Shakespeare Reading List
I’ve put together a list of suggestions for people who might like a way into the thousands of books on all aspects of the man and his work. In my studies and teaching, although I have read dozens of books on various aspects of the man and his work, I know I’ve not even begun to scratch the surface. You have to start somewhere…
Biographies: I’d recommend
Park Honan: Shakespeare, A Life; and Jonathan Bate: The Genius of Shakespeare
The current ones to read are the Crystals, father David and son Ben. Ben is particularly good on how the language was actually pronounced at the time and there are recodings available of Shakespeare done in the original pronunciation. David & Ben Crystal: Shakespeare’s Words; Frank Kermode: Shakespeare’s Language. Very good.
Reference: best single one-volume reference work I’ve come across is The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Studies.
Criticism: most of what I’ve read is several generations old, but still good stuff.
Kenneth Muir Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence; Kenneth Muir Shakespeare’s Comic Sequence. These two are excellent because they deal not only with the individual plays in detail, but also look at the dramatist’s development through those plays. You get a clear picture of how Shakespeare progressed as a writer and dramatist.
Harley Granville Barker: Prefaces to Shakespeare. From the 1930s, and possibly the first critic to write about the plays as texts to be performed rather than read. Unfortunately, not all the plays are covered.
A C Bradley: Shakespearean Tragedy, and Oxford Lectures on Poetry. Victorian critic, and the first to take the new science of psychology on board when writing about character. Rather dated now, but an excellent theoretical exploration of tragedy to start with. Once you have grasped his broad outline, you are good to go.
Caroline Spurgeon: Shakespeare’s Imagery, dated, but encyclopaedic. Of course, analysis of words is much easier now, in the digital age.
A D Nuttall: Shakespeare The Thinker is very good.
There are so many different editions of the plays that it’s hard to know where to start; my recommendations are merely the ones I’ve used and found good.
Arden Shakespeare Second Series (they are now on the Third Series and I have to say that when I have used them I haven’t found them as good as the second, which really was a landmark edition) This was the gold standard; some editions are now sixty years old, and the newest thirty or so. The introductions are detailed and generally very good. The textual notes and general notes are on the same page as the text, which I’ve always found essential. Because these are elderly editions, the editors don’t always fully clarify sexual word-play and similar allusions.
New Cambridge Shakespeare is the best modern academic series, better than Arden Three for my money.
New Penguin Shakespeare is cheaper, more compact and has very good introductions; I prefer the New Cambridge because the notes and textual apparatus are on the same page as the text whereas the New Penguin puts all this at the end.
Best one-volume is the Norton Shakespeare: there’s a vast amount in this huge tome, including detailed introductions.
Helen Vendler‘s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is very good on those poems.
On the plays
An old series now, often come across second-hand, is the New Casebook Series; newer, slim and very good introductions to serious textual study are the Penguin Critical Studies, sometimes Penguin Master Studies
NB Remember that criticism changes and develops over time; the plays remain the same (although very old texts may have been bowdlerised) Also don’t forget that critics need to re-invent the wheel with each successive generation: that’s how names, reputations and (some) money are made. Sometimes new writing is an eye-opener, sometimes it recycles what came before. And at times, earlier stuff is better because more exhaustive and rigorous.