I recently engaged in some librarian geekiness by re-cataloging my library’s Shakespeare collection. No longer are the plays and anthologies and works about the author jumbled together, though plays sorted by some thoughtful pages by publisher. Now all of Shakespeare comes first, sorted by play title for individual works. I made up my very own Dewey number for the about-Shakespeare stuff, so it all goes after. (Dewey does have an official Shakespeare system, which is in itself about a page long and dreadfully complicated.) And while I was being pleased with myself, I found this book and decided to read it.
Reduced Shakespeare by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor.
I’ve had Shakespeare on my Official List of Favorite Authors for years now, and while realizing that this list is somewhat pretentious and outdated and might not fully reflect my current tastes, still…. I also realized that while I have a handful of Shakespeare plays that I love and have read and watched over and over again, there are many, many more that I haven’t read. And mostly I’m too tired these days to put out the effort that reading or watching Shakespeare demands. The Reduced Shakespeare Company to the rescue! Like their show (which I loved on DVD), this is short and funny, as well as alarmingly accurate. This book covers all the bases in just 244 pages – Shakespeare’s biography (what’s known and the vast amounts that aren’t), the plays, poetry, authorship controversy, industry and films. I was most interested in their analysis of the plays and film adaptations, but I learned a lot about the authorship controversies that I’ve always been too skeptical to pay attention to before. For each play they include the title, date published, class (history, tragedy, comedy), setting, source, best known for, major characters, plot, one-sentence plot encapsulations, moral, famous quotes, best & worst features, a rating in bard heads, an interesting fact, and an essay question. Here are a few even more abridged examples:
Best known for: Not being very well known. Two bard heads.
One-sentence plot encapsulation: Hamlet avenges his father, and it only takes four hours. Best feature: In all likelihood, this is the best play ever written. Five bard heads.
Essay questions: Does the sequel Henry IV, Part 2 have more in common with Godfather II or Rocky II? Why?
Because they are comedians, all of the reviews are so funny that I found myself laughing out loud and reading bits out loud to whatever hapless colleagues happened to be in the break room with me while I was reading it. The reviews for the less popular plays are probably even funnier than the ones for the good ones. Still, the bard head ratings could come in handy if you were trying to decide whether or not it would be worth hiring a babysitter to go see whatever Shakespeare play happened to be coming by locally, or even actually reading through the text.
The reviews for the films also are very funny and include the bard head ratings as well as notes on how faithful to the play they are and whether or not they work as movies. They are organized by the original play, with straight-up adaptations (hint: the movie has the same name as the play) followed by films inspired by the play, like West Side Story and 10 Things I Hate About You, which they like better than any of the straight-up film adaptations of the Taming of the Shrew. Hilariously, they include the 2001 Charlie’s Angels as a Lear adaptation. There are also critiques and yet more funny making-of-the-film bits from classic and modern Shakespeare films. Now I need to check the book out again to make a list of all their favorites that I haven’t seen to add to my too-watch list. The biggest shortcoming with the book is its publication date – 2005 – which means they’ve not covered the many film adaptations and spin-offs that have come out since then. Update, please!
Dear readers, if you have favorite Shakespeare film adaptations, please let me know!