Ben Crystal: Understanding Shakespeare
Edinburgh International Book festival
Baillie Gifford Imagination Lab
22nd August 2015
I’ve been sent to review all kinds of events – everything from the Proclaimers to the RSNO, and from poetry readings to discussions on the place of literature in minority languages – and although they have, by and large, all been good, I had wondered when I would be able to say that I had been to one that was a total blast. After this session from actor, director, producer, scholar, writer, and general all-round good guy Ben Crystal, I wondered if I would actually be able to say anything negative about it. You’ll have to read through to the end to find out. No skipping ahead!
I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with Ben both before and after the event. Beforehand I found him trying to settle, to get into the right frame of mind for his appearance. Stage fright? He certainly did not seem to be relaxed. Afterwards he told me it hadn’t been a successful tactic, that there was no way he could plan what to say when he had no idea of the size and layout of the venue, nor how many people would be there, nor what proportion of young people and of what ages. So he had extemporised the whole thing for us. But this was entirely understandable, because as a youngster who had hated Shakespeare and whose ambition was to run a computer games shop, he had been persuaded to audition for the part of Ariel; he did so against his wishes, and when he stepped, reluctantly, in a flimsy costume, onto a cold, outdoor stage in North Wales, still hating Shakespeare, the moment he opened his mouth and started delivering his lines was a moment of epiphany. He knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life – which is precisely what he has done. Of course with an experience like that under his belt, Ben would have been able to take whatever the Book Festival could throw at him, and his apprehension would have melted.
So that’s how he operated in front of the audience at the Baillie Gifford Imagination Lab. I think I was the only unattached adult there (I am in fact an orphan; O! I’ll reveal why I said ‘O!’ later). Even Ben was accompanied by a responsible adult, his father – perhaps I should say his most potent, grave, and reverend signior – Professor David Crystal, probably the UK’s best known linguist and the co-author of the book which the event was promoting: the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary. The event had been a sell-out from almost as soon as it had been advertised on the Book Festival web site. From the moment he stepped onto the stage, Ben began to engage the youngsters in the audience, asking them questions – what did they know about Shakespeare? Did they know the names of any of his plays? How many plays had he written? He remembered which kid had said what. He greeted every contribution from the young audience with enthusiasm. He spoke about the ‘magic upon magic upon magic’ of The Tempest, and likened Prospero to Lord Voldemort. Yes, okay, that took some head-getting-round but you could see exactly what he was driving at – this sorcerer, this not simply a magician but the ‘seventh son of a seventh son’ who had a slave who was half-fish, and another who was made of pure air.
Ben told us of things I had forgotten and maybe the youngsters hadn’t known. Such as Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by only twenty people – his company of actors. Such as the fact that an Elizabethan audience did not come to ‘see’ a play but to hear it. They came to ‘audit’ it, which was why they were called an ‘audience’. This is why Shakespeare’s inventive, poetic language is so important. An aside from me: I call it his CGI – that’s the analogy I draw. One stand-out section of the event came when Ben dealt with Sonnet XVIII.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
He addressed the sonnet principally to one young girl in the audience, Aphra by name (another aside from me: amazingly, according to her father, she is not named after Aphra Behn!), first going through it line-by-line and talking about the language and some of the images, then delivering it whole and with a subtle accent. Thus he introduced us to ‘Original Pronunciation’ (‘OP’), which is his specialism – the presentation of Shakespeare’s words in, as near as can be ascertained, the way they would have been spoken and heard at the time of their writing. Having introduced it mildly, he then delivered the sonnet again, unleashing OP in its full power. The young audience was then encouraged to feed back what they heard – it sounded a bit like a Somerset accent, or Scots, or Pirates of the Caribbean! The important thing was that it was no longer alien to them, they could relate it to something they knew.
I said I would get back to ‘O!’ Ben introduced us to what he called ‘the most important word in Shakespeare’ – ‘O’ – with the passage from Hamlet where the Prince of Denmark learns from the ghost of his father, the ghastly truth about his death, and about the treasonous machinations of Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet replies with ‘O’. ‘O’ could signify anything from boredom to delight, but what did the young audience suggest it could signify, in the light of the ghost’s grim and terrible revelations? Grief! Shock! Fainting! were some suggestions. So Ben delivered Hamlet’s lines, throwing all of that into them:
O all you host of heaven, O earth – what else? –
And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me swiftly up…
Thus he made them producers and directors of the scene. How better to introduce them to what, for him, made Shakespeare magic upon magic upon magic.
“What’s your favourite film of a Shakespeare play?” one asked.
“The Lion King,” Ben replied. “It’s Hamlet!”
If the queue afterwards to get copies of the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary signed, by Crystal, père et fils, is anything to go by, then promotion of the book was an unqualified success. I can actually provide a comment about the book, because I bought it when it when the ink was still wet. It is a fine thing for a young readership. Not only that, it is an enjoyable read and a useful tool for me, as I have already used it to help me study not Shakespeare but his near contemporary Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and I found it invaluable. Oh yes, did I find anything negative to say? No, not really, but as I promised you something, let me give you the pettiest of petty quibbles. Ben spoke of ‘Elizabethan’ times; but we’re in Scotland, and we didn’t have any. I told you it was a petty quibble, so you can now throw stones at me. O forget the quibble, then, the event was a total blast!
Reviewer : Paul Thompson
One thought on “Ben Crystal: Understanding Shakespeare”
August 24, 2015 at 10:16 am
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