CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 36. . . .May 20, 2016
William Shakespeare. (Crabtree Chrome).
St. Catharines, ON: Crabtree, 2016.
48 pp., pbk., hc. & html, $11.95 (pbk.),$26.95 (List RLB), $21.56 (School RLB).
ISBN 978-0-7787-2229-8 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-7787-2290-8 (RLB), ISBN 978-1-4271-8087-2 (html).
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616-Juvenile literature.
Dramatists-English-Early modern, 1500-1700-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
Shakespeare invented thousands of words in the English language. There were no English grammar rules or dictionaries at the time. The country was growing fast and the language was changing constantly. Shakespeare borrowed words from ancient books and foreign languages. He also changed and joined English words in new ways.
Here are some of the words Shakespeare invented that we still use today: arch-villain, bedazzled, belongings, bloody, bump, cold-blooded, dawn, eventful, eyeball, fashionable, generous, gloomy, gossip, hurry, leaky, lonely, luggage, majestic, manager, mimic, moonbeam, schoolboy, scuffle, swagger, uncomfortable, unreal, and zany.
2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and so the Bard is an obvious choice of subject for Crabtree Publishing’s “Chrome” nonfiction series. His plays were written for audiences that included royalty, ruffians, and everyone in between and offered something for all: comic escapism featuring humour ranging from the bawdy to the ironic, tragically flawed characters whose personal weaknesses brought sadness and their own deaths, tales of star-crossed lovers. In many ways, the selection was not unlike that offered by today’s network television (although Shakespeare didn’t do food shows.) Who was Shakespeare? Why are his plays studied, performed, and enjoyed, four centuries after his death? Why does his work eclipse that of his equally talented contemporaries? William Shakespeare is a 48 page exploration of these questions in a book that is easy reading for its audience (Grade 2 reading level, with a Grade 6-9+ interest level), while providing plenty of information about him.
The opening chapter, “Much Ado about Nothing?”, offers a quick introduction to the Bard of Avon. Although the details of his personal life are a blend of known fact and educated speculation, the strength of his literary output is indisputable. “The Life and Times of Shakespeare” offers some biographical basics: when and where Shakespeare was born, his family circumstances (the eldest surviving child of eight children born to respectable, but hardly wealthy parents), his early marriage to Anne Hathaway, and his life-changing decision to leave Stratford-upon-Avon for London. London’s theatres were the “Broadway” of Elizabethan England, and William achieved early success with the performance of his history plays. By 1594 (towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign), he joined the acting company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, first as an actor, and then, as the company’s resident writer. He must have been an astute businessman as well; as part-owner of the acting company, along with other investors in his shows - known as “sharers” – he built the Globe Theatre, a three-story, open-air amphitheater capable of holding up to 3,000 people.
But, to quote Hamlet, “the play’s the thing” that has made Shakespeare a dramatist for all ages. The chapter entitled “Shakespeare’s Work” offers quick summaries of the plays’ genres, the historical context in which they were written and performed, and a sense of why they were so appealing and successful when they came to the stage. Although Shakespeare’s fame rests largely on his dramatic works, when a bubonic plague epidemic in 1593 forced closure of London’s theatres, he wrote narrative poems, such as “Venus and Adonis”, as well as 154 sonnets. He had no qualms about taking liberties with historical facts about previous English kings and queens if that was necessary to please royal audiences. Elizabeth I’s successor, James I, liked plays which had “sad scenes, magic moments, and mostly happy endings”, and Shakespeare delivered what the King wanted to see. Then as now, special effects wowed audiences, and, although the technology of the time was limited to trap doors, ropes and wires, fireworks and guns provided light shows and sound (as well as the fire which ultimately burned down the Globe.)
“Renaissance Men” makes it clear that despite (and, perhaps, because of) his incredible artistic and financial success, Shakespeare had his detractors. Box office profits enabled him to build the second biggest house in Stratford-upon-Avon: a brick house with “ten fireplaces, two barns, and an orchard.” But, as his plays demonstrate, human nature doesn’t change much, and he certainly experienced his share of professional jealousy. His works weren’t “original” in the sense that a modern audience would expect; he borrowed stories and materials from many sources, and he was not afraid to experiment: “Unlike other writers at the time, Shakespeare wrote all types of plays. He mixed types in new ways. His comedies have sad moments. His tragedies have comic scenes. Shakespeare explored new subjects and twisted plots in creative ways.” How could the small-town son of a glove-maker, with limited education write plays with such appeal? Small wonder that, shortly after Shakespeare’s death, theories and rumours began to arise, suggesting that Shakespeare had assistance from other playwrights or that someone else wrote, using Shakespeare as his “ghost writer.”
But, the book concludes that “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Although Shakespeare died at the age of 52, on April 23, 1616, his work, along with festivals and classroom study, keeps alive his name and his fame. Shakespearean themes, plot lines, and characters continue to be explored and re-visited by artists in the 21st century. An interesting point made in this book is that “Shakespeare also gave a voice to women – even if they could not speak on stage! At the time, women had little power in society. But Shakespeare featured strong female characters in his plays.” Lady Macbeth’s ability to convince her husband to commit murder, Cleopatra’s reign over both her nation and Mark Antony, and Juliet’s giving up life for her love exemplify strength, even though the results of their decisions were invariably tragic. And who would think that words like “eyeball”, “swagger” or “zany” were first uttered by an actor in a Shakespearean play or that common phrases like “elbow room”, “heart of gold” and “dead as a doornail” made similar debuts on the stage.
It’s easy to forget that, first and foremost, Shakespeare’s plays were written to be seen, not to be read. But, for better or worse (and as a former classroom English teacher, I confess that it may be the latter, for some students) his work is a classroom standard in Grades 9 through 12, and books like this make his backstory accessible to students who will undoubtedly struggle with the language of the plays. Each page is illustrated, either with colour photos or other graphic renderings, and the cover features a very handsome playwright, posed against a background of dreamy scenes from his plays. Sentences in the book are not complex, but the vocabulary is age-appropriate for the intended audience; unfamiliar words or terms presented in bold face, with an explanation or definition in a sidebar at the bottom of the page, as well as a listing in the Glossary at the end of the book. Almost every two-page spread offers an interesting fact, highlighted in a text box signed with a jester’s cap. Readers interested in “Learning More” about Shakespeare, his life, times, and plays can choose from the short lists of books and quality websites providing more information.
Although the book’s format and larger-sized text font suggest that it is intended for a middle-school audience, I can see this book as having value for high school students who are learning English (and studying Shakespeare) as a second language, or for those students whose reading skills are well below grade level. Even capable students can be challenged by having to read Shakespearean text –many truly believe that it’s written in “old English”. Of course, it’s not, and this book does a great deal to show that Shakespeare wrote, not only in the context of his times, but also for audiences in centuries to come.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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