“Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton, 2004)

Will the Worldstarstar

It’s been a while since I finished this book, but my take on it is still the same — mind you I did listen to the audiobook version as opposed to actually reading it. My complaint is that with the title, Will in the World, one would expect the book to be mostly about the great writer’s life from birth to death, as well as covering his works, and while the book does certainly do this, there is a lot more emphasis on his works, with citations in the multitudes; Shakespeare’s life is barely glossed over. A lot of this has to do with the fact that there is little evidence of his life, with most of his works surviving intact. Still, I wanted to know about his life and I didn’t get enough. The image the book paints is a writer who cared little for his family, leaving his wife and child in Stratford-upon-Avon and spending the duration of his life in London ignoring them.

What I did like about the book was the way Greenblatt went through Shakespeare’s life, revealing when certain plays were written and how they tied in with his life at that time, and possibly why he was writing them in the first place. It gave further meaning to the bard’s works. It was also interesting to discover that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare, while renowned as a great playwright, had no competition: Marlowe and the other playwrights had all died, some quite mysteriously.

Overall, the book was lacking in informing the reader of Shakespeare’s life, and in not being very linear in covering his life, one was often left confused as to what point in his life one was at. There were also a couple of times — perhaps this is more the case with the audiobook version — where there was a long citation from one of the plays and I was left wondering why the author had used such a long quote and what the point of it was.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on May 8th 2005 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2009)

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There are few battles in the history of the world that are most remembered by name, even by those who know or recall little from their high school history classes.  The Battle of Hastings is one; the Battle of Trafalgar is another; the Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps another, known to a lesser extent.  Then there is the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, as it is known in French), which took place on October 25th, 1415.  For many, William Shakespeare springs to mind with his immortal play, Henry V, and “we few, we happy few.”  Or perhaps the image of Kenneth Branagh making a memorable performance as the king who battled unbeatable odds.  Ultimately it is the battle of the few triumphing over the many.  And now Bernard Cornwell has finally written his take to put our questions and qualms to rest in his classic, skillful style.

It was a stunning and in some ways incomprehensible victory of the British over the French in the midst of the Hundred Years War.  And what was the key advantage?  The British longbow.  Cornwell has already explored the beauty and importance of this historical weapon in the Grail Quest Series, and returns with one of his strongest characters yet in Nicholas Hook.  The name is real, taken from a list of archers of the time, along with most of the other characters in the book.  But Cornwell is not simply spinning a great, adventurous yarn from a relatively unknown piece of history.  The Hundred Years War, and in particular the Battle of Agincourt, is well documented.  In Agincourt, we do not see the familiar heroes who defy the odds; many die, many suffer.  It is a bloody, harsh reality, this war, that in some cases will leave the reader stunned with the graphic description.

In Cornwell’s best piece of writing to date, he doesn’t hold back, giving many gritty details and revealing a tough and sad world.  But ultimately we all know the British eventually triumphed; it makes for a much needed and happy conclusion to this ugly battle that left so many dead.  Agincourt is a special book that deserves a place on any medieval historian’s or medieval fan’s shelf, as well as an important spot for any Cornwell fan.  It is a book that will provide many answers, as well as both entertain and delight, and terrify and repulse.  Cornwell tells it the way it really was: cold, exhausting, painful, and very bloody.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 10th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“The Canterbury Tales” Translated by Burton Raffel (Modern Library, 2008)

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The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by one of the greatest writers in history, up there with William Shakespeare himself.  Originally published in the late fifteenth century, it has appeared on high school reading lists, and serves as one of the most important medieval texts – if not the most important – ever written and published.

Chaucer tells the story of 29 pilgrims who set out on pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  Pilgrimage was a common event in many people’s lives in the medieval world, especially if they were looking to be pious and guarantee their ascent into heaven; it was also a good way for those who had committed sins to be absolved of their actions.  The Host of this pilgrimage sets the stage in the “General Prologue” by asking each of the pilgrims to tell four stories; two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back to London.  The storytelling will help pass the time, but will also serve to enlighten the group about the lives and actions of the pilgrims.

While Chaucer never fully completed his 124 stories, ending at 22,, there is nevertheless a wide selection of stories from most of its main characters.  “The Knight’s Tale” is the story about two royal Theban cousins who love the same woman.  There’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” as she discusses her life of five husbands and the importance and sacrifice she has made in marriage and being a wife.  “The Miller’s Tale” mocks the life of a carpenter who is fooled into believing a flood is coming, while the clerk sleeps with his wife.  In the final story, “The Parson’s Tale,” the Parson talks for a long time about the importance of being just and pious and faithful to God.

The Canterbury Tales is not just a collection of entertaining stories from the fifteenth century, but is a most fascinating insight into the way of life of these people, what they considered funny or sad, what they wore and ate, and what sort of a role the church truly played in their lives.  Chaucer even inserts himself into his book, arguing back and forth with the Host, as he is challenged to tell a superior story.

In this new translation from Burton Raffel, much of the original text is preserved, even though Raffel admits that in any translation, it is ultimately going to be different as it is that, a translation.  Nevertheless, where possible, Raffel keeps and maintains the rhyming scheme, giving life to the stories and making the old oral tradition of storytelling come alive off the page.  This new translation of The Canterbury Tales is perfect for anyone who enjoys these old texts, or for a student having trouble reading the early Middle English; it is even ideal for families to learn through reciting the stories aloud and hearing these classics come to life through voice, as they were originally meant to.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 18th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.