My immediate response when I picked up this book was that I wished I had been able to use it when I was studying Shakespeare’s plays in the secondary school. It is not only scholarly and comprehensive, it is hugely enjoyable whether you are browsing or seeking to increase your knowledge about something specific. The Dictionary explains words taken from what the authors, and probably most of us, would consider to be Shakespeare’s most well liked and studied plays. These are: Hamlet, Henry V, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. It is an excellent resource for anyone aged about 10 or 11 upwards who wants to know more about Shakespeare’s language. Even readers at the younger end of the age range will be fascinated by the definitions of unusual words – for example ‘lass-lorn’ (forsaken by a sweetheart), ‘belly pinched’ (starving) and ‘zir’ (a dialect word meaning sir). Together, these authors make an impressive team: Professor David Crystal is a leading figure in English language studies and Ben Crystal is an actor as well as a writer and able to bring to the book his knowledge of Shakespeare’s time and the performance of the plays.
The design of the Dictionary’s pages makes them clear and inviting : the headwords stand out and print colour and style is varied according to the status of the information. Three helpful symbols pepper the book: a ‘ warning note’ flagging that Shakespeare’s use of a word differs from modern usage; a ‘usage note’ explaining in more detail the contexts in which Shakespeare used the word; and a ‘theatre note’ which will be invaluable to those putting on one of the plays.
Language panels highlight things of special interest, for example words to do with stage directions, use of exclamations and family names – interestingly names for members of the family – brother, mother and so on – have changed little.
Kate Bellamy’s illustrations of such things as clothes, music, recreations and armour – many of which are in a picture section in the middle of the book – are full of visual information and colour. They add to our sense of the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s times and contribute considerably to the pleasure the book afford the reader.