The Shakespeare Handbook by Michael Schmidt and Robert Maslen

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The Shakespeare Handbook by Michael Schmidt and Robert Maslen

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Category: Reference
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: A brilliant starting point for those with little or no knowledge of Shakespeare, but of limited use as a detailed study guide to any particular play.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 208 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Quercus Publishing plc
ISBN: 978-1847246158

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William Shakespeare. If you're a fan of the theatre, you may see him as the greatest playwright of all time. If you're currently studying English at school, he may be the worst thing that ever happened to you. Over the years, I've certainly held both opinions, depending on where I was at the time.

Part of this could have been because I, like most school pupils, never had a gentle introduction to Shakespeare. If I'd had a book like this in the early years of my schooling, I suspect I may have come around to my love of Shakespeare a lot sooner than I did.

Maslen and Schmidt take us through every one of Shakespeare's plays, preferring to present them in what is commonly thought to be chronological order, rather than grouping them into the comedies and tragedies. This not only allows the reader to experience the common themes that caught Shakespeare's attention at various points in his life and career, but also highlights the slightly amusing fact that the three parts of Henry VI weren't written, or at least first performed, in the correct order.

The format with which they go through the plays remains constant throughout. There is an introductory page giving some basic details about the play and the circumstances behind the writing of it, as well as basic overview of the story and the common themes in the play. They also discuss the importance and context of their chosen scene from the play before moving onto the scene itself, which is presented with occasional notes to explain some of the language used. Every play features at least once throughout the book, with some of the more influential ones being given a second scene and more information on the play. Each play also had a related picture, showing either someone performing the work, or a work of art based on it, which was fascinating when you read the captions and discover the sheer longevity of Shakespeare's works to artists and thespians alike.

For a beginner to Shakespeare, this is the ideal book to act as a taster and it would certainly be of some benefit to school aged children before they are thrown headlong into his works the way I was as a pupil. Whilst the introductory pages are written in a fairly formal tone, much as you may expect from what is almost a school textbook, it's generally written at a quite simple level. Whilst the extracts from the plays themselves are presented directly from the plays and so are in Shakespeare's occasionally less easy to understand language, what may prove to be the trickier parts are highlighted and further explanation given.

The back cover of the book suggests that what the authors were trying to achieve with this book was to create a bluffer's guide and in this, they have succeeded. This book would help anyone to speak reasonably knowledgeably about Shakespeare's works in general, at least at a fairly basic level. The opportunity to do the same about any of the individual plays isn't afforded quite so well, as the introductory page only skips over the plays briefly, but the selected scenes are often those that incorporate the best known quotes from each play, which does provide that extra opportunity to show off if required. Having fallen into a conversation about Romeo and Juliet a couple of days after reading that section and impressing someone by continuing a quote they only partly remembered, I can certainly confirm that for myself.

For anyone actually studying Shakespeare in depth, or even more so for someone studying one of his plays, this book would be of more limited use. It's certainly not a bad place to start with, but it lacks any of the real detail that seemed necessary when I was studying English. In fairness to the authors, however, their intention does not appear to have been to create a Shakespeare study guide and the book certainly achieves their aims very well.

For someone like myself who has studied Shakespeare in depth, it did feel a little light and I was disappointed to note that my favourite scenes from The Merchant of Venice were not one of the two included. But for those who have not, this is possibly the best way to introduce someone to the Bard I remember seeing, particularly someone who already has a passing interest or someone of school age who may otherwise be about to get a rude introduction to him.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another guide to Shakespeare, but with a slightly different approach, we can recommend Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal.

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