A review of The Shakespeare Miscellany by David and Ben Crystal

The Shakespeare Miscellany is that rarity, an educational work that is also wonderful entertainment. This book will be a great boon for beginning students of Shakespeare as well as seasoned “bardolators” (a word coined by George Bernard Shaw in 1901) and “bardoholics”, who will binge on it.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The Shakespeare Miscellany
By David and Ben Crystal
Penguin Books
Sept 2005, ISBN: 1585677167

With The Shakespeare Miscellany, David and Ben Crystal achieve a triumphant revival of a genre that was popular during the Victorian Age. In this miscellany they present a diverse collection of facts, quotes, statistics, texts (e.g., the full text of Shakespeare’s will), anecdotes, discussions and suppositions pertaining to the life and times, the plays and poetry, of an Englishman who still, some four centuries after his death in 1616, enjoys a certain renown. As Buck Mulligan remarks in Ulysses, Shakespeare is “the chap that writes like Synge”.

Does the Miscellany include everything you ever wanted to know about Shakespeare, or not? Ah, that is the question. The 600 or so entries certainly cover a wide range of ground; here is a small sample. Separate entries discuss Elizabethan pronunciation and punctuation, present some key concepts central to an understanding of English poetry (where our old friend, “iambic pentameter”, naturally makes an appearance), and describe a typical day in the life of an actor (or player) during Shakespeare’s day. This would include an outing to an ale-tavern, but not (according to the Crystals) a visit to one of the many stews that littered London’s streets, then as (albeit more discreetly) now. A couple of other entries list the words that Shakespeare coined and introduced into English, with a distinction being made between those words where he was the first and those where he is (to date) the only user. Finally, an old chestnut: did Shakespeare actually write the plays and poems that have been attributed to him? Throughout the book, in several entries, the competing claims for authorship by the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford are examined. (Incidentally, Edward de Vere numbers Freud among his advocates; Peter Gay has written a fascinating essay on this.)

Three of the entries were of especial interest to me.

First, I had thought that Sonnet 126 was simply an irregular sonnet of 12 lines; in the Miscellany I learnt that “in the original 1609 Quarto edition, two pairs of empty italic parentheses mark where the final couplet should be”. In other words, Sonnet 126 could be conceived as being a regular sonnet where the last two lines are blank; and it could be the first use of what one might call a “deliberate lacuna” in English literature. Did Laurence Sterne by any chance read this sonnet in the 1609 Quarto edition, and did it serve as an inspiration for his use of the blank page in Tristram Shandy?

Second, I was unaware that Shakespeare would sometimes use an interchange between the formal “You” and the more intimate “Thou” to chart the changing tones of a relationship. Since we no longer use “Thou” in modern English, this is something that is often lost to us. In a series of entries, the Crystals use short snippets of dialogue – focusing in particular on the relationship between Shakespeare’s lovers: Hamlet and Ophelia, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet – to illustrate how this dynamic expresses itself.

Third, an entry deals with anachronisms in Shakespeare’s plays, the most outrageous of which is probably Cleopatra’s remark, “Let’s to billiards” (Anthony and Cleopatra, II.5.3). Not only does this conjure up the glorious if incongruous image of the most beautiful woman in history bent over a billiard table to practice her cue action; it also begs a question. Is this a mishap on Shakespeare’s part or an intentional anachronism? (For the record, billiards evolved in France in the late Middle Ages and did not exist in ancient Egypt; and nor did the Victorians use mobile phones.) It seems to me that there is something quintessentially English about the intentional anachronism. Monty Python films are full of them (e.g., Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and even Douglas Adam’s sci-fi imagines a future where there is still time for tea and digestive biscuits and the Times crossword.

One criticism of the Miscellany would be that perhaps too many of the quotations come from the British theatrical establishment, to the detriment of more cosmopolitan sources. Goethe said once of Shakespeare that he must have had “the brain of a leopard”: a brilliant remark, as it captures the astonishment that we all occasionally feel when confronted with Shakespeare’s genius, the sense that only a monster could capture so much of existence. Yet Goethe doesn’t warrant an entry; and nor does Boris Pasternak, a writer who has translated many of Shakespeare’s works into Russian and had much to say about him. When Pasternak, in Stalinist Russia, courageously recited his translation of Sonnet 66 on the Leningrad stage, he was (like Isaac Babel, a writer murdered by Stalin’s thugs for less) taking his life in his hands.

Nonetheless, The Shakespeare Miscellany is that rarity, an educational work that is also wonderful entertainment. This book will be a great boon for beginning students of Shakespeare as well as seasoned “bardolators” (a word coined by George Bernard Shaw in 1901) and “bardoholics”, who will binge on it.

Finally, I can’t end without giving my favourite quotation from the book, a thumbnail sketch of the great man that is taken from Orson Welles and Roger Hill’s Everybody’s Shakespeare:

Shakespeare said everything. Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats. He speaks to everyone and we all claim him, but it’s wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn’t properly belong to us but to another world that smelled assertively of columbine and gunpowder and printer’s ink and was vigorously dominated by Elizabeth.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk