The Play’s the Thing: A Beginner’s Guide to Seeing and Enjoying Shakespeare, by Mac MacDaniel
As I said in the introduction that I was lucky enough to be invited to write for this brilliant little book, when my dear friend Mac MacDaniel told me he was writing a book intended to help people enjoy attending performances of Shakespeare’s plays that they weren’t familiar with, I was amazed at what a brilliant “no duh” idea that was. Out of the scores of books that I’ve read about Shakespeare and his plays, I couldn’t think of a single other book like The Play’s the Thing—one intended solely as a friendly guide to an evening’s entertainment, a way of helping people engage with what they will be witnessing onstage. I can promise you that, no matter what your relationship to Shakespeare currently is, reading Mac’s two page introduction to whatever play you attend next will make it a much more meaningful, memorable, and pleasurable event.
The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volumes 1& 2, by Harold C. Goddard
In these two volumes, Harold C. Goddard devotes a chapter to each of Shakespeare’s plays, and his readings offer an insightful, appreciative, and very helpful orientation to almost all of them. Poet Mark Van Doren claims that Goddard’s writing “is so natural and warm that it draws the reader instantly in and keeps him there.” I find myself returning to Goddard for a brush-up each time I decide to revisit a particular play.
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, by Northrop Frye
In addition to being one of the most important literary theorists of the 20th century, Northrop Frye was also a committed teacher. He developed the essays in this book from lectures he’d given to undergraduates in the Shakespeare course he co-taught at the University of Toronto. They are valuable guides to a number of the plays, and offer engaging examinations of such seemingly simple questions as who is the villain in Romeo and Juliet, or what the word “fool” means in King Lear.
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom
In this thick and opinionated tome, Harold Bloom, one of America’s major 20th century literary critics, provides commentary on each of Shakespeare’s plays, as he argues that William Shakespeare single-handedly created our modern understanding of humanity. One of the reasons I like this book is that, along with all his valuable insights, Bloom’s more outrageous observations keep challenging me to take a deeper look at the plays for myself so I can develop my own opinions.
Shakespeare After All, by Marjorie Garber
This is another helpful general introduction to each of the plays.
For Readers Who Want to Dig a Little Deeper:
A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism, by Arthur M. Eastman
This overview of Shakespeare criticism begins with Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, and ends with mid-20th century critics such as Northrop Frye and John Holloway. Eastman’s summaries of the points of view, contributions, and weaknesses of many of Shakespeare’s major critics are excellent introductions to these thinkers. In addition, we also can trace how critical questions, assumptions, and concerns have evolved over that 350-year span.
Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000, edited by Russ McDonald
This collection of essays is organized by schools of criticism, introducing readers to some of the most influential Shakespearean scholars of the second half of the 20th century, while also giving them a sense of how various critical schools approach their subject.
A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, by Northrop Frye
Northrop Frye used archetypal narrative structures and memes as a method for examining literature in a systematic way. One of the patterns he describes in A Natural Perspective is the “green world” structure that is so significant to both John and Miranda in my novel Still Time.
The Women’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely
Up until fairly recently, the great majority of Shakespeare critics, scholars, professors, and even theater professionals have been male. This welcome collection of essays is one of the first to consider the plays from a feminist perspective.
Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion, by David Crystal and Ben Crystal
Any word in Shakespeare’s work that the authors thought might pose a comprehension problem to a modern reader is defined in Shakespeare’s Words, and all of that word’s occurrences in the plays are listed. Written by a father and son team, his amazingly thorough and friendly glossary makes me remember how my own father once referred to our family dictionary as “Webster’s book of short stories.”
Think on My Words, by David Crystal
In this lively and very readable book, linguist and Shakespeare scholar David Crystal explores many aspects of Shakespeare’s language, from common myths concerning his vocabulary and linguistic inventiveness to issues of grammar, punctuation, and syntax. You might not expect a book about 16th century punctuation to be a page-turner, but this one is!
Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, by Caroline Spurgeon
Caroline Spurgeon, the first female English literature professor in England, devoted many years to examining the imagery in Shakespeare’s plays. Her conclusions invite interesting speculations about his experiences and his interests, as well as yielding fascinating insights about how the images in Shakespeare’s plays work to build themes and reveal characters.
Shakespeare’s Language, by Frank Kermode
In his Introduction, Kermode writes, “Every other aspect of Shakespeare has been studied to death, but the fact that he was a poet has somehow dropped out of consideration.” In the subsequent chapters, Kermode’s close and incisive examination of Shakespeare’s language leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation of his plays. (It also proves why attempts to “translate” Shakespeare into 21st century English are doomed to failure!)
Biographies of Shakespeare
1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, by James Shapiro
Shapiro focuses on the year in which Shakespeare completed Henry the Fifth, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and started Hamlet as a way of giving readers a sense of who Shakespeare was, how he may have worked, and the turbulent and thrilling times in which he lived.
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephan Greenblatt
There is a great deal of speculation in Greenblatt’s biography of the “Surely Will must have,” or “Let us imagine that…” variety. On the one hand, all that fictionalizing that makes for entertaining reading, though it’s also definitely frustrating. I think the real value of this book is the way Greenblatt’s close readings illuminate passages from the plays.
Shakespeare: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd
This is perhaps the most thorough of the biographies on this list. It’s also engaging to read, and Ackroyd’s insights about the plays and theater are valuable.
Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess
I first read this fictionalized biography of Shakespeare’s life when I ran across it on the shelves of my small-town public library as a teenager. I remember being blown away by it, but also feeling like there was a lot going on that I didn’t entirely understand. Recently, I picked it up again with a great deal of trepidation. But I enjoyed my second reading as much as I remember enjoying my first. Alas, Burgess’s misogyny was much more striking this time around, but I was still swept up in his linguistic romps, his many slant references to the plays, and the persuasive, compelling, and flawed character that he creates for William Shakespeare.
Blaze Island, by Catherine Bush
For those who loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior comes a new climate-themed, Shakespeare-inspired novel from bestselling author Catherine Bush.
The Shakespeare Stealer, by Gary Blackwood
Between my husband’s career as an English professor, my work as a novelist, and my late parents’ and our three children’s passion for reading, books have always been among my family’s most prized possessions. After our home was destroyed in the Walbridge Fire in August 2020, one of the most difficult losses for me to try to come to terms with was the loss of all our books. In fact, as I was working on the claim to submit to our insurance company, I calculated that we’d lost over a football field’s length of bookshelves packed with books.
Less than a week after the fire, while my husband and I were couch-surfing with family in Chico, California, I happened to peek into the Little Free Library at the edge of Community Park, where I discovered a copy of The Shakespeare Stealer, a YA novel I’d often heard of but had never read. Especially since my most recent novel, Still Time, is also woven with references to Shakespeare, I decided to help myself that well-worn copy of The Shakespeare Stealer in hopes it might prove a welcome distraction in a difficult time.
But before I’d even had a chance to open The Shakespeare Stealer, I received an email through my website from a reader named Gary Blackwood who wrote: “I just wanted to let you know how very much I enjoyed Still Time. Not only did it satisfy me intellectually, I connected with it emotionally, too; in fact, I teared up at least half a dozen times…. The book also spoke to me because I’m such a Shakespeare buff; my most popular YA novel is set in Shakespeare’s day, and Will figures prominently in it.”
Even as I was basking in Gary’s words, my mind was racing ahead to wonder if the author of that generous message could actually be the author of The Shakespeare Stealer. As soon as I confirmed that my guess was correct, I wrote Gary to tell him that, in a coincidence that probably only two novelists could have concocted, his was currently the only book I owned!
When Gary responded by observing that he thought “synchronicity” was an even more apt description than “coincidence” for our improbable connection, I instantly recognized him as a fellow devotee to the twinned worlds of stories and words. I began to read The Shakespeare Stealer that very night, and found to be a marvelous story – warm, wise, and fun, and packed so deftly with fascinating facts about Shakespeare’s life and times that I doubt most other readers would ever realize how much they were absorbing while they followed the page-turning exploits of a lonely teenaged orphan named Widge as he learns about loyalty and finds his first true home among the members of Shakespeare’s theater company.
I am currently reading Shakespeare’s Scribe, the second book in Gary’s Shakespeare Stealer trilogy, and I’m finding it every bit as enthralling as The Shakespeare Stealer. I suspect that Gary might agree that the fact that Shakespeare’s Scribe is set in a “plague year” not unlike the one we are currently living through is yet another example of synchronicity—albeit of grimmer kind.
But despite the unfortunate inciting incident of this tale of two novelists and fellow Shakespeare buffs, I will be forever grateful to that Community Park Little Free Library in Chico, California for introducing me to a fine new author, helping me to make an interesting new friend, and giving me some much-needed solace and inspiration in the midst of a challenging time.
According to the editors of this zine, “In the same way that Shakespeare’s plays were beloved by aristocrats and commoners, the nobility on cushions and the penny-paying groundlings, we wanted to create something that allowed people of any age, education level, or type of experience to share their thoughts about Shakespeare. We welcome the personal, the conversational, and the unconventional.”