Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To Be Or Not To Be... And Everything Else You Should Know From Shakespeare by Liz Evers.

Sometimes, just sometimes, just hearing snatches of Shakespeare’s verse or language makes me emotional. Could be because I’m subliminally remembering a good performance or just simply the implication of the words, but two lines, if I’ve the courage to type them are “The readiness is all” and “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. There are plenty of other and most of them are included in the index of famous lines at the back of To Be Or Not To Be... Oh, um, there’s another one. Hold on while I get a hankie.

As Liz Evers explains in her introduction, Shakespeare’s influence on our language is incalculable but also often subliminal and her book is an attempt to bring these old phrases to new light. With chapters listing every day words whose existence we owe to Shakespeare and correcting common misquotes, Evers succeeds in demonstrating that much of modern English balances on a scaffold constructed by one man, an endeavour she carries out, refreshingly in a field which tends to be depressingly sober, with plenty of wit and bags of wisdom.

Having for years understood it be simple reference, it transpires the Porter’s scene in The Scottish Play was the actual source of the Knock, Knock joke. Who says Shakespeare isn’t funny? But Evers herself turns this revelation into a very amusing joke (I won’t spoil) which itself really is a demonstration of the clever tone the writer sets throughout these pages, mixing reverence and naughtiness. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone list the words which haven’t gained currency. Hello, bubukles.

Which isn’t to say Evers’s book doesn’t contain much of what you’d expect from a miscellany or companion. There’s a gossipy biographical note that is as interested in the details of Shakespare marriage and love life as whether he even wrote the plays. An entertaining section details the sonnets and demonstrates Evers’s thorough research as she acknowledges Jonathan Bate’s theory about the dedication. A glossary of the major characters manages to usefully reduce the story arc of a figure like Macbeth into four lines.

A large proportion of the book offers lively synopses of the plays which while keeping well within orthodoxy does at least acknowledge the apocrypha. Some of these are longer than others and are never plodding and probably give as much information as is required (the whole of Timon of Athens is reasonably expounded in just three paragraphs). These are augmented with interesting introductions and box-outs pointing to useful background information, mostly trivia, but well chosen.

To Be Or Not Be... is another great example of the gift books published by Michael O'Mara Books which I've given on numerous occasions having bumped into them at Blackwells and Past Times. Their title An Apple a Day, which collates proverbs was a big hit at Christmas, and I'd have no hesitation in passing on Evers's book should the occasion arise. Page after page I was introduced to some new piece of trivia. I didn’t previously know that the remedy for saying Macbeth outloud was to quote Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us.” I only hope that works as well in type.

To Be Or Not To Be... And Everything Else You Should Know From Shakespeare by Liz Evers is published by Michael O'Mara Books Ltd. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-84317-462-2. Review copy supplied.

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