Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard, by E. Foley and B. Coates – A Review

Shakespear Basics for Gown Ups, by E Foley and B. Coates 2015 x 200From 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. Continue reading

Austen’s Regretted Mischance to See Mrs. Siddons

Image of the painting Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough“I have no chance of seeing Mrs. Siddons.  – She did act on Monday, but Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would, the places, & all thought of it, were given up. I should have particularly liked to see her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me. Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 25 April 1811, London, The Letters of Jane Austen 

Jane Austen took every opportunity to enjoy the London theatre scene when she stayed in town with her brother Henry Austen. In 1811, she was looking forward to seeing the great tragedienne actress of the day, Mrs. Siddons, who was currently playing Constance in King John at Covent Garden. Imagine her excitement at the prospect of seeing the icon of British theatre who was nearing the end of her long and infamous career. When their best laid plans were spoiled by a misinformed Boxkeeper, (an attendant at the theatre who was responsible for managing the box seats), I pity poor Henry the arduous task of breaking the bad news to his sister. Their disappointment must have been doubled when they later learned that Mrs. Siddons had performed, but in another production! No wonder Jane Austen wants to swear at her! 

Illustration of Mrs. Siddons as Lady MacbethSarah Siddons (1755-1831) and Jane Austen (1775-1817) share three coincidences together; 1.) They both resided in Bath and Southampton, but not at the same time; – Mrs. Siddons lived in Bath early in her career and in Southampton after her retirement in 1812. 2.) They also shared an affinity for Shakespeare; – Siddons by her portrayals of his tragic heroines such as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Desdemona in Othello, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Ophelia in Hamlet, and Austen by reading and studying of his works, and referencing them in her novels. 3.) They are both considered by critics and the public to be early icons of their genre; Mrs. Siddons as the first modern ‘star’, and Miss Austen as the first modern novelist.   Continue reading