What’s So Special about Shakespeare?

What's So Special about Shakespeare?We cel­e­brate William Shake­speare’s birth­day on April 23rd (or there­abouts). Con­sid­er read­ing excerpts of this book to your classes.

In What’s So Spe­cial about Shake­speare?, the author, Michael Rosen, walks into a house with us, peek­ing into rooms where Shakespeare’s plays are being enact­ed. Such vari­ety! It’s an inspired way to place young read­ers among the peo­ple of Shakespeare’s time.

Here’s a strik­ing state­ment: “All this may sound extra­or­di­nary, but Shake­speare lived in extra­or­di­nary and dan­ger­ous times.”

Rosen shows us those dan­gers, the propen­si­ty for war over land, mon­ey, and pow­er, and the very real threat of hav­ing one’s head chopped off.

Reli­gion and pol­i­tics were all mixed up in Shakespeare’s day, in Eng­land and on the Con­ti­nent. It was easy to be found guilty of trea­son, to lose your life. Rosen’s live­ly text helps us under­stand that when Shake­speare wrote his plays, there was polit­i­cal and reli­gious com­men­tary woven into through his dia­logue. He placed him­self in danger.

It’s inter­est­ing to won­der what effect this might have had on audi­ences in Shakespeare’s time. After all, when the play was writ­ten [Mac­beth], many peo­ple still thought that kings and queens were almost like gods. What hap­pens if they’re also criminals?”

What was school like for Shake­speare? How did ordi­nary peo­ple live? Why did they go to the the­ater? What do we know about Shake­speare’s life? (Not much.)

Plac­ing Shake­speare with­in his world, explain­ing that world, we see that print­ed books were rel­a­tive­ly new, and peo­ple who knew how to read … that was fair­ly new as well. Shake­speare was well read. He was often inspired by oth­er texts, some­times bor­row­ing the ideas and the sto­ry. Rosen shows us a com­par­i­son between a Plutarch pas­sage and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopa­tra. It is evi­dent that Shakespeare’s ver­sion is more inter­est­ing. He was a very good writer who knew how to hold an audience.

Then you’ll see that Shake­speare didn’t real­ly write books, he wrote scripts — scenes and speech­es for peo­ple to say out loud and act out in front of oth­er people.”

There are in-depth expla­na­tions of four plays: Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, Mac­beth, King Lear, and The Tem­pest. In-depth? Four to six heav­i­ly illus­trat­ed pages are devot­ed to each play. This is readable!

Sarah Nayler’s draw­ings are down­right fun­ny, often reit­er­at­ing the text but under­lin­ing it with broad and ram­bunc­tious humor.

The type is big with a good deal of space between the lines, mak­ing this quite easy to read. And those draw­ings! They break up the text.

A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this book, Shake­speare: His Work & His World, writ­ten by Michael Rosen, was pub­lished by Can­dlewick in 2006. That vol­ume was intend­ed for ages 12 and up. What’s So Spe­cial About Shake­speare? sees a change in book design and it’s appro­pri­ate for younger read­ers. The trim size is just right for tuck­ing into a back­pack. A Shake­speare time­line and bib­li­og­ra­phy are appreciated.

Do you have stu­dents who love the the­ater, act­ing, plays? This books tells the his­to­ry of the­ater in a much short­er fash­ion than the semes­ters I sat through in col­lege! For stu­dents who are reluc­tant to study Shake­speare, this book will enliv­en their curios­i­ty about his plays. High­ly recommended.

Here’s an effec­tive book­talk for this book by the author himself!

What’s So Spe­cial about Shakespeare?
Michael Rosen
Sarah Nayler, illustrator
Can­dlewick Press, 2018
ISBN 978 – 0763699956

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