Michael Macrone

Short Takes

(East Bay Express Books, August, 1990)
Harper & Row (1990) $15.00.
Reviewed by Robert Hurwitt
Express Books cover

The title may come from a popular musical comedy (yes, that one), a Cole Porter number at that, but the concept sounds like something from the mustier realm of academe: a compendium of familiar phrases coined by Shakespeare, with sources and commentary, together with a list of words (like “academe” itself) either coined by the Bard or attributed to him and an essay on literary titles derived from his works. But there's nothing dry about this handsome, cleverly illustrated little tome. Cal scholar Macrone lives up to his subtitle, providing “An infectious tour through the most famous and quotable words and phrases from the Bard.”

In 173 breezily conversational entries, Macrone discusses everything from such expected numbers as “star-crossed lovers," "to be or not to be,”' and “Friends, Romans, and countrymen" to such relative surprises as “household words," “wild goose chase,” “not budge an inch," "foregone conclusion, and—“Knock, knock! Who's there?” Some of the entries provide some interesting insights on the original contexts of the phrases and how their meanings have changed over the years. A “Faux Shakespeare” chapter takes the game a bit further, debunking phrases often attributed to that author (“All that glisters is not gold”), but which he actually borrowed from earlier writers or from common usage. And the chapter on borrowed titles, though far from comprehensive, gets in some nice jabs at those who'd appear “more brushed-up than thou” in choosing esoteric borrowings (Nabokov gleaning Pale Fire from Timon of Athens, for instance) and those who never could stop going to the well (Aldous Huxley weighs in with seven such titles).

As a working theater critic, I can't honestly say that this is going to prove an invaluable reference book. But it's a very pleasant browse.

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First published in the East Bay Express Books (August 1990)

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