Ben and David Crystal (son and father) share the story behind how they created their new book, Everyday Shakespeare: Lines for Life. The book is a collection of Shakespeare quotes for each day of the year, along with context from the play, bits of trivia, and commentary from the Crystals, who are well-known for their work exploring Shakespeare’s language and original pronunciation practices.
David: You start us off Ben, this book was your idea.
Ben: Well, it was upon this fashion… It struck me how often you and I would find ourselves introducing snippets of Shakespeare into our everyday conversation.
David: (Perhaps something Folger followers do all the time?)
Ben: (Ha yes Exactly). These quotes – or semi-quotes, for we would often change them a bit – related to ordinary, day-to-day situations. They weren’t famous literary quotations like “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
David: Right, or “To be, or not to be…”
Ben: The quotes we were using were more hearing you say “Your worship was the last man in our mouths” whenever I came over to visit, instead of “We’ve just been talking about you.” Or you would always say “I know ’tis a joyful trouble to you, but yet tis’ one” whenever you’d ask for a hand with something.
David: You’re a very helpful son.
Ben: Aw cheers Dad. So these lines reminded me of one from when I read The Rape of Lucrece for the first time, when we wrote www.ShakespearesWords.com: “It easeth some, though none it ever cured / To think their dolour others have endured” – which landed with me so deeply that I stuck it up on my wall for the next 10 years. And so when we were thinking of a new book, I thought, Gosh, y’know relatively few folx delve into these corners of the canon, and there’s some real gems of lines that can offer some resonance with our daily lives.
David: I’ve long been giving a talk on how to introduce these works into classrooms, of learning a bit of Shakespeare as you would do a foreign language. So instead of saying ‘sleep well’, someone might say “Enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber.”
Ben: Having decided on the sort of lines we were looking for, and deciding that this would be a “page-a-day” sort of book, the first task was for us each to comb through the canon and see how many of these everyday quotes we could find.
David: We read separately, and then conflated our findings. And I was a little surprised that we found such a goodly number – five thousand. A thousand of them ended up in the book.
Ben: Rather than have the quote selection being totally random, we decided to group them into themes, a different theme for each month.
David: Yes, the thematic organization was a good solution. I remember we briefly thought about relating a quote to a particular date.
Ben: Right! But we quickly abandoned that idea.
David: Yes – apart from ones relating to a few obvious times of the year like St Crispin’s Day, making the quotes bend around the days or months would have been tricky.
Ben: So instead, we gently curated each page spread, week, and month, so there are nice narrative arcs throughout.
David: But the selection process is only the beginning of the story. We had to anticipate the needs of readers who know very little about Shakespeare, or who think he’s not for them, perhaps because they think he’s going to be too difficult to understand.
Ben: That’s something that has always been a core part of our work together – this book is our 5th collaboration – that we’ve always created bridges to the plays and poems. The idea behind Everyday Shakespeare is that you don’t need to be well-versed, you don’t need to know the play or the poem that the quote comes from, you just need to be human. Does it resonate with you?
David: If it does, there’s often a little bit of commentary, and always a bit of context at the bottom of the page, and an index of sources at the back, so if you do want to explore further you can. And if you are well-versed, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the lines we’ve chosen, many of which have rarely had a light shone on them.
Ben: I’ve had readers say to me, “That’s a lovely quote – Oh! – it’s from King John, I’ve never read that, I’ll give it a go now…”
David: I especially enjoyed working on the index of themes.
Ben: Of course you did, Dad, you were the honorary president of the Indexer Society, I recall.
David: Yes well, someone wrote to me the other day who’d been asked to give an after-dinner speech to a horticultural society, and looked up “nature” in our index. She found two lovely quotes, “Nature does require / Her times of preservation.” And “For naught so vile that on the earth doth live / But to the earth some special good doth give.”
Ben: Yes, it’s been fun to hear how people have been using the book. Teachers starting each day with a quote for discussion, to folx breaking the book out at dinner parties and reading the quotes for everyone’s birthdays.
David: A little more Shakespeare in life is a good thing.
Ben: Absolutely, bringing a little more eloquence, oracy, and empathy into the world. But before we finish this blog…
David: Is there more toil?
Ben: Just a little. I mentioned earlier that the only demographic necessary for access here is “human.” We write in the introduction that we beheld an artist grappling with the slippery slope of the human condition, and not always saying things we enjoyed or agreed with.
David: And when it came to our selection process, we didn’t want to curate one type of ethics or moral code. Our guiding light was to reach for inclusivity.
Ben: They are of course, the writings of a white man living at the turn of the seventeenth century, but we found that figure to be barely visible. We don’t explore Shakespeare’s agenda and interests, his religion or faith, his private preferences or passions, because we’ll never know them. But we do recognize and elevate the humanistic strains that run throughout: the importance of love, the dangers of indecision, the value of life, and the understanding that our time is brief and we must not waste it.
David: As we explored the works with this “everyday” filter we found that the ideas being explored are so terrifically broad that the personality of the author becomes indistinct, fading into the background – and that the thoughts themselves, and how we relate to them, stay firmly in the foreground.
Ben: We hope in many ways Everyday Shakespeare invites a shift of focus away from whoever the writer was, and sharpens our attention to the view being offered, the complicated thoughts being eloquently verbalized, the desirable or hateful qualities of our kind being reflected back at us, for us to consider.
David: You mean, as Malvolio, for us to revolve. And one more thing –
Ben: Is there more toil?
David: I know this is a joyful trouble to you, but yet ’tis one. We invite our readers –
Ben: – and listeners, for we’ve just released the audio book as well –
David: Absolutely, we invite our readers and listeners –
Ben: – and calendar users, as there’ll be a desktop “page-a-day” calendar arriving in 2024 –
David: We invite our readers and listeners and calendar users to adapt the quotes to suit their situation. Shakespeare often uses the word man in his lines, like in “Tis ever common / That men are merriest when they are from home.” Man had the sense of human, in Shakespeare’s time, and the biggest invitation is for everyone to change man / men, or he / him to women /she /her or people / they / them, or any other change they like, that these lines can adapt towards the present-day to allow the spirit of the quote to remain widely accessible.
Ben: Which is why we gave the book its subtitle: “lines for life.”
David: And so, to all our Folger friends, we wish you well, with our year-end quote.
Ben: Joy, gentle friends, joy.
David: And fresh days of love / Accompany your hearts.
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