Here are our favorite books about William Shakespeare: the best introductions to both his life and his work. We thought it was about time to do this. Many of these books were written by top Shakespeare scholars, and each one has something important that every fan of the Bard should know.
Jonathan Bate,The Genius of Shakespeare.
This book, which was written in 1997, looks at how Shakespeare’s work has been used by other people, from Romantic poets and novelists to twentieth-century postcolonial theorists. It also looks at how Shakespeare’s work is always being reimagined and recast by new generations. To make the book more interesting, Bate is willing to speculate about many of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s life and work, drawing on what evidence is available. For example, who was the “Mr W.” H.” to whom the 1609 Sonnets were dedicated? Bate is willing to speculate about this, drawing on what evidence is available. One of the founders of the RSC called it “the best modern book on Shakespeare.” Anyone who wants to learn more about the Bard should read this book. There is also a biography of the Bard by Bate that is worth reading.
Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare.
This, from 2008, is a kind of “intellectual biography” of Shakespeare that uses Jaques’ “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It as a way to look at some of the common beliefs about his life. No, he didn’t. After his “curtain call” on the London stage in 1611, Shakespeare returned to Stratford-upon-Avon to spend the rest of his life with his family. Bate also thinks he knows who the “rival poet” is in the Sonnets. His analysis here is very convincing. Another thing you should read.
Stephen Greenblatt, Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.
To help you understand Bate’s two other books, Greenblatt’s book from 2004 is a good match. The Soul of the Age is a good place to start. It’s called “New Historicism,” and Greenblatt is the person who came up with it. It looks at literary works in their original context by focusing on the network of other writings that were being written at that time. There are also anecdotes and specific events from the time used by New Historicism to help people understand the background from which the literature was written. Among other things, Greenblatt is interested in the idea that Shakespeare was a careful and cautious person, a businessman who saved up money from his share in the theaters he worked in and from his property investments for when he was old enough to retire. But Greenblatt is also very good at talking about the plays. His discussion of how Shakespeare’s writing changed around 1600 (when he wrote Hamlet) is very interesting. This is how Shakespeare used the source material for plays like Hamlet. He removed obvious reasons for characters’ actions (like Iago’s motivation to make trouble or Lear’s reason for testing his daughters), which made the drama more complex and ambiguous.
Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us.
If you want to learn more about Shakespeare’s writing, you should read this book. It was first published in 1934. This is what Spurgeon does when he looks at the images in Shakespeare’s plays. He wants to know which images he uses the most and what this might tell us about him, especially in terms of how he was viewed by his peers. It is a good study of why Shakespeare is so different from other writers from the same time period.
Frank Kermode,Shakespeare’s Language.
This is one of the best books ever written about Shakespeare’s language, and it’s a great companion to Spurgeon’s groundbreaking study of the Bard’s imagery. Sometimes, Kermode was very good at reading poetry close-up and criticizing it in a clear way, and this shows up in his writing here. Highly interesting.
James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
In Shapiro’s book, if you want to learn more about a single moment in Shakespeare’s life, you should read it. All of a sudden, there were a lot of books that focused on one specific year. Annobiographies, or biographies and cultural histories of one specific year, are all the rage. Shapiro can really focus on the year in which the Globe Theatre was built in. His new book on 1606 is likely to be just as interesting.
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
This was one of the first popular books on Shakespeare written by an academic. Even though it was published a year after Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, in 1998, it is said to have sold 100,000 copies in hardback. This was because of the success of Shakespeare in Love in the movies at the time.
A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (New Penguin Shakespeare Library)
In 1904, this hugely important study of Shakespeare’s tragedies came out. As a cheap Penguin Classics edition, it’s still available. Bradley treats the characters a little too much like real people, but there are a lot of smart ideas about the plays in there.
Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives).
This is our favorite book on Shakespeare written by someone who isn’t from the same country as Shakespeare. It’s short, light, funny, and fun. Its unique approach is to ignore as much speculation about Shakespeare’s life as possible, and instead focus on the facts that we know for sure (or at least pretty sure).
Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Belknap)
Perhaps the best book on the Sonnets has been written by one of the best living critics. This book was written by one of the best living critics. Vendler is a very good poet, and he gives detailed reviews of each of the 154 sonnets. He also has some very good things to say about the poems’ language, like Spurgeon and Kermode. Because it’s a lot bigger, it costs more than most of the other books on this list. It’s worth the extra money. In any case, any list of the “best books on Shakespeare” is going to be subjective and even a little biased. Please leave us your suggestions for other books on Shakespeare in the comment box below.
We also have a list of the 10 best books about literature and some interesting facts about the Bard. You might also like our Macbethfacts and our facts about Romeo and Juliet, which are both interesting. Language trivia fans might also like our list of the best books about the English language that are easy to read.