Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary

D Crystal and B Crystal, Oxford University Press, 2015, 352pp, £8.34 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 19273 750 2

Reviewed by Laura Emsden

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The beauty of this reference book is that it unites linguistic analysis with knowledge of cultural, historical and dramatic context. Packed with information about setting, staging and theatrical practices of the time, it brings the dramatic genre to the forefront. In addition, the style of the OISD is so accessible that the reader is quickly put at ease as the language of Shakespeare is demystified.

The text follows the usual format of words listed and is glossed from A to Z, yet the reference element itself is made lively and interesting: each section is introduced with an illustrated fact about theatrical or historical context, reinforcing that we are not simply reading about words but about living, breathing language in action. The glossaries are annotated with notes on usage and theatre, as well as 'warning notes' to avert audiences from misinterpreting certain words according to their current meaning. Clear cross-references to other sections of the book make the text easy to navigate, as does the grouping together of related words.

The book's introduction provides insights into Shakespeare's vocabulary and style, and helps to position the reader within his world. Indeed, the middle section of the book provides illustrated features on topics such as weapons, the cosmos and fashion – who'd have thought that the humble hat could hold such extensive significance? All this information is geared to facilitating an understanding of the language, supported by Kate Bellamy's illustrations: literal images helping to clarify elements of Shakespeare's imagery for a contemporary audience.

The final section of the book includes information about Shakespeare's grammar, pronunciation and use of French and Latin. There is even a translation from French to English of a whole scene from Henry V – extremely illuminating for those of us who have previously had to skim over this part of the play.

The OISD is by no means a comprehensive guide to Shakespeare's works: only 12 plays are referred to (although these are arguably the most popular), and none of his poetry is featured. This book is not a replacement for scholastic guides to individual plays. It does, however, provide a modern and dynamic approach to Shakespeare's language usage, grounded in the English language expertise of David Crystal and the theatrical experience of his son Ben. The product is enlightening, accessible and immensely enjoyable.

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