A painless, intriguing approach to Shakespeare

January 10, 1993|By Anne Marie Drew

THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE:

A THOROUGHLY PAINLESS

GUIDE TO THE BEST

OF THE BARD.

Norrie Epstein.

Viking.

465 pages. $22.50.

Any book that can compare William Shakespeare to both Jesus of Nazareth and Sylvester Stallone is worth reading, and Norrie Epstein's "The Friendly Shakespeare" fulfills the promise of the subtitle: It's a thoroughly painless guide to the best of the bard.

Without the least bit of academic pretension, Dr. Epstein -- who teaches English at Goucher College -- writes that "with the possible exception of Jesus, Shakespeare has inspired more foolishness and brilliance than any other human being." And like Sly Stallone, she suggests, Shakespeare also knew the "drawing power of a sequel."

This attractive volume offers an intriguing combination of historical fact, theatrical anecdote and popular opinion. Publicity photos of Mel Gibson and Laurence Olivier are intermixed with Renaissance engravings, giving the book an inviting feel of the contemporary and the ageless.

It can always be argued, of course, that the world does not need another tome on Shakespeare. Still, as King Lear tells his crafty daughter when she snaps that he doesn't need so many knights, "O reason not the need." No, we don't need the volume, but it does bring Shakespeare and his works to life.

The visual appeal of the book's layout almost guarantees that no one will nod off while reading. Most pages offer the visual variety of a sidebar or photo or line drawing. The book presents background on Shakespeare himself as well as the Elizabethan stage. The plays are divided and discussed by genres -- $H romantic comedies, histories, problem plays, tragedies, tragicomedies.The final chapter talks about Shakespearean spoofs, parodies and spinoffs.

Dr. Epstein's clear sense of Shakespeare as both author and actor defines the book's approach to the current world of Shakespeare study. While avoiding the anti-academic stance that suggests that Shakespeare has been bludgeoned to death by thin-lipped English teachers who don't know the difference between stage right and stage left, Dr. Epstein does not mindlessly assume that the works of William Shakespeare can breathe only on the stage. She wisely avoids such false positions.

Thus, she writes of Shakespeare, the man of the theater, who didn't face just bad reviews -- he faced possible death if a play offended the crown. She talks of the playwright who shared the Renaissance love of language -- a love that made theater-goers of his time say to each other, "Let's go hear a play."

The book's most appealing feature is the presentation of miscellaneous bits of information. For example, in skimming the book, a reader can learn the following pieces of theatrical history: The boy actor who first played Lady Macbeth died backstage during the first performance of "the Scottish play"; during an Old West performance of "Othello" a member of the audience shot and killed the Moor as he was attempting to murder Desdemona. And in 1943 Joseph Goebbels ordered a famous German actor to play Shylock in a manner that would incite hatred against the Jews.

Still, two characteristics of this book are troublesome. First, in discussing individual plays, the author includes a section called "What to Look For." A collective groan will arise from English teachers who are eternally asked by students, "What do we have know for the test?" These sections of the book cater to the mentality that condenses Shakespeare into reprocessed cinder blocks, and they move the book one step away from friendly and a little too close to slick.

In addition, the book has no footnotes -- and, odd as it may seem, many readers will long for them. Dr. Epstein offers countless intriguing pieces of information, but anyone who wants to pursue her information is in trouble. For example, there's that story of the Shakespearean actor in the Old West who was shot and killed -- but where in the Old West? And when? And who was the actor, and where was he buried? The tidbits make readers want to know more, but there is no way to follow the clues.

Still, a book about Shakespeare that makes readers want to know more is valuable. Norrie Epstein moves through the centuries gathering Shakespearean lore. Readers will benefit from the gathering.

Dr. Drew is an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, where she teaches Shakespeare and directs Masqueraders, the academy's theater group.

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