The Boar’s Head Bookshelf

Books in the vault, Deck C, Folger Shakespeare Library, 9/11/09
image courtesy Folger Library


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.

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.

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  Each time I make additions, the most recent works will be highlighted in bold and green, until they are superceded by a new update.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!


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 bing 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.

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.

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.

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, but potentially useful.

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 need to understand 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.  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 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’

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.