Tuesday, 27 September 2011


I think that Shakespeare is the greatest writer this country has ever seen. I’m sure I’m not alone in this opinion, so I thought I would share with you my selection of the best Shakespeare books and what I think makes him have such enduring appeal.

There are obviously different angles from which you might want to read about Shakespeare. I think the very first thing you need to do is read the plays. Maybe not all of them, but certainly some of them. In terms of The Complete Works, for scholars the best edition is the Norton Shakespeare, edited by American scholar Stephen Greenblatt. The Arden editions are also excellent if you want lots of accompanying notes. Arden should also be noted for publishing separately the different surviving versions of Hamlet: the Second Quarto and the First Quarto and First Folio together. If you just want a basic version of the plays, you can’t go wrong with Penguin or Oxford. It is also worth noting that there are 2 versions of Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ play, Cardenio. Arden published Lewis Theobald’s 18th Century version, Double Falsehood  and Nick Hern have published the RSC's reimagining of the play which was staged for the first time this year.

You could look into his life (well, what little is known) to inform your reading of the plays. I have just finished reading 1599 by James Shapiro, which manages to enlighten the reader about Shakespeare’s character, the times in which he was living and his writing and the reception of his plays all through looking in depth at one year. This was no ordinary year: he wrote Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Shapiro cleverly uses the seasons of the year as a structure, which allows him to bring in the historical context of each section of the year without it feeling forced or like you’re reading a history book. I have a few books on my ‘next to read’ list, including The Lodger (Charles Nicholl), The Genius of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age (both by Jonathan Bate, who wrote the brilliant play Being Shakespeare), and Will in the World (Stephen Greenblatt). Any recommendations?


You could also read some Shakespeare criticism, to see themes and patterns and contexts you might not otherwise know about. I recently read Looking for Sex in Shakespeare by Stanley Wells. Originally delivered as 3 lectures at Shakespeare’s Globe, Wells has converted what must have been excellent lectures into excellent essays. They are very readable and I found myself being disappointed I had not been lucky enough to hear them spoken out loud originally. The 3 sections covered relationships between men, the relationships in the Sonnets and ‘lewd interpreters’, i.e. people who see more sex in the plays than there is or ever was. I think next I want to read some of Andrew Gurr’s work on the Elizabethan play-going world (The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, The Shakespeare Company 1594-1642 and Playgoing in Shakespeare's London).

One of my all time favourite books is about Shakespeare. I have an interest in acting and like looking at the staging and performing of Shakespeare's plays as that’s what they were intended for. If you are likewise interested in acting, I cannot recommend highly enough Exit, Pursued by a Badger by Nick Asbury. Asbury is an actor who was involved in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2 ½ year Histories Cycle. The same company performed the 8 history plays from Richard II to Richard III. The book started its life as a hugely popular blog documenting the life of a stage actor, from forgetting lines to corpsing to being attacked by a badger! Following on from this format came Something Written in the State of Denmark by Keith Osborn about his time playing in the season that produced David Tennant and Patrick Stewart’s Hamlet as well as Love’s Labours Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Also worth a mention is Antony Sher’s Year of the King about his experience of playing Richard III in 1984. He gives so much detail about how he created the role and the psychological impact of playing such a major role, especially coming off the back of a major injury, it gives us a unique insight into how to depict Richard's disability.

So this is just a tiny selection of the massive amount of literature about Shakespeare. If you have any particular favourites or think I've missed out something, please feel free to leave me a comment.


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