Once upon a time, I picked up Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, decided it was far too heavy reading to just flip through on the shelf at the bookstore, and put it down. I mean, for Pete’s sake, the man gives a history lesson about the state of the world before ever getting into any of the plays. But, knowing its place among the highly recommended guides to Shakespeare, a friend got it for me for Christmas. Nice edition, too – both volumes, hardcover.
So, I started reading that this weekend while I was on vacation. And you know what? It’s still an encyclopedia. I try opening randomly to a play. I have to admit, I do like the books that treat the plays individually, I feel that I can break the book up better if I can pick and choose which subjects suit me depending on mood. I ended up on Merchant of Venice. Sure enough, we get a quick history of Venice, but then it’s on to the play after just one page (plus a map), so I suppose that’s a good thing.
But then, here’s a good example: Asimov gets to a quote about “let my liver rather heat with wine” and ponders whether Shakespeare was making an early connection to alcoholism? “Nothing of the sort,” says Asimov. “The liver is the largest gland in the body, weighing three or four pounds in a man….” …wait, what? I’m reading about the Merchant of Venice, and now I know that the human liver weighs about 4 pounds. Great. Super. Awesome. Asimov was legendary for this sort of encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, but did he have to shove it in everywhere he could? Do I really need to know this?
He then gives two paragraphs on the importance of the liver to soothsayers since, being the biggest organ, it was the easiest to spot and watch for odd conditions. But he never actually says anything about what Shakespeare’s quote means. I guess my point, simply put, is, “How does this knowledge bring me any closer to understanding/appreciating Merchant of Venice?”
Here’s the book I want. At least, here are the criteria I’ve been using in my quest for “the” Shakespeare book. I want a book that I would recommend to a friend who doesn’t know much about Shakespeare but is open to learning about it (and by it, I mean the body of work, not necessarily the man). Almost every book I’ve found thus far falls into one of two categories – either an academic tome written specifically for people who have already professed their undying love for the subject and now want to debate every last detail…..or else it is a variation on “for dummies” that starts with the premise that you really want to learn as little as possible, either so you can just pass the test or so you can appear to know the subject, and breaks it down a word at a time like a vocabulary quiz, losing the appreciation of the whole along the way.
I want something in the middle. To date, the closest I’ve found is actually Bryson’s biography – it’s light and conversational enough that someone with a passing interest in the subject could pick it up, understand it, and actually enjoy it.
Now I want somebody to do that for the plays. I want an in-depth examination of Romeo and Juliet, for example, that gives you a taste of everything that’s in there while never losing your attention and still keeping from and center the fact that it’s a damned good story. No, it’s more than that. It’s a far better story than you know, and here’s why. The kind of book that, after you’re done reading it, you say, “Wow, I had no idea. Now I want to go learn more.”
I want a book that makes me want to buy copies for my friends, and send them with a little note saying “Read this, and you’ll have some idea of why I love this stuff so much.” (To be truthful, Bryson comes up short on this bit, as there’s not much passion in his writing. The first chapters of Shakespeare Wars (Rosenbaum) are probably the closest I’ve gotten so far. ) Remember, I’m neither a history buff nor a literary academic nor a theater nerd. In truth, there’s no good reason why I should be a Shakespeare geek….except the words. There’s enough magic in the words alone to hook me, so I’ve got to believe that it can do the same for others.