Shakespeare for Beginners (For Beginners)

shakespeare-header.jpgAn introductory guide to the Bard that discards the stuffy academia and revels in the fun to be found in the works of history’s best known playwright.



218 pgs., B&W; 14.95

(W: Brandon Toropov; A: Joseph Lee)

Despite being a foreigner and dead for almost 400 years, William Shakespeare is a dominant player in the modern American theatre.  Hardly anyone gets through school without studying several of his plays and they are produced regularly at every level from Broadway right down to elementary schools. Perhaps more remarkable is that a mid-sized city such as St. Louis can support two organizations devoted primarily to staging his works: if you like your plays indoors there’s St. Louis Shakespeare, while if you prefer to combine your Bard-viewing with a picnic in Forest Park there’s the Shakespeare Festival  of St. Louis. Arthur Miller and Christopher Marlowe may be important playwrights, but can you name even one organization devoted to producing their plays?

So Shakespeare is all around us, and yet too many people still think of his works as medicine which must be taken because it’s good for you, rather than as the popular entertainment they truly are.  So let me say it up front: Shakespeare’s plays should be fun. They may be a lot of other things as well (intellectually challenging and emotionally revealing come immediately to mind), but they were meant to be enjoyed, not studied as sacred text.  True, there are some barriers to understanding his works:  Elizabethan English differs from our everyday modern language and characters who speak in verse can seem baffling if you’ve never heard it before. But the emotional content of Shakespeare’s plays is as clear and relevant as it ever was, and with a little preparation you can enjoy the plays without sweating out the meaning of each unfamiliar word.

With that in mind, Brandon Toropov’s Shakespeare for Beginners presents an excellent introduction to the Bard for the new generation, and it works pretty well for the old as well. Mr. Toropov is a playwright and actor who wants you to see the plays in performance—videos and staged readings count—and after a brief introduction covering matters such as Shakespeare’s biography (not much to say there) and the Elizabethan theatre (all roles were played by boys and men, and all classes of society attended) presents the plays in approximately the order in which they were written. His goal is to provide enough background so you can enjoy a performance of any of the plays without feeling that the dog ate your homework and you’re standing in church in your underwear. Banish those bad memories of your schooldays, in other words, and get on with enjoying some great theatre.  

For each play, you get several pages of synopsis, excerpts from critical response, famous quotations, things to notice about the play (The Tempest includes many references to storms, music, and the limits of human power and authority, while The Merchant of Venice includes many references to dogs, wolves, and money) , and fun facts (the now-disparaged Titus Andronicus was extremely popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and in the 18th and 19th centuries King Lear was often performed with a happy ending tacked on).  Other than the synopsis, everything is presented as self-contained nuggets of information, making this a great book for browsing as well as a good airplane read.

Lest you be tempted to assume an overly respectful attitude, artist Joseph Lee has furnished the text with some highly irreverent cartoons underscoring the commonality of the play’s themes with our contemporary culture. He draws the two gentlemen of Verona as Laurel and Hardy, while Richard Nixon appears as the unscrupulous Richard III (and yes, the fact that that characterization was Tudor propaganda is discussed), J. Edgar Hoover as Iago, and W.C. Fields as Falstaff. True to the spirit of their enterprise, Toropov and Lee make Shakespeare fun while also providing information and insight which will add to your enjoyment and appreciation of his works.

Shakespeare for Beginners also includes a section on the poems, a bibliography, and a brief guide to Shakespeare on video. Further information, including the opportunity to order copies at a discount, is available from the publisher’s web site | Sarah Boslaugh

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