Among the wattle and daub;Reviews;Drama;Books

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
STARTING SHAKESPEARE: first encounters with Shakespeare's plays. Selected and edited by Linda Marsh. Longman Imprint Books. pound;4.99

This neat, slim volume is a handbook for pupils of all ages new to Shakespeare.

A brief introduction, evoking the rumbustious goings-on in the opening minutes of Olivier's film of Henry V, paints for the reader a vivid description of life among the wattle and daub of Elizabethan theatre.

There follow scenes from six of Shakespeare's plays chosen to illustrate the breadth and diversity of the canon: Malvolio reading the letter from Twelfth Night, Romeo meeting Juliet, the trial from The Merchant of Venice, the witches from Macbeth, and so on. The extracts are then the focus of activities for English, with pupils asked to reflect on characters' thoughts and motives, write imaginary scenes and to think what might happen next.

My only reservation about this handy primer is its distinctly pre-structuralist "literary giantism". Even traditionally minded young readers might find the relentless laudation of "England's greatest poet" a touch wearisome. The fact is, Shakespeare was a highly successful playwright who knew how to write for actors.

So it is also a shame that in its predilection for the literary - poetry, imagery, characterisation, plots - the book gives such scant attention to the craftsmanship which makes the plays work on the stage. DH

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