Richard Nisley

"Stories From Shakespeare" by Marchette Chute – a review
Pop Culture Released - Mar 29, 2019
What do you say to someone who has spent a lifetime studying the works of William Shakespeare and the English Bible, who wrote children’s literature, and who authored acclaimed biographies of three of the greatest writers of English narrative poetry—namely Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare? You say, thank you. If "Stories from Shakespeare" is your first encounter with independent scholar Marchette Chute, you’re in for a lively, informative, and entertaining experience.

Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, not to be read. Indeed, that is why Ms. Chute wrote this book. To make it easier for the average person to appreciate Shakespeare the storyteller. Shakespeare’s plays are taught in the schools as “required reading.” This is an excellent idea in itself, she says, since some people would make his acquaintance in no other way, but it also has the disadvantage of being compulsory. “The average person does not like to be told what to do,” she writes, “and he might begin to study a play like ROMEO AND JULIET with the conviction already formed in his mind that he is not going to enjoy himself. He starts to read the first act and finds that two characters named Samson and Gregory are talking about coals and seem to be making very little sense. He begins leafing through the pages, looking for some kind of a story, and finds a great many Italian names that he cannot keep apart and speeches full of long words. So he puts the book down, convinced that Shakespeare is much too difficult to be read for pleasure and that the whole subject is overrated.”

Sound familiar? One way around it is to see Shakespeare’s plays performed on the stage. Another is to read this book. Indeed, the ideal situation is to read this book first to gain an understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s art, then to go and see as many of his plays as possible.

About William Shakespeare: he was not only one of the world’s greatest poets and storytellers, but also was one of the greatest playwrights. “He could write about battlefields or country flowers, witches and children, dying heroes or young lovers or chatty old men,” writes Ms. Chute, “and could do it in poetry which is not only perfect in itself but which joins hands with the storytelling, so that the two go together like the words and music of a song.” In performance, Shakespeare’s plays are poetry in motion. Best of all, he understood the demands of the theater so well that the passage of time has not aged or weakened his plays. They still leap into life on the stage. Part of this is due to the fact he was a genius, but also partly because he was a practical man of the theater who spent most of his adult life as an actor and producer. He knew what people wanted—and he delivered. In 400 years, Shakespeare's plays have never gone out of fashion.

Shakespeare wrote 36 plays, which were published in the First Folio. Ms. Chute has written cogent and compelling summaries of each of these plays. Like the folio, she groups them together as comedies, tragedies, and histories. If you intend to see a particular play, read the summary first. It will make the play that much more enjoyable. My suggestion is to read all the summaries, beginning with the comedies. If thoroughly captivated, then by all means read one of the plays themselves. Once you know what to expect, you’ll find Shakespeare's plays are not all that difficult. Who knows, you might read all 36! Imagine that?

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