Not of an age, but for all time: Shakespeare Saturday at Mostly Books

His language is at times impenetrable, yet all of us know huge chunks of it off by heart. He can cause teenagers to groan in the classroom, yet set those same adolescent imaginations on fire with tales of jealousy, love and revenge. He’s as recognisable as Albert Einstein, yet we’re not entirely certain what he looked like or what he did for large parts of his life.

There is a whiff of the paradox about Shakespeare. Condemned in his own time for mixing tragedy and comedy, he eventually triumphed to become the ultimate playwright, the third most translated author of all time, and whose stories have seemingly become encoded into the DNA of our greatest literature for centuries.

What is it about William Shakespeare? What makes him the ultimate Elizabethan Bard-ass? Just what is it that makes him so special? Ahead of a weekend of bookshop celebrations both here and around the world a few clues can be found amongst the many books recently published which look at everything from Shakespeare's skill as a writer, to the murky world in which he lived.

Michael Rosen asks ‘What’s so Special About Shakespeare?’ and it's a wonderfully engaging, brilliant introduction to Shakespeare.

Rosen has always been able to look at subjects through the eyes of a child, and with his usual wit, wordsmithery and deep passion for language he answers questions such as 'What do we actually know about Shakespeare' and 'how did he become so famous?' (something a child asked us this week in the shop).

It’s a cracking route into Shakespeare’s world, and the next time someone asks 'What's so special about Shakespeare' you can answer "there's a book for that"...

(And you can listen to Michael enthuse about Shakespeare here)

Another really imaginative route into some of Shakespeare's plays is offered by the wacky and wonderful Pamela Butchart in 'To Wee or Not To Wee'. We love Butchart's school mysteries such as 'Attack of the Demon Dinner Ladies', and again features illustrations with Thomas Flintham.

It features the star of those books (Izzy) whose passion and enthusiasm for Shakespeare (particularly the gruesome bits) spills over into a retelling of four of Shakespeare's most well-known plays to her school friends. It's a really effective and fun device, and we reckon a superb introduction to Shakespeare to young readers 8+

'Shakespeare in Love' may have taken him off his academic pedestal and brought him imaginatively to life, but for a decade now James Shapiro has been quietly fleshing out the real-life Shakespeare, arguing convincingly that it is impossible to understand Shakespeare’s work without understanding the world in which he lived in – one of conspiracy, political intrigue and the ever-present dangers of the Elizabethan world.

His books are as dramatic as Shakespeare's plays (his book '1599' opens with Shakespeare’s actors dismantling a theatre and carrying it across the Thames in a dispute about money), but his latest book '1606 : Shakespeare and the Year of Lear' starts seven years later, the year in which Shakespeare shakes off worries, uncertainty, set-backs and a feverish political atmosphere to write 'King Lear'.

Obviously there's a huge number books about Shakespeare and his legacy, but what about a book written *by* Shakespeare? Aside from getting hold of one of his sonnets or plays (or better still, going to see a production) we recommend 'The Globe Guide to Shakespeare' by Andrew Dickson and published by Profile Books.

It's ultimate guide to his life and work, with full coverage of the 39 plays, including a synopsis, full character list, stage history and a critical essay for each. Use it as a quick reference before nipping off to a play - or a comprehensive primer for theatre goers, students, film buffs and lovers of literature.

You might feel Shakespeare is a bit highfalutin, pretentious and, well, not for you - but for many years he was claimed as a symbol of working-class struggle and revolution. And in 'Shakespeare on Toast' actor, producer and director Ben Crystal knocks the stuffing from the staid old myths of the Bard, revealing the man and his plays for what they really are: modern, thrilling, uplifting drama. The bright words and colourful characters of the greatest hack writer are brought brilliantly to life, sweeping cobwebs from the Bard - his language, his life, his world, his sounds, his craft. Find yourself uplifted and entertained (some Shakespeare would have wholeheartedly approved of!)

Finally, can you ever write like Shakespeare? Mark Forsyth thinks you can. The beginning of his book ‘The Elements of Eloquence’ begins with the words ‘Shakespeare was not a genius’ (controversial stuff). But he shows how Shakespeare sat with tudor history books on one side, and rewrote huge passages using rhetorical devices to make the language sing. Good artists copy, great artists steal – and according to Ben Johnson (England’s the second-greatest playwright) “Shakespeare wanted art”.

So we have some art that you can show off to your friends. To celebrate Shakespeare Saturday, we have some exclusive limited edition tote bags with the ‘The Bard is my Bag’ in glorious orange. 

Yours if you spend £20 or greater on Saturday, strictly on a first come, first served basis.

400 years after his death, the genius tag is firmly stuck. Shakespeare’s plays are performed more than ever, in more places than ever. Many of our favourite authors continue to revisit their favourite plays, having been profoundly affected by them when young. Jeanette Winterson's 'The Gap In Time' is a retelling of 'The Winter's Tale' and Howard Jacobson has retold 'The Merchant's Tale' in 'Shylock Is My Name'.

But our final recommendation is Malorie Blackman's 'Chasing The Stars'. Othello was the book that first inspired her, and although set deep in space, with Othello recast as a teenage girl, it’s Shakespeare through and through.

Shakespeare in space – who’d have thought it?

Well, in 1964, during the world’s first three-man spaceshot by the Soviet Union, the Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, radioed to Vladimir Komarov that he should terminate the mission immediately. Unbeknown to the crew, there had been a coup and Kruschev had been deposed. Korolev wasn’t allowed to reveal what had happened, but he had to get the men back on the ground. They were reluctant - the mission was going well.

Korolev thinks for a moment, then quotes Hamlet, Scene V:

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
  And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come,

There is a moment’s silence. The words of an English playwright, at the height of the Cold War, transmitted over centuries and through space. Komarov gets the meaning “Pack up boys” he sayd to the crew "it's time to go home".


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  2. Someone contacted us to point out that 'The Forbidden Planet' is basically 'The Tempest'. Appreciate it was never a book, but any other 'Shakespeare in Space' references, let us know :-)