100+ of the Best Books on Shakespeare

A comprehensive list of the best sources for further reading about the Bard and his plays from Royal Shakespeare Company editor Jonathan Bate.


 Jonathan Bate

There are thousands of books and tens of thousands of academic articles on Shakespeare.

The most comprehensive (and fully searchable) resource for the advanced study of the plays is the World Shakespeare Bibliography Online (requires subscription), which provides annotated entries for all important books, articles, book reviews, dissertations, theatrical productions, reviews of productions, audiovisual materials, electronic media, and other scholarly and popular materials related to Shakespeare and published or produced between about 1960 and the present. The scope is international, with coverage extending to more than 118 languages and representing every country in North America, South America, and Europe and nearly every country in the rest of the world. With over 110,000 annotated records, it cites several hundred thousand additional reviews of books, productions, films, and audio recordings.

Faced with such a wealth of resources, where is one to begin?

Probably the best online starting point is the portal, Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet, an annotated guide to resources — texts, contexts, and analysis — across the Internet. There is also a downloadable Internet resources guide on the RSC website.

Another valuable portal, with much information on Shakespeare’s contemporary theatrical life (with particular but not exclusive UK emphasis), is Touchstone.

Links into a vast range of analytic resources can also be found on the websites of various national Shakespeare associations and societies (e.g., http://www.britishshakespeare.ws/research.php or, for America, http://www.shakespeareassociation.org/, or for Japan, http://wwwsoc.nii.ac.jp/sh/sh-english/index-e.html).

It is also possible to become part of the international scholarly Shakespeare debate via the permanent electronic conference “SHAKSPER“. Discussion of the so-called “authorship” question is not allowed on SHAKSPER. The best online account of the irrefutable evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of the plays is The Shakespeare Authorship Page.

The Internet also means that it is now possible for anyone to view full collections of Shakespeare’s original quarto and folio texts, something that until recently was only possible by means of expensive facsimiles. For the quartos, begin at the British Library and for the folios, go to the Internet Shakespeare Edition facsimile page.

Thanks to the storage, search and hyperlink capacity provided by digitization, the next generation of high-level scholarly Shakespeare editions is bound to be electronic. For a glimpse of the future, offering an extraordinary gathering of the riches of the past, see the Internet Shakespeare Edition and, especially, the “variorum” commentary on Shakespeare’s most-talked-about play at Hamletworks.

The most exciting new resource for the study of Shakespeare’s language is the fully searchable collection of dictionaries and glossaries from his age, Lexicons of Early Modern English.

Designing Shakespeare is a superb audiovisual website that is especially good for thinking about visual aspects of the plays. A comprehensive database of Shakespeare on film, television and radio is in preparation by the British Universities Film and Video Council.

PLEASE NOTE: Web addresses and content are subject to change, and the longevity and quality of individual sites is not guaranteed. The Modern Library and the editors of William Shakespeare: Complete Works, the RSC Shakespeare Edition cannot accept responsibility for non-functioning links or for any other failing, including without limitation incorrect or outdated scholarly information, on any third-party site. ALL OPINIONS OF WEBSITES AND BOOKS MENTIONED ARE THOSE OF JONATHAN BATE, NOT THE MODERN LIBRARY, THE RSC OR any other individual or entity associated with the publication of William Shakespeare: Complete Works, The RSC Edition.

Of the many valuable Shakespeare reference guides available in printed form, perhaps the best is The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (2001). Such is the quantity of work on Shakespeare that print bibliographies go out of date all too quickly (though a fairly comprehensive listing of older work is to be found in A Shakespeare Bibliography, 1971, the catalogue of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library). Excellent critical overviews of new work on Shakespeare are provided in two annually published journals, Shakespeare Survey and The Year’s Work in English Studies. The longest established academic journals devoted specifically to Shakespeare are Shakespeare Jahrbuch in Germany, Shakespeare Survey in Britain, Shakespeare Quarterly and Shakespeare Studies in the USA; Shakespeare Quarterly is based at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world’s greatest Shakespeare’s library, which has an invaluable online catalogue of its rare book collection.

For comprehensiveness, print bibliographies can no longer keep up with electronic ones. Besides, there is little value in listing as many titles as possible for the sake of it: the simple act of including or excluding particular titles is a matter of judgment. To the student and generally interested reader, there is nothing more intimidating than a long unannotated list of academic titles. And nobody has world enough and time to read even a small proportion of all that might be read about Shakespeare. For all these reasons, the following FURTHER READING list consists of what are, in the view of Jonathan Bate, the general editor, JUST OVER ONE HUNDRED OF THE BEST BOOKS on Shakespeare (plus some of his own!).

Bibliographies often include such details as place of publication and publisher’s name, but the digitization of library and bookseller stock means that author and title are now sufficient for finding purposes. The screenscraper of new and used online bookstores, www.bookfinder.com, makes it possible to obtain publication information about almost all these works (and to buy many of them at competitive prices). Original year of publication is, however, included in the list to indicate the particular historical moment of each commentary.

Further Reading

Biographies & General Studies

Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (1997) — not a life from 1564-1616, but a biography of the idea of Shakespeare and perceptions of his greatness; includes a chapter on the “authorship controversy”

A Companion to Shakespeare, edited by David Scott Kastan (1999) — excellent introductory collection of essays on the plays, the historical context, the Elizabethan theatre and so on; very helpful for students

E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols, 1930) — not a book to read through, but the best compendium of facts and documents about Shakespeare and his theatre

Andrew Dickson, The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (2005) — a reference work and more, which could hardly be bettered, strongly recommended to all students and playgoers; includes information on film and audio versions, also recommendations as to which is the best fully annotated text of each work, though these latter features are already somewhat outdated

Dominic Dromgoole, Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life (2006) — emphatically a book to read through, a passionate and opinionated enthusiast’s guide by the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe

Katherine Duncan-Jones, Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life (2001) — the least romantic of biographies, with a particularly strong sense of Shakespeare’s social status; especially good on such incidents as his quest for a family coat-of-arms

Russell Fraser, Young Shakespeare (1988) and Shakespeare: The Later Years (1992) — the most underrated of modern biographies, perhaps because published in two volumes (and the second one is not quite as good as the first, which really does bring alive the environment of the young Shakespeare)

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) — admired more by general readers than by scholars, since it is supremely readable but makes sometimes questionable links between Shakespeare’s life, world, and work (e.g. such identifications as Falstaff being a combination of Shakespeare’s father and rival dramatist Robert Greene, or Shylock as the Jewish doctor Roderigo Lopez)

John Gross, After Shakespeare (2002) — a glorious anthology of writings about Shakespeare, both profound and funny; a book that deserves a prominent place on the bedside table of every Shakespeare lover

Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life (1998) — solidly accurate

A. D. Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker (2007) — probably the best single-volume introduction to Shakespeare’s mind at work, covering the full range of his plays: fine close readings combined with philosophical and psychological insight

Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives (1971, rev. ed., 1991) — richly informative and often very funny history of the art and artlessness of Shakespearean biography down the ages

James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) — prize-winning “micro-history” of a key year in Shakespeare’s career

Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (1989) — iconoclastic take on Shakespeare’s “afterlife”

Peter Thomson, Shakespeare’s Professional Career (1992) — a well-illustrated account that is especially strong on Shakespeare’s working life in the theatre, especially with regard to the companies for which he wrote

Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare (2003) — despite inaccuracies on some matters of detail, a lively account of Shakespeare’s world (and especially his neighbours) in both Stratford and London; linked to an excellent BBC/PBS television series with the same title

Shakespeare as Collaborator

Jonathan Hope, The Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays (1994) — uses sociolinguistics to help solve some of the questions around the fringes of the canon

Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002) — decisive demonstration of the presence of the hands of Peele, Middleton, Wilkins, and Fletcher in Titus, Timon, Pericles, Henry VIII, and Kinsmen

Shakespeare Theatre

J. Leeds Barroll, Politics, Plague and Shakespeare’s Theatre (1991) — fascinating account of how Shakespeare’s output in the Jacobean years was affected by theatre closure due to plague

Alan Dessen, Recovering Shakespeare’s Theatrical Vocabulary (1995) — good on nuts and bolds of Elizabethan theatre practice

Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642 (3rd ed., 1992) and Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (3rd ed., 2004) — accessible and full of information about the theatres of Shakespeare’s time

Roslyn Knutson, The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613 (1991) — the plays in the contexts of others put on by the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men

David Lindley, Shakespeare and Music (2006) — exemplary study of theatrical uses of music, as well as the period’s philosophical attitudes to music

A New History of Early English Drama, edited by J. D. Cox and D. S. Kastan (1997) — leading-edge scholarship on every aspect of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, the writing and printing of plays; should be high on any student’s list

Tiffany Stern, Rehearsal From Shakespeare to Sheridan (2000) — the best behind-the-scenes account of how Shakespeare’s companies put on his plays

Jean Wilson, The Archaeology of Shakespeare (1995) — not only excellent on the Rose and the Globe but also makes fascinating use of other artifacts such as funeral monuments

Sources and Literary/Dramatic Contexts

T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (2 vols, 1944) — magisterial account of the Elizabethan grammar school curriculum and how it shaped Shakespeare’s mind, now freely available online (http://durer.press.uiuc.edu/baldwin/)

Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (1993) — his reading of his favourite classical poet

Stuart Gillespie, Shakespeare’s Books (2001) — comprehensive A-Z guide to his reading

Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (1976) — dazzling study of Renaissance rhetorical formations of the self, which deserves to be, but is not, as well known as the work of Greenblatt and others

Peter Mack, Shakespeare, Montaigne and Renaissance Ethical Reading (forthcoming, 2008) — groundbreaking account of how Shakespeare read

Robert Miola, Shakespeare’s Reading (2000) — sound introduction to what Shakespeare read

Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, edited by Geoffrey Bullough (8 vols, 1957-75) — comprehensive collection of raw materials

Martin Wiggins, Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time (2000) — excellent placing of Shakespeare in the context of the plays of his contemporaries

Historical & Political Contexts

John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (1994) — pioneering study of the combination of historical, geographical, and ethnographic contexts for several key plays

Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (2003) — clear introductory study

Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (1995) — may overstate its case for specific allusions and occasions of performance, but very effective in placing Shakespeare firmly in the Jacobean court

Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism (2002) — balanced introduction to a hot topic

Shakespeare’s England (2 vols, 1916) — nearly a hundred years old, so not to be trusted on matters of historical interpretation, but there is no better compendium of information about life and customs in Shakespeare’s England, always tied to references in the plays; includes everything from court tilts to falconry to printing shops

James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (1996) — has implications well beyond the figure of Shylock

Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1943) — invaluable intellectual context

E. W. Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare’s Art (1962) — in its method of reading Shakespeare in the context of sixteenth-century theories of law and the “commonwealth,” this book is forty years ahead of its time

Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare, Politics and the State (1986) — very useful mix of analysis and extracts from period documents


E. A. Armstrong, Shakespeare’s Imagination (1946) — fascinating account of the play of linguistic associations in Shakespeare’s poetic writing

N. F. Blake, Shakespeare’s Non-Standard English: A Dictionary of His Informal Language (2006) — a reference work, not a book to read through, but full of interesting information

G. L. Brook, The Language of Shakespeare (1976) — sound introduction

Fausto Cerignani, Shakespeare’s Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation (1981) — technical but essential for the serious scholar

Wolfgang Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery (2nd ed., 1977) — clear survey

David and Ben Crystal, Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion (2002) — an A-Z glossary, but with extremely valuable “panels” containing mini-essays on a host of language-related topics

Philip Davis, Shakespeare Thinking (2007) — brief and brilliant study of the interplay of thought and language

M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare’s Wordplay (1957) — clear and elegant

Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare (2004) — ingenious, playful

Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (1987) — highly sophisticated approach via modern literary theory as well as Renaissance rhetoric

Marion Trousdale, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (1982) — powerful study of an important topic; might be read after the more elementary but highly informative older study by Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language (1947)

Gordon Williams, A Glossary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Language (1997) — definitive, startling


John Barton, Playing Shakespeare (1984) — hugely influential handbook by RSC guru, linked to superb television master class of the same year

Cicely Berry, The Actor and the Text (1992) — the gospel according to the RSC’s hugely respected voice coach. See also her set of practical DVDs, The Working Shakespeare (2004)

Peter Hall, Hamlet’s Advice to the Players (2003) — prescriptions of the RSC founder and self-confessed “iambic fundamentalist”

Patsy Rodenburg, Speaking Shakespeare (2002) — practical advice from another leading voice coach

George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (1988) — the best book on how Shakespeare’s rhythmic art actually works

Dramatic Techniques & Forms

Lawrence Danson, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres (2000) — excellent introduction to comedy, tragedy, history and Shakespeare’s mixing of genres

Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (1954) — learned, wide-ranging, full of sense

Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (2 vols, 1946-47) — exemplary readings of ten major plays by one of the early twentieth century’s greatest men of the theatre

John C. Meagher, Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays were Made (2000) — much underrated study of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy

Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (1962) — pioneering study of theatrical self-consciousness

Tiffany Stern, Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page (2004) — very useful introduction to practical processes

Actors’ and Directors’ Interpretations

Actors on Shakespeare: a rich series of slim volumes published by Faber & Faber; especially recommended are F. Murray Abraham on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2005), Simon Callow on Henry IV Part 1 (2002), David Oyelowo on Henry VI (2002), Saskia Reeves on Much Ado about Nothing (2003), and Harriet Walter on Macbeth (2002)

Michael Bogdanov, Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut (2 vols, 2003-5) — polemical, political, fiercely contemporary

Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today, edited by Carol Rutter (1994) — interviews with leading female actors

Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet (2007) – revelatory

Michael Pennington, Hamlet: A User’s Guide (1996); A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A User’s Guide (2005); Twelfth Night: A User’s Guide (2004) — all extremely detailed and especially valuable for students of theatre studies

Players of Shakespeare, edited by Robert Smallwood (6 vols, 1988-2005) — interviews with RSC actors about playing a wide range of major parts

Antony Sher, Year of the King (1986) — incomparable insight into the playing of Richard III

Teacher’s Guides

In order to bring Shakespeare off the page and teach the plays as scripts for performance, teachers might like to try some of the exercises in the following two books:

Edward L. Rocklin, Performance Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare (2005) — contains pedagogic theorizing as well as practical exercises

James Stredder, The North Face of Shakespeare: Activities for Teaching the Plays (2004) — may be obtained from Wincot Press, 42 Maidenhead Road, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 6XT


Feminism, gender studies, and “queer theory” now constitute a huge subdiscipline within Shakespeare studies. The following studies provide excellent starting-points:

Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origins in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (1992) — psychoanalytic criticism at its best

A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Dympna Callaghan (2000) — collection of essays with wide range of approaches, historical, psychological, and theatrical

Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (1996)

Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women (2005)

Bruce Smith, Shakespeare and Masculinity (2000)


C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies (1959) — one of the best critical books on Shakespeare ever written

Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (1965) — a slim work of supreme power

R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy (2005) — sets the Elizabethan comedies in the context of both theatrical traditions and anti-stage polemic

Shakespeare’s Comedies, edited by Emma Smith (2004) — useful set of interpretative essays


Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (1989) and Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (1994) — two books that should be read as a pair

Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (1981) — particularly good chapter on Shakespeare’s doubled-edged attitude to Henry V, but valuable as an approach to all the plays, not just the histories

Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles (1990) — gives due attention to women and social inferiors as well as kings and nobles

Peter Saccio, Shakespeare’s English Kings (1977) — the best practical guide to the relationship between actual historical events in the middle ages, the Tudor chronicles, and Shakespeare’s dramatic reshaping of history


Stephen Booth, King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition and Tragedy (1983) — not for beginners, but very penetrating

Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s Scepticism (1987) — particularly good on the radical scepticism of Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, but valuable as an approach to all the plays, not just the tragedies

Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (1987) — still less for beginners, but full of philosophical insight; the essay on “The Avoidance of Love” is among the best pieces ever written on Lear

Fintan O’Toole, Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearian Tragedy (2002) — ideal for beginners, especially in exposing the uselessness of the idea of “the tragic flaw” (on Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear; was originally published in 1990 with the title No More Heroes)

T. J. B. Spencer, Shakespeare’s Plutarch (1968) — a key to understanding the Roman plays


Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare’s Narrative Poems and Sonnets (1987) — very good on oxymoronic language

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2004) — sane introductory study

William Empson, numerous passages in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) and the essay on Sonnet 94 (“They that have power to hurt”) in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) remain unsurpassed as readings of the sonnets


Peter Blayney, The First Folio of Shakespeare (1991) — a slim Folger Library pamphlet full of essential information about the great book

Lukas Erne, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2003) — hugely important study questioning the old view that Shakespeare wasn’t interested in the publication of his plays

W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio: its Bibliographical and Textual History (1955) — though modified by half a century’s subsequent scholarship, still an invaluable compendium for the serious student of the text

David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Book (2001) — excellent survey of the story of quartos, folios, editions, and now hypertext

Laurie Maguire, Shakespearean Suspect Texts: the “Bad” Quartos and their Contexts (1996) — questions old orthodoxies about “bad” or “pirated” texts

Andrew Murphy, Shakespeare in Print: A History and Chronology of Shakespeare Publishing (2003) — comprehensive and magisterial

Richard Proudfoot, Shakespeare: Text, Stage and Canon (2001) — lucid introductory lectures by a textual expert

Ron Rosenbaum, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (2006) — extensive layperson’s introduction to the scholarly disputes over Shakespeare’s text

William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (1987) — controversial, contested in many particulars, but full of meat; indeed, constitutes the main course of the “Oxford revolution” in Shakespearean editing


Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660-1769 (1992) — excellent on the political context of Restoration and eighteenth-century adaptations

Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Performance (2nd ed., 2001) — international in reach and superbly illustrated

Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History, edited by Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson (1996, paperback retitled The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, 2001) — authoritative collection of essays

Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism, edited by Stanley Wells (1997) — reviews and comments down the ages

J. L. Styan, The Shakespeare Revolution: Criticism and Performance in the Twentieth Century (1977) — good on changing production styles and the return of a “thrust” as opposed to proscenium arch stage


Another new subdiscipline within Shakespeare studies. Perhaps begin with:

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, edited by Russell Jackson (2000)

Kenneth S. Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (2nd ed., 2004)

KEY INTERPRETATIONS DOWN THE AGES [from the eighteenth century to the turn of the millennium, listed chronologically, not alphabetically]

Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, edited by Henry Woudhuysen (1990) — includes the great preface of 1765

The Romantics on Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate (1992) — includes substantial extracts from Coleridge, Goethe, Schlegel, Hazlitt, Keats, Hugo and others

Edward Dowden, Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875) — highly influential reading of the plays in terms of the supposed arc of his life (happy comedies in the 1590s, a dark night of the soul and the great tragedies in the early 1600s, the serene last “romances” at the end of his career); around the same time, the poet A. C. Swinburne was developing a similar theory of Shakespeare’s development, though with more emphasis on his style and especially his metrics (A Study of Shakespeare, available as a free e-book, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16412/16412-h/16412-h.htm)

A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) — possibly the most influential work of Shakespearean criticism ever published (as suggested by a rhyme about its importance for people taking exams on the plays: “I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost / Sat for a civil service post. / The English paper for that year / Had several questions on King Lear / Which Shakespeare answered very badly / Because he hadn’t read his Bradley”); has been attacked for treating the characters as real people, but is actually attuned to questions that are very important (a famous anti-Bradley essay by L. C. Knights [1933] was entitled “How many children had Lady Macbeth?,” implying that this was not an appropriate thing to ask, but actually sterility and childlessness are key motifs in the play)

Shakespeare Criticism 1919-1935 and Shakespeare Criticism 1935-1960, edited by Anne Ridler (1936, 1963) — neat little anthologies in the Oxford World’s Classics series, gathering many of the best and most influential essays from the period when criticism was dominated by the approaches of T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis and the “new criticism”

E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944) — much-contested account of the histories in relation to the “Tudor myth”

Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (1949) — Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalytical approach to Shakespeare were very influential in the mid-twentieth century; this book by Freud’s English protege is the fullest working-through of the theory that Hamlet suffered from an Oedipus Complex (Jones originally articulated the argument in an article of 1910, which greatly influenced Laurence Olivier’s approach to the character in his stage performances and his 1948 movie)

A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare (1961) — superb treatment of “ambivalence” as a key to Shakespeare, especially good on the history plays and darker comedies

Modern Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Alvin Kernan (1970) — very well selected anthology of mid-century criticism, including such classic essays, from which no student of Shakespeare could fail to profit, as Northrop Frye’s “The Argument of Comedy” (1949) and Maynard Mack’s “The Jacobean Shakespeare” (1960)

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964) — impassioned, engaged, political, the quintessence of the 1960s but still alive today, if now best taken with a pinch of salt; especially notable on King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Titus Andronicus

Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (1975) — the first full-length Shakespeare study to benefit from the feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, setting the plays in the context of early modern attitudes to women and marriage

Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980) and Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (1988) — foundational essays for the so-called “new historicist” approach to Shakespeare, the most influential being “Invisible Bullets,” on Prince Hal in Henry IV (in the second collection), but probably the best being the treatment of Iago in the final chapter of the first book (an essay well worth comparing to the poet W. H. Auden’s treatment of Iago as “The Joker in the Pack,” in his 1963 collection The Dyer’s Hand)

The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear, edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (1983) — the manifesto for the revisionist editorial position; conclusively shows that the two early texts of King Lear represent different stages in the life of the play, but overstates the case for systematic authorial revision

“The Tempest” and its Travels, edited by Peter Hulme and William Sherman (2000) — wide-ranging collection of essays on the play that has provoked particularly strong debate in the age of postcolonialism and globalization


The imaginative freedom of the novelist and dramatist can sometimes catch the spirit of Shakespeare in a way that the scholar, shackled to standards of proof, cannot. There is a long tradition, going back to Sir Walter Scott and beyond, of fictional representations of Shakespeare. Perhaps the best of them are:

Edward Bond’s Bingo (premiered 1973, performed at RSC 1976, included in his Plays 3, 1987) — imagines a visit from Ben Jonson to Shakespeare in his last years and takes a dark view of the Stratford man’s commercial dealings; might be read in contrast to Peter Whelan, The Herbal Bed (performed at RSC 1996, published in his Plays 1, 2003), a sympathetic imagining of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna

Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon (1941) — hilarious but also well-informed, and with a story that will seem familiar to viewers of Shakespeare in Love (1998), a movie that, for all its creative licence, is also a fine introduction to Shakespeare’s theatre-world

Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (1964) — a glorious romp through Shakespeare’s imagined youth

Robert Nye, Falstaff (1976), Mrs. Shakespeare: The Complete Works (1993) and The Late Mr. Shakespeare (1999) — three independent novels, which really ought to be republished as a trilogy; the third is narrated in the voice of an imaginary boy actor

Alan Wall, The School of Night (2000) — atmospheric literary detective thriller based on the “authorship controversy”

Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (1928) — imagines a young man named Orlando, born during the reign of Elizabeth I, who decides not to grow old; he passes through the ages as a young man until he wakes up one morning to find that he has metamorphosed into a woman, so the remaining centuries up to the time the book was written are seen through a woman’s eyes. Orlando is traditionally linked to Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West, but there is a profound allegorical sense in which he is also Shakespeare (who puts in a cameo appearance in his own person). Should be read in conjunction with the famous passage imagining the fate of Shakespeare’s sister (“Judith”) in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929)

There are hundreds more fine books on Shakespeare, but anyone who reads The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works from cover to cover and then devours a reasonable proportion of the above will have earned the right to consider themselves an exceptionally highly informed Shakespearean.

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