It’s a dream date for lovers of Shakespeare’s words – David and Ben Crystal talking about The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary

The Crystals
Salisbury Arts Centre, 31 May 2015.

“Never has there been such a pretty book as this one,” declares David Crystal, with a proud and delighted smile at the cover of The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary on the projector screen behind him. He and his son Ben are at Salisbury Arts Centre as part of the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival, to talk to a packed audience about Shakespeare’s world and words.

‘Talk’ is the wrong word for this event: the father and son team deliver something closer to a comedy double act, bringing their subject alive with jovial camaraderie and unshakeable delight in all things Shakespeare. Ben bounds onto the stage as if taking a curtain call, dressed in jeans with a fob watch on a chain hanging from one pocket. David combines a tweed jacket with the kindly, slightly eccentric manner of Professor Dumbledore, and enunciates words like “in-carn-a-dine” as if they were magic spells.

David Crystal has written or edited over 100 books on language and linguistics, four of which he co-wrote with actor and producer Ben. Published this year, The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary combines David’s passion for words with Ben’s knowledge of – and love of experimenting with – Shakespeare. The dictionary is aimed at students of Shakespeare of all nationalities and ages from 11 up, and covers the 12 most studied of Shakespeare’s plays, according to a poll of school teachers from around the world.

Ben Crystal by Piper Williams

Ben Crystal by Piper Williams

There are approximately one million different words in the complete works of Shakespeare (though none beginning with the letter ‘X’). But, David asserts, only around five per cent are significantly different to those we use today. The dictionary guides students through this five per cent, drawing particular attention to ‘false friends’ like ‘rehearse’ or ‘impress,’ which did not mean the same thing for Shakespeare as they do today.

Despite the book’s title, David considers it closer to an encyclopaedia than a dictionary. “Words by themselves aren’t the whole story,” he says. “More important than that is an introduction to Shakespeare’s world.”
Kate Bellamy’s bold illustrations certainly help provide this for the reader – the double page featuring 11 historically accurate illustrations of different kinds of sword is a particular highlight.

The authors hope their style will help students feel comfortable asking questions like ‘What is an arras actually like?’ or ‘Why is Hamlet surprised to find Polonius in Gertrude’s closet?’ The answer to the latter was news to me – a closet was a small antechamber off the main bedroom, containing very little besides, frequently, a large tapestry (aka arras). In Gertrude’s case, the tapestry might have covered a passage to her husband’s chamber, so Hamlet would expect to see no one but Claudius in this intimate space.

O I S D

Ben is passionate about “the idea we’re allowed to be rough with Shakespeare, to grab him by the… doublet and hose and, well, shake him about a bit.” Shaking things about is exactly what this talk does: the pair intersperse discussions of pedagogy and neologisms with a game of charades, David attempting to mime things like ‘soliloquy’ and ‘Father Chaucer,’ and Ben explaining them to the audience.

The Crystals’ engaging blend of comedy and academia has the audience laughing and enthusiastically asking questions. As their talk draws to a close Salisbury Arts Centre is buzzing with Shakespeare’s words.

Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary is in bookshops now. Or order it here.

Ben and David will be exploring Original Pronunciation (including an OP performance of Henry V) at Shakespeare’s Globe on 16 and 26 July

Go here to read a full interview with Ben Crystal in Shakespeare Magazine 06.