet those are but two examples among too many to count.

     Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups is an attempt to re-connect modern readers with the Bard of Avon. It is a curious book, mixing genuinely interesting elements with decidedly silly ones (and in this way, and only this way, it resembles Shakespeare’s own writings). There are excellent discussions about Elizabethan times and the role of theaters therein, for example, but there are also supremely silly single-sentence summaries of all 38 plays now deemed authentically Shakespearean. There is a brief but fascinating explanation of the words “you” and “thou” and some of the ways in which Shakespeare uses them to show changing character relationships – but there is very short shrift given to the sonnets, only five of the 154 being discussed (and there is even less attention paid to Shakespeare’s other poems). Also, there are odd errors from time to time: "Shakespeare used [Holinshed's] The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland as the basis for all ten of his history plays" appears on page 137, while "As with most [sic] of his history plays, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles provided Shakespeare's primary source material" is on page 141.

     The authors are described as “editors at Penguin Random House in the UK,” but in the spirit of “who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” (a question that is explored at some length in this book) it is not too far-fetched to consider “E. Foley” to have something to do with the Folios and “B. Coates” with the Quartos – those being the two forms in which Shakespeare’s plays appeared in his own time. Ah, the lure of mystery, even self-created mystery! Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups is at its best in its more-than-creditable job of discussing and analyzing the plays. It also offers some attractive end-of-book suggestions about recurring themes to watch for; discusses a few of the great Shakespearean actors, from Shakespeare’s own time to the present; suggests Shakespeare quotations for various purposes; and even provides “a quiz to test your Shakespeare knowledge.” Scarcely comprehensive and therefore arrogantly subtitled – “everything” one needs to know about Shakespeare it is not – Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups nevertheless fills an important familiarization role that, alas and alack, fewer and fewer institutions of alleged learning are filling these days. It is common nowadays to see Shakespeare only through a particular set of blinders: Marxism, feminism, structuralism, or a variety of other “isms” that get mercifully brief mention in this book. But Shakespeare is bigger and better than any of those “isms” and will, it is safe to predict, long outlast any of the critics making use of a particular, narrow approach. For Shakespeare’s view is as broad as can be – broad enough to accommodate all the “isms” and arguments and uncertainties to which he and his oeuvre have been and continue to be subjected. Trying to shove “everything you need to know” about Shakespeare into a single book is neither more nor less than madness. But, to be fair to E. Foley and B. Coates, whoever or whatever they may be, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.” And yes, that quote is from Shakespeare.

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