Here's The Book I Want (or, Why I Still Can't Read Asimov's Shakespeare)

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.

8 thoughts on “Here's The Book I Want (or, Why I Still Can't Read Asimov's Shakespeare)

  1. Well, I’m crushed that you don’t care for Asimov’s Guide. I’ve cherished that book for years, and it’s precisely because of the wide-ranging, scatter-shot quality of it. Shakespeare was voraciously curious about many different things, and so was Asimov, and watching one great mind riffing off another like that is most of the fun for me. Ah, well, to each his own.

    As for your recommendation, have you looked at Norrie Epstein’s _The Friendly Shakespeare_? Perhaps you dismiss it under the heading of “for dummies,” but I’ve never felt that way about it–I think it’s thoughtful, wide-ranging and very engaging. And the sense of enjoyment and affection for Shakespeare is infectious. It’s been in print for 15 years or so now, so is a bit dated on things like movie recommendations (no Brannagh Hamlet or McKellen Richard), but I still think it’s great.

    Of course, if you want something that hits a little harder, I really like Marjorie Garber’s _Shakespeare After All_…but that’s more for the devoted fan than the general reader.

  2. “Gibberish” is a bit harsh, I think, but I will grant you that Garber tends to fall into the literary trap of discussing why a play is _interesting_, rather than whether it is _good._ Since a lot of the weaker plays are earlier chronologically (I’m looking at YOU, _Two Gentlemen of Verona_), this means there is more of that type of thing earlier on in the book–you get a windy treatment of gender identities in the English Renaissance, where at least Bloom is willing to come out and say the play is not very good. Bit if Garber is “too cold,” Bloom is certainly “too hot,” and he can’t seem to distinguish between the plays that Shakespeare wrote and the characters that exist in his own imagination. I don’t know if the “Goldilocks” book is out there…on the whole, I’d say you get very good commentary in the Folger and Signet editions of each individual play. Perhaps the answer is to buy the lot and assemble your own book with scissors and glue.

  3. Well, the fact that I have Asimov at all means that deep down I do realize it’s value, and will eventually read it. Hopefully. I appreciate the significance of Asimov and Shakespeare together in one volume as well, as a matter of fact I think that’s the reason I gave to my friend for why I wanted to add it to my collection.

    I’ll hunt down your recommendation of Epstein, I’d not heard of that one.

    I have Garber, couldn’t finish it. I might well choose Bloom over that one. Ivory tower academic gibberish, from where I sit. You must be a devoted fan indeed – but does that suggest I am not? 😉

  4. First, let me tell you I enjoy very much your blog. I read it everyday. You always bring something of great interest.
    Well, speaking of a book pouring passion for Shakespeare, have you read Dominic Dromgoole’s “Will And Me”? I think it’s superb, though it is not intended for begginers, but to those who feel Shakespeare’s presence daily, wich I think is your case (and mine).

  5. Thanks, Wayne! I have heard of Will and Me (and heard good things), but not yet had the pleasure. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    Craig, to be fair to Garber I did pull her out of the bookcase again last night and flip through a bit. Maybe not quite as snobby as I thought on first read.

  6. Duane,

    I get the RSS feed for your blog and love reading everything that you post. This is my first trip “here,” though, and my first comment. I too love your passion and the Bard. I am blessed to be a high school English teacher who gets to teach about him every year. I had another suggestion for you. It is called The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein. It is incredible. Epstein is an academic and gives truly wonderful commentaries on the major plays, but they are in plain language that my high school students love. Even better, in my mind at least, Epstein has FUN with the material. There are quotes from famous Hamlets and goofy Shakespeare trivial items. Epstein also incorporates lists of words coined my Shakespeare and famous lines and other similar items. Best of all, Epstein is open to acknowledging Bardolotry as both wonderful and humorous. It is my favorite Shakespearean reference, both personally and professionally. In fact, mine is so well used, I have broken it in two after 15 years of opening it to various favorite passages. Thank you again for your wonderful blog! I look forward to many more postings about my favorite playwright.

  7. I love Asimov’s book! But it isn’t for everyone. Read the chapter on Hamlet, that’s my favorite.

    The Friendly Shakespeare sounds like what you’re looking for. Something a little different that you might also like is The Essential Shakespeare Handbook. It’s a reference guide, but still packed full of great info. It’s worth checking out.

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