Back in my salad days, I crushed on Will Shakespeare. In high school I swooned over Romeo, in college I hissed at Iago’s villainous schemes, and as a starry-eyed rookie teacher did my best to convince my students that when it came to reading and studying the Bard of Avon, their labours of love were never lost.
I wish there had been a book like Will’s Words (Charlesbridge, 2016) to share with them then. The naysayers who struggled with and questioned the practical value of Shakespeare’s seemingly antiquated language could have seen (much to their amazement), how Will’s words weren’t so archaic or esoteric after all. In fact, many phrases have since become household words, regularly popping up in modern everyday speech. I like to think Will Shakespeare has made poets of us all. 🙂
Author Jane Sutcliffe begins by confessing to the reader that she fully intended to write a book, in her own words, about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare’s wordsmithing and storytelling genius in penning “the most brilliant and moving plays ever written.” But aye, there’s the rub: no matter how hard she tried, Shakespeare’s words kept bumping into hers — they were simply everywhere and impossible to ignore. So she did the next best thing: wrote a marvelous book cleverly incorporating Will’s colorful turns of phrase in her narrative. As an added treat — since when it comes to Will’s words it’s impossible to have too much of a good thing — she explains what his phrases mean and cites the plays in which they appear.
Wasting no time at all, she throws us right into the thick of Shakespeare’s world:
In 1606 London was a bustling, jostling, clanging, singing, stinking, head-chopping, pickpocketing wonder of a city. You would probably need a break from a city like that.
And what better break than a few hours at the theatre? In a lighthearted, conversational tone, Jane describes this play-going city, the throngs of people from all walks of life who frequented the playhouses, and the good times they had watching Will’s comedies, tragedies, and histories. Such enthusiasm and hunger for good storytelling! Such excitement whenever Will was on the playbill!
Ms. Sutcliffe includes just the kind of fetching theatrical detail young readers love: though one could buy refreshments like fruit, nuts, and beer, there were no restrooms; rich people could buy seats while poor people stood in an open yard crammed together; female roles were played by males; playgoers weren’t exactly the most well behaved (they made a lot of noise during the performances with their eating, talking, and belching).
It wasn’t particularly easy being an actor either. You might have to play several parts, perhaps for as many as six different plays a week. Forget your lines and you might be pelted with audience snacks. Though there were few props and only the occasional special effect, the costumes were gorgeous. All the more reason why Will’s words carried such tremendous import and understandably took center stage: he had to tell his stories in ways that would captivate and capture the attention of rich as well as poor, literate as well as illiterate, keeping the audience spellbound for hours in crowded, raucous conditions, sometimes in the cold and rain.
And when the audience went home, they took Will’s words with them.
An apprentice didn’t just complain that his master was stubborn. He said the man would not budge an inch.
A wife didn’t just say that her husband’s relatives were greedy. She grumbled that she was being eaten out of house and home.
Was a young man acting jealous? That was because he had been bitten by the green-eyed monster, his friends teased.
Luckily Will’s friends thought to publish his plays after he died. More and more people were then able to read and hear his words. After saying them for hundreds of years, people the world over eventually “forgot they were William Shakespeare’s words. His words became part of what we say every day.”
John Shelley’s masterful pen and ink and watercolor illustrations brim with meticulous detail and are a brilliant study in perspective. We are given panoramas of the city crammed with Tudor structures and teeming with a bustling populace, aerial views of the Globe, Garden and Rose theaters, as well as many interior scenes of the Globe from various vantage points.
The reader can easily imagine what it would be like to be a groundling looking up at the stage or a member of the upper class seated in one of the balconies with a bird’s eye view of all the action. Wonder what goes on backstage with the players frantically putting on their costumes? Want a good view of those oh-so-fashionable peacocks perched in the Lords’ Rooms? If you were seated near HRH Queen Elizabeth I, would you be too immersed in the play to give her a second glance? These are some of the great moments Shelley brings to life, along with multitudes of enthusiastic, enthralled, comical, jeering and jocund faces, each so vital and distinctive, we can just about hear these people boisterously interacting with the players to their heart’s content.
Keen-eyed munchkins will enjoy a 17th century version of Where’s Waldo, as they eagerly search for the ‘hidden Will’ in each spread. The architecture, costumes, props and street scenes are a mini history lesson in themselves and pull readers right into the story — listen for the street peddlers hawking their wares, their wooden carts rumbling over cobblestones, while groups of hurrying women catch the latest gossip and children run riot in their play.
It’s good to know that in Shakespeare’s day live theatre was popular entertainment for everyone. The universal love of a good story is always worth celebrating. Focussing on Shakespeare’s singular ability to capture a wide range of human emotions by poetically enriching the colorful and dynamic vernacular of his time is a wonderful way to meet the greatest, most enduring writer in the English language, and spotlighting some of his commonly used phrases certainly makes his work accessible to kids.
I knew that phrases like “with bated breath,” “wild-goose chase,” and “what’s done is done” came from Shakespeare, but was surprised to learn that “amazement,” “excitement,” “outbreak,” and “fashionable” were either coined or popularized by him. It’s likely Will’s Words will send readers of all ages on a merry search for more Shakespeare-isms. They certainly won’t have to look very far.
Though some may say, ‘all’s well that ends well,’ I, for one, did not want this book to end. Is there no more cakes and ale?
🌹A COOKIE, A COOKIE, MY KINGDOM FOR A COOKIE🌹
To eat or not to eat, is that even a question?
Since April is Shakespeare’s birth month, and 2016 marks 400 years since his death (also in April), it’s only fitting that we clink our teacups and nosh on a little something in his honor. Besides, reading about the audience snacks in Will’s Words made me hungry. 🙂
I love that Shakespeare mentions food in all his plays, and that the house where he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon had been a butcher shop and a string of pubs before it became a private residence. Will’s father John also served as Stratford’s chief ale taster beginning in 1557. Think of all the good foodie vibes permeating the walls of Will’s home — no wonder he grew up to be a literary genius! I wonder what he would have considered a dish fit for the Gods?
I found an appealing recipe for “1610 Rose Cakes” in Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook by Francine Segan, which contains updated recipes from classic 16th and 17th century cookbooks. In Shakespeare’s day the sweets course following a nobleman’s meal was called the “banquet.” Sugar was considered an aphrodisiac; “the banquet was specifically designed to ‘moveth pleasure and lust of the body.'” The banqueting dishes the sweets were served on had images or poems on them (often containing double entendres or sexual innuendos). Bawdy bards!
“Sweets to the sweet” now has new meaning. 🙂
Always of the opinion that anything sweet is a poem unto itself, I enjoyed learning a bit more about the rose or “sugar” cakes, which came from Mistress Sarah Longe’s handwritten recipe book. This collection was for her personal use and not published in her lifetime, and as was common at the time, contained not only recipes but medicinal instructions, since food was valued for its medicinal properties.
Sarah’s ‘sugar cakes’ are actually cookies flavored and sweetened with rose water (vanilla was not imported to Europe until the 1700’s). Ms. Segan has halved Sarah’s recipe and suggests using a cookie press instead of rolling out and cutting the dough. This was my first time using rose syrup in any recipe, and it gave the cookies just a blush of sweetness — something different but not overpowering. Perhaps Shakespeare enjoyed similar ‘cakes’ after a good meal with yet another goblet of wine, since coffee and tea were not introduced to London until later in the 17th century.
Here is Sarah Longe’s original recipe, circa 1610:
To make sugar Cakes
Take a pound of butter, and wash it in rose-water, and halfe a pound of sugar, and halfe a douzen spoonefulls of thicke Cream, and the yelkes of 4 Eggs, and a little mace finely beaten, and as much fine flower as it will wett, and worke it well together then roll them out very thin, and cut them with a glasse, and pricke them very thicke with a great pin, and lay them on plates, and so bake them gently.
1610 ROSE CAKES
(makes approximately 36 cookies)
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon ground mace
- 1/4 cup rose syrup (available at gourmet grocers; or use 1 teaspoon rose water remixed with 3 tablespoons honey and 1 tablespoon water)
- 2 tablespoons cream
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 cups pastry flour
- 2 tablespoons crushed candied rose petals (optional)
1. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, cream the butter, sugar, mace, 2 tablespoons of the rose syrup, and the cream until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each addition Add the flour, 1 cup at a time, and mix until just incorporated.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Using a cookie press in the shape of a flower, press out the cookies onto a well-buttered, nonstick baking sheet (or drop by tablespoonfuls) and bake for 10 minutes. Brush the remaining 2 tablespoons of rose syrup on the hot cookies and sprinkle with the crushed rose petals.
A funny thing happened after eating these cookies: I went around saying “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” for days and Mr Cornelius began coining his own Shakespearean phrases. See for yourself:
This is just to say . . .
I fear these phrases will pass into common usage. Do you think Will would approve? 😀
Henceforth, Mr Cornelius would prefer to be addressed as “the flaming youth.” As for me, I always thought Desdemona had a nice ring to it.
And now, the game is up!
WILL’S WORDS: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk
written by Jane Sutcliffe
illustrated by John Shelley
published by Charlesbridge, March 2016
Informational Picture Book for ages 7-10, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Time Line, and Bibliography
**Starred Review from School Library Journal**
♥ Click here for an Activity Guide with Reader’s Theatre
♥ Check out this great interview with John Shelley at Writing and Illustrating, which includes discussion and sketches of Will’s Words
♥ Curious to test your knowledge of Will’s words? Take this PBS quiz (it’s tough; I only got around 6 correct).
📘 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 📕
For a chance to win a brand new copy of Will’s Words, please leave a comment at this blog no later than midnight (EDT) Wednesday, April 20, 2016. You can also enter by sending an email with “SHAKESPEARE” in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Winner will be announced next week. Good Luck!
The witty and talented Michelle Barnes is hosting the Roundup at Today’s Little Ditty. Click through, for goodness’ sake, and check out the full menu of delectable poetic goodies being shared in the blogosphere this week. Don’t forget to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23!
And now, I shall vanish into thin air.
Parting is such sweet sorrow . . .
Interior spreads from Will’s Words posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2016 Jane Sutcliffe, illustrations © 2016 John Shelley, published by Charlesbridge. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.