If you’re enjoying this week’s EconTalk episode with Scott Newstok, you might be ready to jump in and read more about The Bard. There is an almost unlimited supply of books on Shakespeare. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the onslaught of critical literature, popular treatments, retellings, revisionings, and performances. It’s glorious.
It also makes creating a list of five recommended books about Shakespeare an almost impossible task. Do we recommend the classic works? The newest? The most popular? The most fun? Do we focus on the writer or the writing? How do we find a way into the grand edifice we have made of the poet, the playwright, the glove-maker’s son?
I’ve decided to suggest 5 books (and a few extra) that I think provide a variety of useful and interesting doorways into Shakespeare. They’re older works, not cutting edge scholarship, primarily because older works tend to be written for a more general audience. And there are no biographies, primarily because my own personal interest is much more focused on Shakespeare’s work rather than on his life.
Think of each of these suggestions as a different doorway through which you can walk. They all take you into the same building, but through slightly different paths. Pick the doorway you think sounds the most interesting.
Holinshed’s Chronicles: This is the great chronicle history of England that Shakespeare used as source material for his history plays as well as for plays like King Lear and Macbeth. There’s something really wonderful about reading what Shakespeare was reading while he was writing. If you’re so inclined, it’s also a fine way to think about the artistic changes he made to the accepted history of his day as he turned it into theater. I have an ancient copy of the Everyman Library collection of excerpts from Holinshed titled Holinshed’s Chronicles as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays. It’s out of print, but you can find it used fairly easily, and at a wide range of prices. You can also get the full text of Holinshed online at The Holinshed Project.
Shakespeare’s Bawdy: Shakespeare never met a pun he didn’t like, and he never met a raunchy pun he didn’t like even better. Slang has changed so much since he wrote, however, that his best bits of blue humor often slip right past the modern reader. Eric Partridge’s classic study, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, is the key to uncoding Shakespeare’s naughtiest, and often funniest jokes. You won’t believe what you missed in high school. (This book may also be the key to getting your own reluctant high school Shakespeare student to do the assigned reading.)
Theater History: The Elizabethan theatrical world was vibrant, rapidly changing, and politically and economically fascinating. Andrew Gurr’s Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London and Bart Van Es’s Shakespeare in Company usher you into Shakespeare’s theater as a physical space and as a company of actors and community of playwrights. Combine them with a virtual tour of London’s reconstruction of the Globe theater for a fuller understanding of what it would have been like to be in Shakespeare’s audience, or in his cast.
Lectures on Shakespeare: There are few things more glorious than the experience of reading a great writer writing about another great writer. W.H. Auden’s set of essays titled “The Shakespearean City” from his book The Dyer’s Hand is a stunning literary project in its own right, but it is also good, deep, and thoughtful writing on Shakespeare’s plays. Paired with Lectures on Shakespeare, the series of lectures Auden delivered at the New School in the 1940s, you’ll have a private course on Shakespeare taught by one of the great modern poets. What could be better?
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Before Shakespeare was a wildly popular playwright, he was a wildly popular writer of sonnets. Sir Patrick Stewart read one a day for 154 days at the beginning of the Covid quarantines, bringing new life and new attention to these often sadly neglected works. Those recordings, and Helen Vendler’s unequalled The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which analyzes each sonnet in its own tight 3-4 page essay, will give any reader a deeper appreciation for the rich and varied poetic technique that undergirds the beauty and power of Shakespeare’s language.
P.S. You can read the complete works of Shakespeare for free online at our sister site, the OLL.