Some of you may remember the brief spotlight I put on this project back when it was just a viral sensation on the web. Others of you may remember my interview with the author. What you may not have heard was that the website disappeared to make way for a formally (or “traditionally”) published book of the same basic text, only tweaked and edited and generally made better. Bertocci’s publicist was kind enough to send me a copy of the final book as thanks for talking up the original, so please consider this a review of the product more than the idea. The concept is, in two words, tearfully hilarious.
So what makes this book special? Well, aside from the premise, the fact that it’s a real book, for one, for all the people like me out there who sit in front of a digital screen all day and can’t stomach the thought of reading from anything but paper to relax. But in all seriousness, Simon & Schuster did an excellent job of bitching it up to add to the humor inherent in the text. The layout resembles a typical Shakespeare text for the classroom: the right-hand pages have the text while the left-hand (verso) pages have explanatory notes for points that may confuse the modern reader. There are woodcut type illustrations on nearly every verso page, some instructional and others merely decorative, and the Acts and Scenes are clearly delineated for a smooth reading experience.
The real joy of this edited edition is the notes. I know Bertocci did update the text—including smoothing out rough spots and making a conscious reference to each of Shakespeare’s plays—but it had been long enough since I read the original draft that I can’t point to differences with any authority. Certainly nothing seemed glaringly different. But the notes! Oh, the notes are glorious. Plenty of them are rather straightforward definitions, but some are Bertocci explaining some of the more obscure references he is reaching for, some are circular definitions (words defined in relation to the lexicon of Lebowski), while others are jokes about Shakespeare’s work in general. For example, he defines lance as “euphemism for penis; see also most nouns in Shakespeare,” and calls Benjamin Jonson a “playwright, poet, and urban achiever.” He explains that “Maude’s refusal to marry is tremendously unorthodox. That she has secured power over men while remaining unmarried could be a Shakespearean parody of Queen Elizabeth. Because of this, and her general audacity, Maude’s role would likely have been costumed with red hair,” which is a wonderful retrograde explanation for why the Coen brothers cast Maude thusly in the film. Even among the straightforward definitions, plenty are simply cheeky: not born under a rhyming planet has the note “i.e., not a talented poet.”
I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this redux of The Big Lebowski, and would highly recommend it to any fan of the movie or “Shakespeare plus” mash-ups. And the whole is funnier than the text alone with a more formal presentation to add a façade of pedantry to its underlying absurdity. I can’t wait until this hits a theatre troupe near me!