From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:
“We [the authors] don’t claim to be Shakespeare scholars; we are ordinary readers who were curious to learn more about our greatest national poet, and we became passionate about passing on the most interesting facts we discovered. The aim of this book is to give a solid understanding of Shakespeare’s genius and to arm you with the tools you need to enjoy him with confidence and insight” (2).
So begin Foley and Coates, two British book editors and authors of Homework for Grown-Ups (2009). In this new book, the duo takes on the daunting task of presenting a survey course on Shakespeare for adults in just 326 pages. But this is not your typical “For Dummies” book with a blue-million timelines, illustrations, and text boxes interrupting every other line and making it nearly impossible to focus and remember; instead, this book is a well-crafted teaching tool for those wanting a basic, but detailed, education on Shakespeare. This includes what one might expect: reviews of Shakespeare’s life, background information about Renaissance theatres, and summaries of Shakespeare’s major plays; but the book also boasts several unique features, which I will discuss below. Suffice it to say that, as an English teacher, I learned a great deal from this book and intend to use several selections from it in my lessons next school year.
The first chapter is all about Shakespeare’s identity. How well does anyone really know the most famous British writer of all time? The authors’ first order of business is to remind readers that there is actual evidence that a man named William Shakespeare did in fact exist. “There is a record of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564…” (13). We know that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and that he was a rather successful businessman by the 1590s (14-15). That’s not to say that Foley and Coates skirt the conspiracy theories; in fact, they conclude the first chapter with a chart of all the major theories of authorship, beginning with those centered on Shakespeare himself, then moving into the other suspected authors: Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe, and Queen Elizabeth I (36-41). Given its concise formatting, this chart is the perfect tool for group discussion or classroom instruction.
The second chapter has a generic focus on language—namely the different poetic devices Shakespeare used, and phrases that he likely invented, such as “as luck would have it” and “good riddance” (59-60); but also words like “thrasonical” and “jadery,” which have not survived the test of time (62-65). The chapter includes a section on contemporary responses to Shakespeare as well. Without replicating any of the points here, this section reminds readers that there is no one correct way to read Shakespeare; it’s perfectly academic to analyze the plays and poems from socio-political lenses not just with traditional literary concerns like structure (55-58).
The rest of the book is divided into longer chapters which group Shakespeare’s works into four basic categories: comedies, histories, tragedies, and poetry. For the chapters on the plays, the authors offer plot summaries, and key themes, scenes, and symbols. Keeping their academic bar high, the authors weave in a solid commentary on the more popular plays. For example, they eloquently write of A Midsummer Night’s Dream “…in fact, the play can be read as a series of journeys from chaos to order…And when the humans find themselves in the woods, away from their strictly ordered society, chaos ensues, but all to the good—it’s as if the turmoil is a necessary evil from which true tranquility can be born” (77). That same level of analysis continues with the chapter on the histories and tragedies. Contextualization is strong also, as when the authors discuss Hamlet’s relationship to other revenge tragedies (208-209), or when they explain how the Gunpowder Plot relates to Macbeth (233). They even include invaluable information about the performance of the plays through history.
From beginning to end, this book is a delightful read. The authors’ diction is a good mix of academic and casual language, and they deliver insights in tightly executed lines. That said, I must admit some chapters cram a great deal of information into a short amount of space, like chapter two with all of its poetry terminology. I suspect some neophytes will find such sections a bit overwhelming. Also, I thought some of the book’s structure puzzling. Why, for example, did Foley and Coates include a “Shakespeare’s Best Insults” list in the middle of the chapter on the history plays? Overall, however, I loved moving through this book. The authors truly do take the “stress” out of Shakespeare—exactly what they intended. Therefore, I highly recommend it.
5 out 5 Stars
Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard, by E. Foley and B. Coates
Plume – Penguin Group (2015)
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Cover image courtesy of Plume © 2015; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2015, Austenprose.com
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Thanks for a great review! Very appropriate since I am taking a MOOC where we are reading Hamlet this week.
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Thank you, Cathy!
A wonderful, thorough review.
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