The Friendly Shakespeare

Norrie Epstein, who teaches literature at the University of California, starts off with the assumption that many modern readers have an unreasonable prejudice against Shakespeare because they think he is too difficult or too old-fashioned or just too boring. Her book is intended to update the Bard by showing how he is significant to our times and particularly to American readers.

Epstein’s prose and her numerous quotes are often satirical, irreverent, or zany, as are many of the illustrations. She quotes British theatrical producer Peter Brook as saying, “I am more easily bored with Shakespeare, and have suffered more ghastly evenings with him, than with any dramatist I know.”

The book is lavishly illustrated and laid out in such a way that practically every page looks different from the one before. It is full of bold headlines, boxes, inserts, italics, and simulated hand-lettering. Many of the sections are less than half a page long, and nothing about the Bard is treated in any great depth. This is obviously not a book for Shakespearean scholars—but even scholars might be able to pick up a few esoteric facts.

Although deliberately made to appear thrown together helter-skelter, the book actually follows a fairly conventional format. It deals first with Shakespeare as a subject, then as an historical personage, then with the Elizabethan stage, and then with Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, problem plays, tragedies, and tragicomic romances. It ends with a portmanteau chapter covering such “spin-offs” as the Shakespeare industry in Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare on television.

THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE was not intended to be read from cover to cover. Like a newspaper, it is designed for browsing, which is why it is full of pithy headlines (e.g., “Was Shakespeare Gay?”) calculated to grab attention. The author’s goal of bringing Shakespeare down to earth for modern readers has been generously met. This big, playful, visually appealing book will please a variety of readers, not excluding students who are trying to get started on a term paper on the great man for a course in English literature.