Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare

William Shakespeare has been given more titles than can be counted: The best British Playwright, most influential English author, most accomplished author in history, best writer in the history of the English language, the best writer ever, the list goes on. Shakespeare also has the reputation of being rather thick, wordy, sesquipedalian, and just plain hard to understand. There are plenty of dictionaries, lexicons, and other books for dummies on Shakespeare that have been written to help the average person understand the greatest of playwrights. But boring teachers in schools across the world are continually giving students the impression that you have to be a genius to fully understand and appreciate Shakespeare.

Isaac Asimov shows us that one must only be a genius to single-handedly write a book that can really help people really understand what is really going on in the many works of William Shakespeare. And he does it quite nicely.

This book is not a bunch of footnotes put together. It is not entirely composed of word definitions, translations of the text to modern English, and not a summary. It is, as we are told in the title, a guide. Just as a tour guide walks us safely along the path explaining and educating, so too does Asimov with the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays and even a couple of his poems.

In the introduction Asimov reminds the reader that Shakespeare, although a writer “for all time,” was initially writing for an Elizabethan audience. The history, mythology, and other knowledge is what he was writing about. “Any yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?” And through the course of the rest of the book Isaac Asimov lets the reader know much more of what the writing was about – leading to greater enjoyment. Much greater. This reviewer, in fact, nearly leaped for joy after reading the chapter on Hamlet. A play regarded by many as Shakespeare’s greatest and most complex writing is made crystal clear. Each play is put into historical context, obscure passages and references are explained, and enjoyment of these plays increase exponentially.

The books can be used two ways. Primarily, a guide through the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays to be read from cover to cover. A tour guide requires you to be on the same path they are on, so if you haven’t read a play some of the chapter on that work might not be as helpful as it could be. The book can also be a reference. Each chapter need not be read in order. Each applies to a specific play, so during or after the reading of any play you may reference the appropriate chapter. Either way, be sure to read the introduction!

There’s a lot that can be said for this book, but in the end it really speaks for itself. Isaac Asimov doesn’t just prove his immense knowledge of Shakespeare’s language and history, but that once you know a thing or two about what The Bard is talking about you will have an appreciation for the plays. This work is strongly recommended to teachers and students of Shakespearean works both in the fields of Theatre and Literature. With Isaac Asimov as your guide you will truly find that William Shakespeare is a writer “for all time.”

Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare

Shakespeare Blog Carnival #2

I’m a little late in posting, but it’s been a hectic week for me… I’m moving! My muscles hate me for being such Shakespeare nerd and having all those heavy books. But enough about me!

Let’s see what the month of April brought in the ShakesBlogoSphere! Not a bad turnout this month. I’m posting only things that were submitted, so if you missed it: too bad! There’s always next time!

Ioan Draniciar presents us with a poem entitled Shakespeare Created the World in Seven Days. It made me smile, how about you?

Ashok posted some very interesting reading material: The Coming Age, an essay on Macbeth. He said, “[it's] a reading of Macbeth – if the first part bores you, take a look at parts 3 & 4, which contrast Duncan and his son. The argument I’m advancing attempts to explain who the witches are ultimately, but takes a circuitous route.”

Nigel Beale has shared A Scene by Scene discussion between Prof. Joseph Khoury and Nigel Beale about Hamlet’s first and second acts. Download the mp3, give it a listen when you have the time. It’s 45 minute long so give yourself time to listen and think about it. It’s never bad to hear people’s interpretations. Nigel also plans to host a roundtable discussion on Hamlet next week. Stay tuned!

Craig Bryant introduces his new blog, “Another Shakespeare?” with the post, A beginning is a very delicate time… This blog actually isn’t about Shakespeare at all, rather Thomas Middleton. one of the Bard’s contemporaries and his writing hand plays a large role in the text of Macbeth.

Brent Diggs presents Loves Labor Little – A Tale Perspired By Recent Events, a funny little post. For entertainment purposes only.

Geoffrey posted something that’s hard to ignore: George Bush is Shakespeare. Not literally of course. Don’t blow up, just see for yourself what he has to say.

P.L. Frederick gives us a couple humorous tidbits this month: Shakespeare, Spelling, And 1¢ Gingerbread and The Spoon, Most Noble Of Eating Utensils. I enjoyed them, you might too!

And last, but not least, William S makes us do a little thinking as he talks about “the big book from 1623 that started it all.” The post is Folio? which is, of course, about the First Folio.

That’s all for this month. Be sure to submit the posts you would like to be featured in the next Shakespeare Blog Carnival!

Who Wrote Shakespeare? Who Cares?

Not I, said the blogger.

Note, for clarity: I think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I do care. I’m not entirely apathetic. My whole point to this post is that it seems that researching the authorship question has put a fog in front of the works themselves.

There are so many theoretical webs that have been spun over the past several years about who the REAL Shakespeare was. Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays… he was uneducated, lower class, not well read, didn’t travel, didn’t know about this, that, or the other, blah, blah, blah. Because of all that it must’ve been The Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Bacon, or a black Jewish woman!

I’ve often pondered what people’s fascinations with finding the “REAL Shakespeare” is. It has become a mystery story with infinite possibilities. The authorship question is a choose your own adventure story among researchers and authors. People are crazy about finding connections between people and possibilities of this and that. Are we searching for answers or are they trying to avoid something by raising different questions?

I’m merely asking questions; I don’t have the answers.

Does all this talk about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays detract in anyway from the works themselves? You decide. I personally am not wholly concerned with who wrote them… they good! If several monkeys with quill and inkwell scribbled out this wonderful poetry, so be it. It’s great theatre and that’s what matters to me. If Arthur Miller didn’t write his plays, shame on him for lying, but they plays are still amazing. Who can argue with quality art? The fact is that we know so little about Shakespeare’s life that it’s not possible for us to say for sure what he could or couldn’t do, what knew and didn’t know, where he went and where he didn’t go.

Maybe the authorship debate is in some way an attempt to knock Mr. Shakespeare off the high pedestal he’s been on for a few centuries. “Shakespeare’s overrated, and no one remembers Oxford. Time to change that!” Maybe. Could it be that a student long ago didn’t want to study Shakespeare’s plays because he was bored and happened to draw some connections between the works and some other person alive at the time? “Now nobody will read the plays, they’ll only read my book on who wrote them! MUAHAHAHA!!!”

I exaggerate. But if Shakespeare didn’t write the plays… so what? That’s all I want to know. People make it such a big issue, but what does it change? I actually enjoy hearing all the crazy stories that people make up on this subject. That’s entertainment! So I’ll continue to let the history detectives do their work. I’ll also continue to read, perform, study, blog about, and enjoy the works by the artist currently known as Shakespeare.


The man himself turns 444 today. Can you imagine that? He’s been around for a long time and is still very much alive in books, theaters, and our hearts. Go Shakey! I lift my glass of juice to 444 more years of fame!

I can’t say that I threw a party today, but just some little things. I could’ve gone out to celebrate if I wasn’t at work but that’s okay. I did write “HAPPY 444th BIRTHDAY SHAKESPEARE” on a very prominent Chalkboard that people use to send messages.

I also was asked to do a review of a book on Shakespeare to post on Dust Jacket Review, an online book community. I chose to do a review of Isaac Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare, one of my favorite books about Shakespeare. I may transfer the review here at some point, but for now check it out there! And then buy the book because [to sum up my conclusion in the review briefly:] it’s awesome.

Keep celebrating Shakespeare! Don’t drink too much sack. And celebrate St. George’s day, of course. How coincidental that the day of England’s Patron Saint is also Shakespeare’s birthday… and deathday. Very patriotic of old Bill Shakes. So how are you celebrating?

Don’t forget that the next Shakespeare Blog Carnival is coming up! Remember to submit your post.

Death By Suicide

Apologies in advance for a not so happy sort of post, but the subject was on my mind.

I was listening to an audiobook version of Antony and Cleopatra today while driving to an from my various engagements (audio Shakespeare is great while driving, try it sometime!). Antony hears that Cleopatra is dead, so he decides to kill himself. His servant, Eros, kill himself when asked to kill his master. “Why, there then: thus I do escape the sorrow Of Antony’s death.” And of course Cleopatra meets a self inflicted end. In the previous Roman Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus kill themselves when they find that their battles aren’t going well. Portia kills herself. Plenty of other plays include suicide, one of the most famous examples: Romeo and Juliet.

Lots of people dying in these plays, many of them suicides. How does a suicide affect an audience or reader in context of one of these plays? Romans held the belief that suicide rather than capture was a noble death but I have a feeling that Shakespeare doesn’t share this view.

The real tragedy in many of these stories, I believe, have to do with the unnecessary deaths that occur. Cassius’ death was because he misinterpreted what his messenger saw. Brutus on the other hand preferred not to be captured and preserve his honor. Were either of these honorable?

In R&J and A&C the first lover thinks the other is dead and kills himself, the ladies soon follow suit. Was that a smart thing to do? I don’t think the author is painting a beautiful, romantic end to either pair of star-crossed lovers.

In the Christian world, suicide is a sin and was likely a view shared by Mr. Shakespeare. But I know there are some out there who think suicide serves a different purpose. Maybe Romeo and Juliet were fated to die because a love so perfect cannot exist. Or maybe because the prologue says they die. Depends on the production and the director’s take on the script. What’s your take?

It’s a touchy subject for a lot of people these days with lots of coverage in the media about youngsters taking their own lives, and people taking their lives along with other people for various reasons. Parallels can be drawn between the tragedy of someone so young dying before their time and possibly in vain, as well as those who die “for honor” (in their opinion anyway). Billy Shakes shows us once again that his works can be relevant today.

So what is it with tragedies and suicide? What does killing one’s self accomplish? And are there other parallels to today that can be made? Horatio tries to end his life as Hamlet is dying, but is stopped by Hamlet so that he can “Tell my story.” What story are you hearing when Shakespeare’s characters die by their own hand?

Highlights, Underlines, and Footnotes, Oh my!

I have previously shared that text analysis is an important step in speaking Shakespeare. There are infinite ways of going about it, the best way will most likely be unique for each person. I thought I’d share an image with you that will give you a rough idea of my process.

I’m a very visual person, so my scripts are always littered with lines, arrows, pictures, different colored highlight marks, notes, abbreviations, and other gibberish that only I can understand.


This is a short monologue from I.i of Love’s Labour’s Lost, spoken by Berowne. About one minute long and comedic, if you happen to need a comedic one minute piece for a man. So here’s a rough outline of my process:

I almost always prefer to have a digital copy of the script (full play, scene, monologue… whatever I’m working on) first. I’ll download it from whatever site I get to first and paste it into word. Then I head to my Facsimile edition of The First Folio and compare the texts. I change the punctuation and capitalization in my document to match that of the First Folio. I don’t want to have other editors messing with my work. Then it’s time to print. I could do most of the rest of the work on my computer, but it feels good to mark up a paper with pens and highlighters.

I start by highlighting all the verbs, which are the real action and story-telling parts of the piece. Just a little reminder to emphasize these. I’ll usually emphasize the punctuation marks that are there with pen to make sure I see them. I highlight (in various colors) repeated words, comparisons, big shifts, and other things I think need to be emphasized. I’ll determine whether a line is full of vowels or mostly consonants – emotional or rational. I’ll count syllables, decide on any elisions, mark words that I need a definition next to (and then look up the definition and write it off the side), note any changes in the rhythm of the meter… it goes on.

I will do this for every line in a show that I speak. If I’m vocal coaching or directing a show I’ll try to do it for the whole show, but that might not always happen. Now you’ll notice that this example monologue takes up the entire page. I don’t actually do that when working on an entire show, that would be a waste of paper. But if I’m working on short piece – perhaps for an audition – then it’s nice to have larger text to look at. More room for scribbles, too.

By no means do I require or recommend that anybody does exactly this. If you can just look at it and be a brilliant actor, awesome. But if you’re not a genius then I would suggest that you experiment with different ways of emphasizing the important parts of a text.

I did say that I would do this for an entire role, and quite possibly an entire script. Yes, it takes a very long time to do all that, but the reward for the work is immense. That means I’ve spent hours and hours on the text. I almost always speak it aloud as I work. When I’m done I am very familiar with the text and have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on. You really own the text after spending so much time with it – and a performance won’t be great until the words are really yours.

You have to love language to do this sort of thing – this is how I express that.

Based On Hamlet

Shakespeare’s works have inspired many writers to create films, books, plays, and more with plots borrowed from The Bard. Adaptations range from a similar play but with modernized text to works almost unrecognizable as something inspired by Shakespeare.

The list of works inspired by one of Will’s most famous plays, Hamlet, is lengthy… if not inconceivably long. But are we sometimes incorrect in saying that a work is based on one of Shakespeare’s plays? Perhaps the similar plot is coincidental.

The Shakespeare Geek posted a link to a write up about the Super Mario Brothers movie, which includes the following:

The entire plot is actually a tweaked version of Hamlet. The old Mushroom King (King Hamlet) is de-evolved (killed) by King Koopa (Claudius), and it’s up to an inexperienced hero (Mario/Luigi) to restore balance to the kingdom by avenging the king. Daisy is Ophelia and Spike and Iggy are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Except, you know, nobody dies.

A more common example is Disney’s The Lion King is based on Hamlet.

I wonder… do the writers say “Hey, I have an idea for a story. Hamlet, but with lions and it’s a musical and kid-friendly”? Or do they come up with a story about taking back the throne and realize it parallels some aspects of Hamlet? And doesn’t Lion King have things in common with any other play by Shakespeare? (Scar as Richard III, anyone?) Maybe revenge tragedies are such common plot and the first one people think of is that of the Danish Prince. If so, there were others that came before!

So are people really coming up with stories based on Hamlet, or is it just a plot that people know has been successful for hundreds of years (even before Shakespeare) so they use it? I’m thinking that it’s a little bit of both.

If I ever meet the creative team behind The Lion King I’ll ask and let you know.

Was It Good For Me?

Not such a long time ago I asked you how your education on Shakespeare was/is. I also posted the results of the online survey I created. There seems to be a split of people who had a good Shakespearience in school, and many who didn’t. The consensus seems to be “it depends on the teacher.”

Now it’s time for my story. I don’t think it’s a horribly fascinating story. I didn’t grow up idolizing Shakespeare, it just kind of happened. Somehow I seem to have a lot to write. So if you have nothing else to do, click to read

Continue Reading…