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Book review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

Would you like to have the mind of Shakespeare? Put pen to paper and write your way into fame, forever? Well, dear reader, then this book

This book is not what you’re looking for. It is not a shortcut. It won’t teach you how to craft pretty words or witty lines. It won’t bring you fame on stage or the love of millions. What it does do, and very well, is to take a look at our current system of education and see where its failings lie. Scott Newstock’s message is that thinking like Shakespeare has much less to do with copying his form or his topics, and much more with instilling young minds with the habits and tools they need to become the next Shakespeare.

“How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education”
By Scott Newstok
Princeton University Press, 185 pages | Buy on Amazon.

The world is full of books telling us what to think. There’s no shortage of books telling us how to think, either. But How to Think like Shakespeare is a book that aims to help us think well.

The book is structured in fourteen “deliberately short” chapters, each dealing with an aspect of what Newstok considers to be “key aspects of thinking, and how to hone them”. This book is the product of his own experiences with the U.S. educational system, both internally as a teacher and a professor, and externally, as a parent. Through this exploration, Newstok heavily criticizes what he sees as ineffective or outright damaging trends in education, often campaigned for under the banner of progress through technology, or fairness under standardisation.

Heavily but delightfully peppered with great quotes from great minds throughout history, How to Think like Shakespeare makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Hard figures, charts, graphs, these are not really the meat of the book. And yet, through metaphor and wit, it makes just as compelling an argument as you’d expect from a mathematical proof.

I will confess that, at first, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t like this book. As Newstok himself quips, I did pick up the book hoping for a shortcut, an easy way towards a great mind. Instead, I found that a case was being made for things such as the importance of engaging in past work, in ‘tradition’, to foster creativity. How imitation or outright copying of other’s work can help guide us to our own voice. All of them things that, as a highschooler or college student, I would have dismissed as the uninformed ramblings of a crusty old man out of his time, and out of his depth of understanding. “I,” was my first thought, “have been deceived”.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Both in the way it reads, and in regards to what it has to say. At its core, How to Think like Shakespeare hits upon something that rings undeniably true: education is a very personal act. Screens, standardized tests, optimized ‘learning objectives’ at the head of every lesson, these can be great tools with which to acquire facts, and knowledge — but an education is much more than simple facts.

Newstok looks at the importance of seemingly innocuous factors, such as simply being in the same place and time with teachers, and your class-mates, in shaping our ability to think, and think well. Or, for example, how our obsession with being original, our disdain for plagiarism, actually limits our performance, and stifles creativity. How insisting on efficiency and optimization in the curriculum actually makes us all poorer, intellectually, and how an obsession with assessment and measurement hides the very essence of education from us. Or how, in putting our hopes for a freer and more convenient education in the hands of technology, we’ve lost sight of the fact that thinking aides are not a substitute for thinking.

All in all, this is a book I couldn’t do justice in any way in a simple review. Newstok has a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of literature, insight into why words have power, and an understanding of how to craft them. It presents valuable ideas in an engaging format, and will help you understand both our education systems and your own mind better. It will also give you the tools you need to guide the latter one better, and the insight as to where you want it to go. I thoroughly recommend you give this one a try.

Why Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a brilliant sneaky innuendo

It’s one of Shakespeare’s best works, it’s a brilliant take on gender roles, and it’s also a sexual joke: in Shakespeare’s time, the word ‘Nothing’ was slang for female genitalia. The title of  ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a double entendre.

Depiction of the Church scene in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, by Alfred W. Elmore.

The play was probably written in 1598 and 1599 when Shakespeare was mid-career, and is riddled with jokes and plays on words — though some of them have been shrouded by changing linguistics and semantics. Even one that is in the title remains hidden to most people — after all, why would “nothing” be dirty?

Much of this play revolves around writing secret messages, spying, and eavesdropping. People are constantly pretending to be others or being mistaken for other people, and are constantly tricked in one way or another. Intriguingly, much of the play’s action hinges upon the word. In Shakespeare’s time, “noting” (meaning gossip, rumour, and overhearing) was pronounced very similarly to “nothing”, and “noting” is what tricks the two main characters, Benedick and Beatrice, to confess their love for each other.

These two near-homophones set the stage for a few interesting moments, such as:

Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?

Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.

However, there’s yet another entendre at work: “noting” also signifies musical notes:

Don Pedro: Nay pray thee, come;

Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.
Balthasar: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.
Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks –
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!

But “noting” goes even for a third entendre — a sexual one. “Nothing”, or “an O-thing” (or “n othing” or “no thing”) was Elizabethan slang for “vagina”, evidently derived from the pun of a woman having “nothing” between her legs. Since much of the play focuses on couples and virginity is mentioned a few times, it gives even more emphasis that this is no coincidence.

This innuendo also sneaks up in Hamlet:

Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

Ophelia: No, my lord.

Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ophelia: Ay, my lord.

Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.

Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

Ophelia: What is, my lord?

Hamlet: Nothing.

Shakespeare was a master of words — there’s a reason why he’s considered the best English writer of all time. The level of depth and the different layers of meaning he gives to an apparently simple title just goes to show how amazing he was at this craft, and why he still fascinates us to this very day, more than four centuries after his plays were written. It also suggests that he liked dirty jokes, but that’s another story.

Cannabis traces found on Shakespeare’s pipe – was the bard into pot?

William Shakespeare – universally praised as one of the best writers in history, eminent dramatist and England’s national poet, is still a controversial figure. There is speculation about the authorship of his works, with some scholars claiming they were written by someone else; there’s also speculation about his sexuality, his religion, and even his looks. Contrary to popular belief, no written contemporary description of Shakespeare’s physical appearance survives, and no evidence suggests that he ever commissioned a portrait. Now, there’s a new topic of discussion (read: gossip) around Shakespeare – he seems to have smoked marijuana.

We think that this is how Shakespeare looked like, but we don’t know for sure. This is the Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. Located in National Portrait Gallery, London.

South African scientists have studied 400-year-old tobacco pipes excavated from the garden of William Shakespeare. They conducted forensic analysis on the pipes and found residue of marijuana – low concentrations, but the signature is definitely there. This non-destructive chemical analysis was undertaken using state-of-the-art forensic technology at the South African Police narcotics laboratory, by three scientists (Professor Francis Thackeray, Professor Nicholas van der Merwe of the University of Cape Town, and Inspector Tommy van der Merwe). There was also evidence of cocaine on some pipes, but not the ones from Shakespeare’s garden. A similar study was conducted in 2001, with similar results.

During the time the bard was writing his works of art, there were several types of tobacco used in England, including the North American Nicotiana (from which we get nicotine), and cocaine (Erythroxylum). Although there is no conclusive evidence, some historians believe that renowned explorer Francis Drake actually brought cocaine to Europe; but regardless who brought it, it was in England during the 16th century – Shakespeare’s neighbors smoked it, while the author seemed to prefer cannabis.

There are also literary indications which support these findings. In Sonnet 76, Shakespeare writes about “invention in a noted weed”. Although it’s not entirely clear if he refers to “a weed” or “the weed”, it seems to be a strong indication. In the same sonnet, he also mentions that he doesn’t want to be associated with “strange drugs”, which is arguably cocaine.

So, was Shakespeare high when he wrote his masterpieces? It seems like a very plausible scenario. His performances at the Elizabethan court might have been shrouded in a cloud of cannabis, his inspiration fueled by it? Or was it just his way of relaxing after a long day? We may never know, but one thing seems very likely – the bard was an ent.

Richard III remains found – face to be soon revealed

The remains of the legendary Richard III have been found beneath a Leicester car park – where else? DNA, carbon dating and the whole shebang showed, beyond reasonable doubt, that the remains belong to the king, explained lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, so the finding I was telling you about a while ago really check out.

A legendary skeleton

Richard III remains

According to him, the bones have been subjected to “rigorous academic study” and had been carbon dated to a period from 1455-1540 – Richard III fell in battle in 1485. His skeleton showed that he suffered 10 injuries, including eight to the skull, one of them removing a slice of bone, while another was caused by bladed weapon which went through and hit the opposite side of the skull – a depth of more than 10cm-auch!

Dr Appleby explained:

“Both of these injuries would have caused an almost instant loss of consciousness and death would have followed quickly afterwards. In the case of the larger wound, if the blade had penetrated 7cm into the brain, which we cannot determine from the bones, death would have been instantaneous.”

However, there was absolutely no indication of a withered arm or other abnormalities described in the more extreme characterisations of the king.

Who was Richard III?

Richard III was the English king with the shortest reign – just 26 months. He was the last king of the House of York and the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. His defeat at Bosworth Field, the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, is sometimes regarded as the end of the Middle Ages in England. He was a royal prince, but a younger brother. After his older brother inherited the throne and then fell to battle, his son was supposed to carry the reign, with Richard being named as protector of his nephew, Edward V. Soon after this however, Richard seized power and made Edward and his younger brother “disappear”.

He also gained a significant amount of notoriety due to Shakespeare’s play. In the play, Richard is described as a jealous and ambitions man, an ugly hunchback who is “rudely stamp’d”, “deformed, unfinish’d”, and cannot “strut before a wanton ambling nymph.”

This is arguably one of the best plays ever written, describing Richard III as a criminal and tyrant, but also analyzing themes such as free will and fatalism.

Some of these claims are backed up by his skeleton; he suffered from severe scoliosis, a medical condition in which the spine is curved from side to side, and which made him significantly shorter. Without the scoliosis, which experts believe developed during teenage years, he would have been about 5ft 8ins (1.7m) tall, but the curvature would have made him appear “considerably” shorter.

“The analysis of the skeleton proved that it was an adult male but was an unusually slender, almost feminine, build for a man. Taken as a whole, the skeletal evidence provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III.”

A face for a legend

richard iii 2

Despite him being an anti-hero, he remains one of the most mentioned characters in history – and such a character really should have a face. The face of King Richard III is set to be unveiled to the world in just a few days, with the facial reconstruction being conducted by University of Leicester researchers.

Richard’s body will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, probably early in 2014. A temporary exhibition will open there on 8 February, followed by a permanent visitors’ centre telling the story of Richard’s life.

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