Shakespeare was a rite of passage for me. In the school I attended, the sixth graders put on an annual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (for nearly two decades now, I think). Next to graduation, AMND was the most important event of our grade school lives, and the pageant season was something everyone looked forward to — the school transforms into a magical place when Shakespeare-spouting elves and fairies, noble lords and fair ladies, and mustached mechanicals traipse around the campus, heightening the excitement for the much-awaited annual performance.
It was the pre-digicam ’90s so I don’t have any pictures of our production (the play photos are of a recent batch from the school website), but I don’t think any of us will forget our AMND experience. Up to now, you can ask any of us who were in that play and we can probably recite whole acts from memory.
Since first grade I had my heart set on the role of Puck (I even secretly started memorizing the lines in advance), but I had a growth spurt (if you can call it that, really…) in fifth grade, making me taller than about half a dozen other girls in the batch by the time auditions rolled around (I had the irresistible cuteness of tiny twin sisters to contend with, for crying out loud!), and I was deemed too tall to play the mischievous elf.
Then I tried auditioning for Hermia, but I couldn’t keep a straight face while reading the lines (O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom! You thief of love! — to this day, that still makes me crack up). But I had to get a role, because every student had to have an onstage role and a backstage role (I was already head of the Props committee, of course!) and I didn’t want to be a fairy in a stinking leotard!
I auditioned for one of the mechanicals (for the Pyramus and Thisbe play within the play), and landed the role of Tom Snout the tinker, who also plays the Wall. The mechanicals get all the funny bits in the play, and that suited me fine. The funniest thing that happened, though, was on our gala performance, when the kid playing Thisbe forgot her cue and was off backstage somewhere while her scene was up. Our lines were dubbed, so the dubbing was running but there was no Thisbe, hahaha!
Anyway, memories of our sixth grade “crash course” in Shakespeare came up while I was reading the book Shakespeare: A Crash Course by Rob Graham back in February. I want to say I was reading it because it was the month of love (bleagh) and Shakespeare is one of the most legendary romantics, but I was actually reading up for the Shakespeare category on Geek Fight. Haha.
For such a small book, it packs a whole lot of information — a timeline from 1547 to the 2000s, an introduction to the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare’s (mistaken) identities, what is known of his life, Shakespearean spelling, famous friends, theater companies, Shakespeare’s last will and testament, and other background information.
Then it delves into Shakespeare’s work: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Richard III, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, the Roman plays (Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens), the Henrys (IV, VI), the histories (Richard II, King John, Henry V, Henry VII), the problem plays (Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure), and his final plays (Pericles, Cymbeline, the Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest).
There are also sections on cross-dressing in Shakespeare plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets, fakes and forgeries, theater adaptations, Shakespeare in the 20th century, various adaptations (theater, film, loose adaptations, spaghetti westerns and cartoons), the Royal Shakespeare company, Shakespeare festivals, witchcraft, cyber-Shakespeare (Klingon Hamlet, anyone?) and other topics in “Bardolatry.”
The book is fun and engaging, and for a crash course, it kept me occupied for hours. I have a small selection of Shakepeareana in my library, and by far this is the best book in terms of scope and readability.
It’s also one of my prize finds for 2010 — books like these make bargain book hunting worth it! :)
Shakespeare: A Crash Course, hardcover with dustjacket, 5/5 stars
Book #17 for 2011