OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU computer scientist co-writes "Shakespeare for Dummies(r)"

06/02/1999

CORVALLIS - A part-time Oregon State University faculty member, who teaches computer science and writes software programming books aimed at industry, has co-written a book on Shakespeare that has been published as part of the popular "For Dummies(r)" series.

The foreword for "Shakespeare for Dummies(r)" was written by none other than Dame Judi Dench, who received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Shakespeare in Love."

So how did Ray Lischner, who teaches one computer course a term at OSU so he can focus on writing software programming books, end up writing a book on the bard?

"It's my obsession," Lischner admitted. "Theater, and especially Shakespeare, are my passion. When I was performing in (OSU's production of) 'Titus Andronicus' last year, I put together a little scorecard so you could tell who's winning, the Romans or the Goths. And I wrote some tongue-in-cheek notes about what it all meant.

"Later it struck me that there might be a need for something like that on a bigger scale."

So Lischner hooked up with British director John Doyle, who had visited OSU's University Theatre program for a series of talks and workshops, and they pitched the idea to IDG Books Worldwide, publishers of the "For Dummies" series. Once the publishers accepted, it took more than a year for Lischner and Doyle to put together their book.

"Shakespeare for Dummies" offers biographical background on the playwright and debunks the rumors that suggest the plays may have been written by Francis Bacon or others. The book also provides a glimpse of the world in which Shakespeare lived, and the language that was spoken.

And then, of course, there are the plays. Written in a brisk, slightly irreverent style, the book includes a description of each Shakespearean play, an outline of the key characters, a listing of theatrical productions of that play on video, and a summary of each act.

There's even a scorecard to help theater-goers keep track of who's alive and who's dead - which isn't a bad idea in some of Shakespeare's more complex productions.

"One of the most difficult things about watching Shakespeare is the first five minutes of a play," Lischner said. "The language is unusual and when these characters start talking, it can be difficult to know who is saying what and why."

Lischner points to "Pericles" as an example.

"It is a play that probably has been corrupted, or was a collaboration," he said. "Because it seems to have had many hands in writing it, the play is disjointed. It ranges all over the Mediterranean, over several decades, and characters appear and disappear, never to be seen again."

Before tackling "Shakespeare for Dummies," Lischner's hadn't attempted a book aimed at a popular audience. He has written three computer programming books, including "Secrets of Delphi," that are aimed a narrow niche market.

Lischner, who has a bachelor's degree in computer science from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), said writing about Shakespeare is much more difficult.

"The audience for a book on Shakespeare can come from so many backgrounds, it's a bit frightening," he said.

The timing for the book couldn't have been better. Public interest in Shakespeare is riding a wave that began with movies by Kenneth Branagh, and culminated with the fanfare that accompanied the film, "Shakespeare in Love."

Dame Judi Dench, whom Doyle had directed early in her career, was asked to write a foreword for "Shakespeare for Dummies." The Academy Award-winning actress wrote that she balked at the idea of writing a foreword because she didn't think she would have the time to do the book justice. Once she began reading, however, she found it to be "exquisite."

"For those of us familiar with Shakespeare, it's terribly amusing," she wrote. "For those not so familiar, it brings the bard to life and makes him easily understandable...This book should be compulsory reading for everyone."