Skip to comments.Yellow books should be for phone numbers (Shakespeare Needs No Dumbing Down)
Posted on 06/10/2003 7:52:12 AM PDT by presidio9
There's something rotten in the state of publishing.
I've been a long-time admirer of the cheeky yellow self-help books for Dummies. From investing to home brewing, they offer the challenged reader guidance on mastering life's complexities.
But now they've gone too far - Shakespeare for Dummies.
This way madness lies.
What's dumb is thinking that Shakespeare needs to be dumbed down, as if the unadulterated Bard is too hard .
If Shakespeare's words and expressions need simplifying, why is our own everyday language crammed with them? For evidence, look no further than the pages of newspapers - and not just broadsheets; tabloids love their Willy too. Shakespeare is the reference of choice for headline writers. He is the master of the one-liner - clear, accessible and understood.
Consider some recent grabs. Richard III sinisterly used to highlight the leadership tensions between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer: "A winter of discontent"; Julius Caesar marshalled to defend the Australian cricket captain: "We should come to praise Waugh, not bury him"; and the lack of fuss on the third anniversary of a once dreaded tax: "GST: much ado about not all that much."
It's not always so serious. Twelfth Night has been used to put roses on every cheek: "And some have Vegemite thrust upon them"; "The milk of human kindness", lifted from Macbeth, was the perfect lead for a new book on the secret life of breasts; and The Winter's Tale-inspired: "Exit, pursued by Martians" was the only possible headline for a story about a motorist who blamed aliens for his reckless driving.
Shakespeare is nothing if not adaptable. Moreover, we can already have fun with him - guidebook permission is not required.
The bit of Bard that generates the most headlines (in every sense) is the one with the most lines - Hamlet. And the most borrowed line is arguably the world's most famous one-liner.
From "To float or not to float, that is the question", about companies listing on the stock exchange, to "To Bee Gee or not to Bee Gee, that is Cambridge's question", about the suitability of studying pop song lyrics at university, the great Dane's contemplation of suicide has spawned an infinite variety.
Most of Shakespeare's surviving 39 plays contain a line or two regularly dusted off and given a light spin to fit a contemporary headline. Their meanings are perfectly clear.
It would be of greater value to publish Shakespeare for Smarties to remind readers where the words they digest with their cornflakes each morning come from.
Shakespeare continues to make sense of the world we live in. His words are the thing. Yellow books should stick to listing phone numbers.
Nonetheless, I have a copy of Shakespeare for Dummies and enjoyed reading it. It's a hoot. Like many of the Dummies books, it's a crash course in its subject matter, and this particular one covers such topics as Shakespeare's life, the historical context in which he wrote, the politics of the day, and so forth. We never got any of that in high school, focusing instead on the structure of the play (I was soured to the Bard in high school because we spent all our class time dissecting the mechanics of the play rather than reading the thing).
The latter half of the book comprises plot summaries, listing notable performances and good film adaptations, and includes tongue-in-cheek "scorecards" for each play on which you can mark the number of mistaken identities, soliloquies, major characters wasted, etc.
Dame Judi Dench enjoyed it too - she wrote the preface.