PROSPERO: Volumes that I prize above my dukedom
Picture yourself sitting by the fire in the Boar’s Head with a pint of something strong and hoppy, or something stronger and peaty – ask for recommendations – and finding that it’s one of those great taverns that has lots of books in it …
This page will increasingly contain a ‘reading list’ of all the texts I own that inform my ideas and engagement with the plays. I tend to dip in and out of these sorts of books without reading from cover to cover (frustrating if you put them in your ‘Currently Reading’ shelf on Goodreads), but where I’ve read sufficient to give a rating or verdict, I’ll do so, highlighting the titles/authors of those texts in bold and blue.
I also offer this as a kind of bibliography of what has shaped my ideas, although I will be careful to specifically credit where I can in my posts. Which means that I’ve taken the decision to include texts from the virtual bookshelf – where I only have electronic copies, with their provenance.
ISAAC NEWTON: If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
You’ll also find that a lot of the volumes are second-hand and/or quite old. Oxfam bookshops in university towns (esp. Lancaster) have proved rich hunting grounds for critical works, although I can never pass by a proper second-hand bookshop without a hopeful browse.
‘There is one way only to bring a reluctant smile to the face of a bedroom which looks as though it doubted your ability to pay the bill – smother it in books! Pile them on chairs, tables, washstands, on mantelpiece and, if possible, on the floor.
The most bitter and resentful room is flattered if you try to turn it into a library.
Books and a fire can humanize any room, so that if you travel, as I do, with more books than clothes you have nothing to fear from any hotel’. HV Morton, In Search of Scotland (Methuen & Co: London: 1939)
Check back every so often, as this will definitely be a work in progress. Each time I make additions, the most recent works will be highlighted in bold and green, until they are superceded by a new update.
Let me know if you disagree with my ratings. Please contact me if there’s an obvious gap in my reading!
Currently (November 2017), the bookshelf stands at 66 volumes, with lots more waiting to be added, and several being bought every month – it’s how I get my kicks …
Adamson, Hunter, Magnusson, Thompson and Wales: Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: A Guide (2001, Thomson Learning) ***** Hmmm. This gets three stars because, despite the fact that it IS useful, I bought it in 2013 and hadn’t actually remembered it’s usefulness until I came to cataloguing my shelves. I will need to read this again with fresh eyes, and decide if it’s actually indispensable, or indeed forgettable.
Ainsworth, William Harrison: The Lancashire Witches: A Romance of the Pendle Forest (undated, Book Clearance Centre) ***** Mine is a printed facsimile of the original 1884 text, which I dare say is available for free online at Gutenberg, et al. The trials took place during James I’s reign, and the novel is said to be based on extensive research, despite being written 250+ years later. I’ve not read enough of it to form an opinion – but I dare say it will add to my thinking on Macbeth, if it is sufficiently based on historical record.
Armstrong, Jane: The Arden Shakespeare Miscellany (2011, Methuen Drama) ***** This is disappointingly lightweight, although reasonably priced for its content. Seasoned Shakespearios won’t learn anything useful, and I have slight issues with some of the play summaries. Otherwise it’s a fun, popcorn tour round the works.
Ashe, Laura: Richard II – A Brittle Glory (Penguin: London, 2016) ***** Disappointingly disjointed compared to Given-Wilson’s volume on Edward II, below. The difference isn’t the author’s subject knowledge, more the fact that Ashe has opted for a thematic approach which completely disrupts the ability to readily establish a chronologoical contextual framework for the events she discusses.
Bacon, Francis (ed. Brian Vickers): Essays (The Folio Society: London, 2002) ***** It’s difficult not to turn to Bacon, as one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent and erudite contemporaries, to see what he has to say on a selection of themes and issues. He’s a bit didactic, but then he would be.
Bailey, Brian: Hangmen of England (1989, WH Allen) ***** I’ve downrated this simply because the information useful for Shakespeare readers is limited to the first 40-50 pages. Yet it is a fascinating read, full of information, and gives you a new perspective on the executions in Shakespeare’s works when you understand the true detail of them. One to try and get from a library, or second-hand, like I did?
Baum, Martin: To Be or Not To be, Innit: A Yoof-Speak Guide to Shakespeare (2008, Bright Pen) ***** It’s under 100 pages. You won’t learn anything. It’s mildly amusing at first, but you’ll be pretty glad to reach the end. If I tell you that one of the chapter titles is ‘De Taming of de Bitch’, you will instantly know if it is for you or not.
Bradbrook, MC: Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge University Press: London, 1969) ***** Like Frank Kermode, below, Bradbrook’s style is too ponderous, too knowing, too heavy-going, to make it an enjoyable or accessible read. She clearly knows her stuff, but I get bored at being lectured at by her, and have to take it in very small chunks.
Bradbury, Jim: Shakespeare and his Theatre (1975, Longman) ***** Just a small volume – under 100 pages – but a nice introduction, doing pretty much what it says on the cover. Occasional nuggets of information have added to my understanding of the development of EMP theatre. Someone approaching Shakespeare in a serious way for the first time will find it even more useful.
Bradley, AC: Shakespearean Tragedy (1969, Macmillan) ***** A bit of a go-to volume for me. A long and detailed piece exploring and defining the genre as a whole, followed by individual lectures on the major tragedies, and then a series of essays on aspects within the plays. There’s a satisfyingly robust and ‘meaty’ writing style – it’s one to engage with, rather than drop off to sleep with.
Ivor Brown: Shakespeare (The Reprint Society: London, 1951) ***** I’ve described this elsewhere as an early, English version of Bill Bryson in terms of his writing style. On the other hand, the biography is chocked full of self-declared conjecture, but it’s done plausibly, with humour and working on a ‘balance of probabilities’ platform …
Brown, John Russell (ed.): Antony and Cleopatra: A Casebook (1968, Macmillan) ***** I’ve not yet opened this, although it’s likely to be read during my Ponytail Shakespeare in August 2019, if not before. Certainly the Julius Caesar companion volume is excellent – see below.
Bryson, Bill: Shakespeare (2009, HarperPress) ***** If you like Bryson’s style, you’ll enjoy this tour of Shakespeare’s life and works. Not many bookmarks in my copy, but I did find it entertaining, considering it was almost 200 pages of gently reminding us that we actually know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life.
Burningham, Hilary: The Graphic Shakespeare Series: The Tempest (1998, Evans Brothers Limited) ***** A simple illustrated retelling of the story, suitable for less able students. Not as useful as the Garfield or the Lamb (below).
George Carleton: A Thankfull Remembrance of God’s Mercie (1630) ***** available in facsimile, Kindle and iBooks here. I love this, but be warned it’s partly because of it’s anti-Catholic hysteria and laughable illustrations. Nevertheless, a really useful contextual account of the plots against Elizabeth and James.
Crystal, Ben: Shakespeare on Toast (2012, Icon Books) ***** I’m a fan of both the Crystals. This is an approachable guide to getting stuck into Shakespeare’s words, perhaps a little more accessible than his father’s works?
Crystal, David: Think On my Words (2008, Cambridge University Press) ***** My copy is littered with annotations – mostly “QI” (Quite Interesting), with the occasional “VI” and a rare “Yes!” Crystal’s style is erudite but approachable, and this volume systematically guides us through how Shakespeare’s language works.
Dante Alighieri: Inferno: transl. Robin Kirkpatrick (2013, Penguin Classics) ***** I like this translation. As a volume, I also like the maps of Hell. Why is this on my bookshelf? Contextually, I think we benefit from understanding the ranking and the punishments for the various crimes committed by Shakespeare’s characters – what both he and his audience will have believed.
Doescher, Ian: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars – Verily a New Hope (2013, Quirk Books) ***** I’ve got all of these, but I’ll group them together here. Ye-es. I do like these a fair bit, or I wouldn’t keep buying them. My reluctance? They vary between translation and pastiche in the introduction of new materials, soliloquies, etc. I find that distracting, is the honest truth – they ought to be one or the other, and they fall between two stools. But they’re fun, and well written, by someone who knows how to write in ‘Shakespearean’.
Dunton-Downer, Leslie and Riding, Alan: The Essential Shakespeare Handbook (2004, Dorling Kindersley)***** This is a great book for someone looking to get into Shakespeare in a broader and deeper way. Very comprehensive across the entire works, full of data, useful beginner-level commentary and detailed synopsis, all presented in the clear and attractive DK house style.
Durning-Lawrence, Sir Edwin: The Shakespeare Myth (1912, Gay & Hancock) ***** Sir Edwin is a Baconian. Possibly enough said. This small (32-page) pamphlet is interesting as a record of the opposition’s arguments, but I’m ultimately a bit offended by his closing contention that ‘It seems difficult to imagine that people possessed of ordinary intelligence can any longer continue to believe that the most learned of all the literary works in the world was written by the most unlearned of men’ …
Ede, Charles (ed): Introductions to Shakespeare (The Folio Society: London, 1977) ***** we shouldn’t forget that the plays were written to be performed, and this is a fascinating account by luminaries such as Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud about the staging of the plays. It comprises the collected introductions to the Folio Society editions of the plays, and it’s something to dip into as you start a new play, I think.
Elton, GR: A History of England: England Under The Tudors (The Folio Society: London, 1997) ***** Well written and comprehensive. Erudite without being inaccessible.
Enright, DJ: The Oxford Book of Death (1983, OUP) ***** Another volume to sit on your shelves and dip into every so often. Actually more useful for Gothic Literature, but there are introductions and a curated selection of texts on useful subjects including: Suicide; Graveyards and Funerals; and The Hour of Death. Two stars only because it tends to be used more for other genres.
Ford, Boris (ed.): A Guide To English Literature – 2: The Age of Shakespeare (1955, Pelican) ***** Another book that I dip in and out of – a comprehensive survey which usefully takes in the period’s contextual background and looks in detail at several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
Garfield, Leon: Shakespeare Stories (1990, Gollancz) ***** This contains a dozen well-written adaptations of popular plays. I find these a good teaching aid if groups need to get the narrative firmly under their belts. Importantly, they use quotations from the texts as dialogue – far more useful, and satisfying, than a translation.
Given-Wilson, Christopher: Edward II: The Terrors Of Kingship (Penguin: London: 2016) ***** I thought this excellent for students of Marlowe’s play. A succinct and accessible account of the main features of the monarch’s life. With Levin, and Riggs, both below, it’s probably all you need to study Edward II, unless you are going postgraduate on him.
James I, King: Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James &c (1597) Accessed via the Kindle Store ***** James isn’t the most engaging of writers, although the dialogue format worked quite well for me. Who can seriously study Macbeth and not give this a go?
Heard, Nigel: Tudor Economy and History (Access to History series), (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1992) ***** A slim volume, and more of a history text book at A-Level, but nevertheless this ended up heavily-flagged with contextual information about Shakespeare’s day, and also the era preceding it, in which the History plays were set.
Holinshed, Raphael: Chronicles (ed. Michael Wood) (The Folio Society: London, 2012) ***** First and foremost, this is fascinating, given Holinshed’s undeniable influence on the history plays. You may struggle initially with the spellings, but frankly, if you can read A Clcokwork Orange and get anything out of it (which I often use when approaching Shakespeare with new students), you can cope. The usual superb Folio Society quality.
Honigmann, EAJ: Myriad-Minded Shakespeare (1998, Macmillan) ***** Notable not JUST for the fairly large and extremely well-preserved squashed spider between pages 104-105, but as a series of well-written essays on various plays and general aspects of his works. Chapter 10 is entitled ‘On not trusting Shakespeare’s Stage Directions’ … 🙂
Hopkins, Lisa and Steggle, Matthew: Renaissance Literature and Culture (2006, Continuum) ***** This is the contextual introduction I recommend to my sixth-formers (and my main portal into the EMP at University). Accessible and comprehensive in a slim volume, with some useful lists appended for further exploration.
Hyland, Peter: An Introduction To Shakespeare – The Dramatist in his Context (1996, Macmillan) ***** Like Hopkins and Steggle, above, this is a useful and relatively modern overview of Shakespeare’s age and the theatrical profession before getting stuck into the plays themselves in the second half of the book and discussing what they offer us contextually.
Kendall, Paul Murray: Richard III (2005, The Folio Society) ***** In style, this reminds me of Lytton Strachey, John Julius Norwich, and James Shapiro. A comprehensive, authoritative but extremely readable history which is a fascinating companion to the play.
Kermode, Frank: Shakespeare’s Language (Penguin: London, 2000) ***** I enjoyed this less than I’d anticipated. Kermode’s style is ponderous and his walk-through of the plots of the later plays, looking at the use of language, had no energy to it. Disappointing.
Knight, G. Wilson: The Wheel of Fire – Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy (1960, Methuen) ***** Not dipped into this enough to form a judgement.
Lamb, Charles: Tales from Shakespeare (undated, Thomas Nelson & Sons) ***** My version, via a bookplate, dates from 1955, and is a beloved gift from two students to whom I taught The Tempest when I trained as a teacher. Emily and Amber: I haven’t forgotten you, despite you (Emily) saying that I would 🙂 Like Garfield, above, this contains beautifully-written adaptions which usefully include quotations from the play. Being an older version of Garfield, the language used is more formal and perhaps less accessible – but that’s not a bad thing. A lovely half-way house on the way to accessing the texts.
Lee, Christopher: 1603 – A Turning Point in British History (Review: London, 2003) ***** This isn’t in the same league as James Shapiro (below) when it comes to historical accounts of single years, but it is interesting, and quotes a lot of contemporary sources. It’s simply that Shapiro’s style is more engaging.
Levin, Harry: Christopher Marlowe (The Overreacher) (Faber & Faber: London, 1961) ***** This is excellent – a series of academic essays on all of Marlowe’s works, but also linked to contextual information about his life. A great complementary volume to Riggs, below.
Longstaff, Matt and Walker, Chris: Death by Shakespeare (2016, DCB) ***** I bought this via Kickstarter last year – a set of 24 fun illustrations showing the deaths of various characters as acted out by a group of hapless amateur actors. Great fun, and high quality, if not educational. That said, pupils enjoy the art.
MACAULAY, Thomas Babington: The History of England from 1485 to 1685 (ed. Peter Rowland) (The Folio Society: London, 1985) ***** This is great, not just informative (about Shakespeare’s day, but about how attitudes towards him and the works change over time). Macaulay’s writing style is satisfyingly ‘muscular’, and every so often he goes off on an impassioned rant about something and has to reel himself in.
More, Sir Thomas, and Walpole, Horace: Richard III – The Great Debate (being More’s “History of King Richard III’ and Walpole’s ‘Historic Doubts on the LIfe and Reign of King Richard III’), ed. Paul Kendall: (The Folio Society: London, 1965) ***** I’m breathless just typing the title, to be honest. Not just a clash of ideas, but of writing styles, too. I love this, to be honest.
Muir, Andrew: Shakespeare in Cambridge: A Celebration of the Shakespeare Festival (2015, Amberley) ***** I hope you’ll forgive the minor plug, as all the photographs in this volume were taken by me! A nicely anecdotal volume, not just for anyone who has attended the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival over its 25+ years, but anyone who is interested in or involved in outdoor Shakespeare.
Norwich, John Julius: Shakespeare’s Kings (2000, Penguin) ***** This is a great book, dealing as it does with the contrasts between the historical sources Shakespeare used and his History Plays. An excellent resource, if you’re interested in the writer’s intentions and methods. It’s knowledgable but readable, too.
Okerlund, Arlene: Elizabeth Wydeville – The Slandered Queen (2005, Tempus) ***** Possibly one of the most frustrating books I’ve read. Okerlund throws all pretence of objectivity to the winds in this lionisation of the Wydevilles. It verges at times on the misogynist, and attacks other academics for their method before making exactly the same ‘mistakes’. Also, severe over-use of the word ‘bucolic’.
Palfrey, Simon: Doing Shakespeare (2005, Thomson Learning) ***** Like ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language’, above, I suspect this is far more useful than my three star rating merits. Yet, I have owned it a few years and it isn’t regularly pulled off the shelf …
Pickering, David: Cassell’s Dictionary of Superstitions (2002, Cassell) ***** Another of those reference books that is useful to have on your shelf to dip in and out of. The Early Modern Period was a curious blend of the religious and the superstitious, and this is full of interesting nuggets, both modern and historical.
Riggs, David: The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004, Faber and Faber) ***** You don’t need to be a student of Marlowe to get something from this. Deeply researched, it remains objective throughout and gives an excellent insight not just into Marlowe’s turbulent life, but also the times he was living in – thus, there’s plenty of Shakespearean contextual information available. A great complementary volume to Levin, above.
Saccio, Peter: Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama (2000, Oxford University Press) ***** This is a superb book in the vein of John Julius Norwich‘s volume, above. It’s concisely written, objective, and easy to follow. It offers easy to understand potted histories of all of Shakespeare’s kings, and unravels complex concepts such as the Wars of the Roses, before discussing how Shakespeare deals with the source materials.
Salgãdo, Gãmini: The Elizabethan Underworld (The Folio Society; London, 2006) ***** Some real insight into the lower echelons of Elizabethan Society. Inetersting, occasionally amusing, and accessibly written. A useful chapter on Witches for those reading round Macbeth.
Shackleton, Emma (ed.): The Nation’s Favourite Shakespeare (1999, Random House – BBC Books) ***** A nice edition to the shelves, but aside from a short Foreword by Richard Briers, there’s little to differentiate this collection from other curations.
Shapiro, James: 1599: A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare (2005, Faber and Faber) ***** Worthy winner, I think, of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Engaging and obviously deeply-researched ‘biography’. I found it fascinating, taking in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Henry V and As You Like It.
Shapiro, James: 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (2015, Faber and Faber) ***** Another great read. This ‘sequel’, equally erudite but accessible, focuses on Lear, of course, but also Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra. A detailed and instructive examination of how the Gunpowder Plot changed history and was exploited to maximum effect by those it was intended to destroy.
Speaight, Robert: Nature in Shakespearian Tragedy (1955, Hollis and Carter) ***** Judgement reserved until I have read beyond the Macbeth chapter. Interestingly, Speaight writes on the accepted ‘big 5’ Tragedies, and then adds a final chapter on The Tempest.
Strachey, Lytton: Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928, Chatto & Windus) ***** A fluently-written and fascinating account of Elizabeth and her ill-starred favourite. I think we can draw revealing inferences between these events and the manouverings of the Royal Court in several of Shakespeare’s plays.
Sutherland, John and Watts, Cedric: Henry V, War Criminal? and other Shakespeare Puzzles (2000, Oxford World’s Classics) Judgement reserved until I read this recent purchase, but Sutherland’s companion volume on Victorian Literature is interesting and knowledgeable. One for those who want to be entertained, as well as being informed. You’ll need a critical and enquiring mind, as it will explore plot-holes and popular misconceptions.
Tesimond, Oswald, aka Greenway (transl. Francis Edwards): The Gunpowder Plot (The Folio Society: London, 1973) ***** A fascinating testimony of the plot and its aftermath, broadly contemporary and shedding light on the religious and political situation which informed Shakespeare’s plays from, broadly, Macbeth onwards.
Tillyard, EMW: Shakespeare’s History Plays (1961, Chatto & Windus) ***** This is extremely comprehensive, and for some reason, doesn’t seem to wind me up in the same way as The Elizabethan World Picture, below. It’s one I return to frequently.
Tillyard, EMW: The Elizabethan World Picture (1970, Penguin) ***** Another one of those contextual studies which I think are essential if we are to understand how and why the plays were written as they were, rather than simply imposing our 21st Century filters. Short, interesting, but Tillyard’s writing style can pall after a while.
Ure, Peter (ed.): Julius Caesar: A Casebook (1969, Macmillan) ***** If the number of pages I’ve flagged is any measure, this is an excellent and thought-provoking set of critical essays about the play. If you’re looking to make a special study of this play, I thoroughly recommend it.
Walpole, Horace – see Sir Thomas More, above …
Wells, Stanley: Shakespeare & Co. (Penguin: London, 2007) ***** This was interesting, informative, and well-written. A decent overview of the theatrical scene just before, during, and just after Shakespeare’s era, with commentary on the life and writing styles of his influences, competitors, occasional collaborators, and ‘descendants’.
Alison Weir: The Princes In The Tower (1992, The Folio Society) ***** Weir’s writing style is engaging and accessible, bring the history (which is clearly well researched) to life. She manages, also, to avoid demonising or becoming an apologist for Richard III.
Whittle, Tyler: The Last Plantagenet (1968, Heinemann) ***** Sadly a not very captivating novelisation of Richard III’s life. It’s one to avoid.
Wordsworth, Charles: Shakespeare’s Knowledge and Use of the Bible (2002, University Press of the Pacific) ***** I wonder how this came to me, published as it was in Hawaii. Or why they decided to publish it. Either way, this is a reprint of an 1880 volume by the then Bishop of St. Andrews. For someone raised a Catholic, as I was, it’s interesting to dip in and out of. I’ve also half an eye on the coincidence of Shakespeare and the writing of the King James Bible. The main section is titled ‘Of Shakspeare’s [sic] Religious Principles and Sentiments Derived From the Bible’. Heavy on matching doctrine to quotations from the play.
Ziegler, Philip: The Black Death (Folio Society: London, 1997) ***** Slightly downgraded because it deals with the plague in the 14th rather than 16th centuries, but accessible and useful, not just for inference about the EMP, but also for conditions closer to the History plays.