The Shakespearean Plays are, without a doubt, one of the most widely read collection of works in the history of literature. Being a fan of the plays as well as geeking out on the ever-present authorship question, I have read many books about Shakespeare, the Shakespearean plays, and the culture of Shakespeare, and in this list I give you the top ten books that are, not just about the Shakespearean plays themselves, but about Shakespearean culture, history, and interpretation.
FYI before you read: Stratfordian = Shakespeare enthusiast, supporter, or Shakespearean scholar. (For the muggles!)
10 – Shakespeare on Toast
There are many books that claim they will “ease” you into Shakespeare, for those whom find the thees and thous and thys of Elizabethan English a bit too rattling and confusing, or who just find Shakespeare boring and tedious. I’ve thumbed through many of them, but if you really want to try and encourage someone who’s got Bardaphobia, check out Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare on Toast, the one book I’d definitely buy if I was trying to turn a muggle into a budding Shakespeare nerd. With explanations on the language and the references by coming back to modern examples, it’s not only informative, but also highly entertaining, even for people are already hardcore Shakespeare geeks.
9 – Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Want to tick off a Stratfordian? Mention the authorship question. Many staunch Shakespeareanites will become cross, dismissive, or just simply angry at the mention of the topic. (I was once shouted at in the middle of a crowded cafe’ by a man who simply “caught” me reading a book about the subject. Cue foaming at the mouth!) Too many Stratfordians deny the question even exists or ridicule the notion of a controversy. But prominent Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro examines this question in his book about why he believes Shakespeare is the rightful author of the plays. While it reads much like many other claimant books, Shapiro does not dismiss or condescend as he takes the question head on, giving all of us what is sorely needed: The beginning of a truly civil and academic discussion on the authorship question begins with books like this. Hopefully, it can help lead it to becoming an open question in academic circles.
8 -The Shakespeare Thefts : in search of the first folios
One of the most coveted books in literary history: The priceless First Folio! Believe it or not, fourteen of these rare books have been stolen, and only two recovered! Not just about the thefts themselves, but also the whole culture surrounding these treasured tomes. Eric Rasmussen takes us through the upper upper crust culture surrounding these less than two hundred copies of the first folio. Didja know many of them have been bought by people in Japan? Yeah. Censored copies, copies with missing pages, and copies acquired under less-than normal circumstances, with first folios popping up out of the blue! Who wouldn’t want to read a book about reclusive billionaires and secretive librarians???
7 -Becoming Shakespeare
An excellent book by Jack Lynch, Becoming Shakespeare shows how the plays and their presentation and culture have changed over the years. From the 17th century theater revival to rise the rise of Bardoltry in the 19th century to his plays being censored, altered, co-opted, and performed in various versions, from early on to modern adaptations. The evolution of the presentation, controversies, and the formation and changes of Shakespeare culture are laid out in this book. Informative and simply fascinating to read.
6 -Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (abridged)
Smart, funny, witty, silly, and maybe at times too silly. (“Alright, that’s enough. This book has become too silly!”) Funny and entertaining, as well as smartly written and informative. Not sure which Shakespearean play is supposed to make your eyes roll in boredom? This book will tell you! Simply too much fun. If you buy Shakespeare on Toast, include this book as well. A perfect present for the muggle as well as the haughty Shakespeare nerd in your family or circle of friends . Oftentimes looking at Bard culture with arched eyebrow and a sharp wit, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have fashioned an entertaining tome that is a must read for all Bardites and potential Bardians. (Bardinanians?)
5 – Marlowe’s Ghost
I have read many, many claimant books written by people who are convinced they know who wrote the plays, be they Oxfordians, Derbyites, or Pembrokians. (Ot Stratfordians. See Contested Will above.) Many of them are good books, and many of them are convincing and fun to read. But the best, and I mean the best claimant book I’ve read is Marlowe’s Ghost. Daryl Pinksen does not contend that he will convince you Marlowe wrote the plays, he contends he will let Shakespearean scholars do it for him, quoting extensively from Stratfordians about how Marlowe “influenced” Shakespeare. Even the title comes from a scholarly quote, someone who said that one could see the “Ghost of Marlowe” in the Bard’s writing. While I am not entirely convinced of any claimant’s arguments, this one makes one really believe that one of the original pioneers of blank verse is one of the strongest candidates for authorship.
4 -Shakespeare: An Unorthodox Biography
The scourge of the Stratfordian Empire: One of the very few books that does not take a definitive side for one particular claimant, Diana Price has gone into painstaking detail of why we should doubt that the man from Stratford is the true author of the plays. A very informative and scholarly work that digs even deeper into the very details that causes us to question Shakspere’s authorship, as well as expose how some suppositions have been tossed around the Stratfordian community as basic fact. (There’s no evidence the playwright Middleton even met Shakespeare, but is cited again and again as having worked wth him on Timon of Athens.) From contemporary writings to the Shakespearean documents to yet another analysis of Groats-worth of Witte, Price makes the case like a Perry Mason of the literary world.
3 – The Boy who Would be Shakespeare
Stratfordians have always lamented that they have never found an original manuscript of the Bard’s work. But wait, they did find an original draft! And they also found letters, notes, legal documents, an even an undiscovered play in the Bard’s own handwriting! Turns out, unfortunately, that they were all forgeries. Doug Stewart takes us through the true story of William Henry Ireland, a man who went on a 19th century Shakespeare forgery spree that was so convincing they rocked the literary world. Originally drafting one simple forgery to make his Shakespeare-obsessed father happy, he soon got caught up in a string of forgeries that became a big hit, and even resulted in the presentation of a “lost” Shakespearean play. A story that reads like a well-crafted crime drama, a crime that was aided by peoples’ rampant enthusiasm for the Bard. A must-read for anyone interested in Shakespeare.
2 – The Shakespeare Wars
If Stratfordians were techy about the authorship question, try asking them about alternate endings of Lear, or the good and bad quartos of Hamlet. The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum goes into the internal controversies of the Shakespeare industry, delving into the details that roil beneath academia concerning Shakespeare’s language, how he crafted his work, and the very nature of Shakespearean writing, theater, and culture. Say the wrong thing and a bunch of scholars will be clamoring for you to be drawn and quartered! (Well, kicked out of academia is more like it. They might just think about torture without openly advocating it.) Highly detailed and very revealing, it will change the way you look at, not only the plays, but the entire Shakespeare culture as well.
1 – Who wrote Shakespeare
If you only read one book about Shakespeare, make it this one. The only truly unbiased overview of the hot button topic known as the authorship question. Every single book I’ve read about the question of who wrote the plays is filled with biases and agendas and stern beliefs. This is the only truly measured, intellectual, and completely logical and even-handed overview of the question that haunts and infuriates and turns: Was the man from Stratford the true author of these plays? Or was it the hand of someone else?
This work reads like a crime drama. I’ve read it several times. John Michell is the detective Colombo of the Shakespeare world, and this one work, more than anything else I’ve read on the subject, has shaped my thoughts and views and feelings about the vast and complex world of the Bard.