The Friendly Shakespeare, Norrie Epstein

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The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard, Norrie Epstein

Although this is billed as a book about Shakespeare and his work for people who don’t like it (of which I am definitely not numbered), I learned a lot about the plays and the periods in which they’ve been performed since to make this book worthwhile. For example, I hadn’t known that the sonnet sequence for the most part is from an older man to a fair young boy. This isn’t the idea of some fringe group either, but accepted by most Shakespearean scholars. Knowing this fact can certainly add a different level of meaning to many of the sonnets (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).

Aside from the increased knowledge I gained of the texts, this book really helped me place the work against the time period that it was written for, and how people have viewed it since. Ms. Epstein’s best analogy for aiding modern readers in grasping how Shakespeare was viewed in his day is comparing him with a writer for TV (strangely enough, a Twilight Zone episode did this as well). People who went to the Globe in 1600 went to see a “All in the Family Royal” or a “Three, Well That’s Company” starring their favorite actor, Richard Burbage. The writer? Do you know who the writer of your favorite TV show is? Will “Cheers” be the “Much Ado About Nothing” of the 24th century? Or, even worse, will “Married . . . with Children”? (By the way, if you have any interest in Shakespeare, I strongly recommend Kenneth Branaugh’s new version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” While Keanu Reeves is stilted, and Michael Keaton possesses Dogberry with the spirit of Beetlejuice, for the most part the film is a joy, especially any time that Branaugh or Emma Thompson is on the screen.)

Rather than summarize the plays (which only details the plots, which quite often weren’t of Shakespeare’s invention), Epstein attempts to comment on the play, quoting critical and personal reactions. She also presents some small interviews with some of the most famous Shakespearean’s living, about parts and plays most commonly associated with them. I was disappointed because the book was incomplete. Although I agree with her dismissal of “Julius Caesar,” she goes into detail on “The Tempest” alone among the romantic plays, and misses quite a few of my favorite comedies as well. The books is quite a brick as it is, but this is due more to the large print and often wasted space between sections rather than the amount of words contained.

I read The Friendly Shakespeare from cover to cover, but it is well suited to be picked up and read from anywhere within its pages, most sections being only two pages long. For the bardolator and bard-avoider alike, Epstein’s book is a lot like her subject–entertaining and fun, with enough serious matter for later contemplation.

[Finished 12 July 1993]

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