Shakespeare on Toast was published by Icon Books on September 11, 2012. Ben Crystal is an English actor/author who has been interviewed by many news agencies about his work with Shakespeare. His previous publications include two books co-authored by his father David Crystal: Shakespeare’s Words (Penguin, 2002) and The Shakespeare Miscellany (Penguin, 2005).
In 2009 I went on a Shakespeare’s England Abroad with a group of students from my college. Really I just wanted to go to England, and I was an English major, so it seemed like the thing to do. I guess because I always liked reading and stuff, I never hated Shakespeare like most people. However, I can definitely understand how some people are turned off by the holier-than-thou aura that surrounds the genius playwright.
Ben Crystal‘s new book, Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard helps people connect with Shakespeare on a really not-intimidating level. In the prologue to the book, Crystal states that it is not an “actorly” book full of stories about acting Shakespeare, nor is it a scholarly book. Basically, like beans on toast, he makes Shakespeare palatable to the wider public in a really simple way.
“[Shakespeare’s] only Literature-with-a-capital-L until you put him back into context as an Elizabethan writer, not a 21st-century idol” (11).
This book is written in an informal style, with a down-to-earth feel to it. If you had a good high school English teacher, this is what he sounded like. Crystal “makes Shakespeare’s plays accessible without dumbing them down.” It is clear that he feels both love and respect for Shakespeare, but he contends that his interest is in the plays rather than their author. In fact, he very bluntly states, “I don’t care who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays” (16). This does not mean that Crystal doesn’t think Shakespeare was a genius, just that he is less concerned about the author’s personal life and more interested in the texts themselves. There is no doubt that this author is familiar with the history and scholarship surrounding the Bard, and he uses this knowledge to make him accessible to the rest of us.
In addition to his informal language, Crystal employs a number of writing techniques to reach out to a younger, less scholarly audience. He uses bullet points, lists, infographics, mathematical figures and charts, and percentages to convey his information. Shakespeare is put into the wider context of history and literature as Crystal breaks down commonly held beliefs (including conspiracy theories). Also, the language of Shakespeare is decoded in a graceful manner, so that by the end of the book you wonder how you ever didn’t understand Shakespeare!
“As for the words, well, admittedly, some of the words [Shakespeare] uses might not have been in general use for a few hundred years, but a rather cooperative 95 per cent are words we know and use every day. Hold that thought for a second: only 5 per cent of all the different words in all of Shakespeare’s plays will give you a had time” (11).
Margaret’s rating of Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare on Toast: