Our pick of the ten best biographies and other books about the Bard which everyone should read – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
We thought it was time we offered our pick of the best books about William Shakespeare: the best introductions to his life and his work. The following is not designed to be an exhaustive list, but many of these books were written by leading Shakespeare scholars and each contains something which every fan of the Bard should know.
Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare. This book, published in 1997, examines the legacy of Shakespeare’s work, the way it has inspired others (from Romantic poets and novelists to twentieth-century postcolonial theorists), and how Shakespeare’s writing is constantly reinvented and recast by each new generation. It’s a hugely readable book, since Bate is happy to speculate – drawing on what evidence is available – as to many of the great mysteries of Shakespeare’s life and work, such as the identity of the ‘Mr W. H.’ to whom the 1609 printing of the Sonnets was dedicated. It has been called ‘the best modern book on Shakespeare’ (by RSC founder Sir Peter Hall) and is essential reading for anyone interested in the Bard. Also well worth the read is Bate’s biography of the Bard…
Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare. This, from 2008, is a sort of ‘intellectual biography’ of Shakespeare which uses Jaques’ ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from As You Like It as a conceit or structure through which to examine some of the widely held assumptions about Shakespeare’s life. Did Shakespeare really retire from London and return to Stratford-upon-Avon to live out his last years with his family, following his ‘curtain call’ on the London stage, his 1611 play The Tempest? Bate also suggests a highly plausible candidate for the ‘rival poet’ referred to in the Sonnets; his analysis here is compelling. Another must-read.
Stephen Greenblatt, Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Greenblatt’s book (from 2004) forms a valuable companion to Bate’s two books, especially Soul of the Age. Greenblatt is the founder of the school of criticism known as New Historicism, which, put crudely and simply, examines literary works in their original context through particular focus on the network of writings that were being produced at the time the literary text was produced. New Historicism also uses specific events – including anecdotes – from the period to shed light on the social and political background out of which the literature was written. Greenblatt is especially interested in the idea of Shakespeare as a careful and cautious man, a businessman shoring up his earnings from his share in the theatres he worked for, and his property investments, for his retirement. But Greenblatt is also frequently brilliant about the plays themselves: his discussion of the shift that took place in Shakespeare’s writing in around 1600 (when he wrote Hamlet) is fascinating. In short, in plays such as Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello, Shakespeare draws on existing source material for these stories but removes obvious motives for characters’ actions (e.g. Iago’s motive for making mischief, Lear’s reason for testing his daughters), resulting in more psychologically and morally complex and ambiguous drama.
Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us. This landmark work of literary analysis was first published in 1934, and is a fascinating study of Shakespeare’s writing and well worth reading. Spurgeon examines the images of Shakespeare’s plays in order to find out what sorts of images he most frequently draws on and what this might tell us about him, especially in terms of his relation to his contemporaries. It is a good study of what makes Shakespeare so peculiar alongside his fellow Elizabethan and Jacobean writers.
Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language. One of the best books on Shakespeare’s language, and a handy companion volume to Spurgeon’s older, groundbreaking study of the Bard’s imagery. Kermode was often a superb close-reader of poetry and a very clear-headed critic, and this shines through here. Highly readable.
James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. If you fancy an in-depth study of one particular moment in Shakespeare’s life, Shapiro’s book is for you. Annobiographies (to coin a term), or biographies/cultural histories of one particular year are all the rage (for other fascinating studies of particular years, see Michael North’s Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern and Nicholas Freeman’s 1895: Drama, Disaster and Disgrace in Late Victorian Britain (Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture)), and the advantage here is that Shapiro can really zoom in on the year in which the Globe Theatre was built in London and Shakespeare began to move towards that new phase of his career that was ushered in with Hamlet. His forthcoming book on 1606 will doubtless prove similarly compelling.
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. This was one of the first of the recent popular books on Shakespeare written by an academic: although it was published a year after Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, in 1998, it purportedly sold 100,000 copies in hardback (perhaps as a result of the success of Shakespeare in Love in cinemas that year) and, despite some contentious claims, showed publishers that lots of readers had an appetite for books on the Bard.
A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (New Penguin Shakespeare Library). In 1904, this immeasurably influential study of Shakespeare’s tragedies appeared. It is still in print – as an affordable Penguin Classics edition – and although Bradley sometimes treats the characters a little too much as though they were real people rather than imaginary constructions, there’s a raft of lucid insights into the plays to be had.
Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage (Eminent Lives). This is our choice for a popular book on Shakespeare written by a non-Shakespearean. It’s short, light, engaging, humorous, with its distinct approach being to discount as much of the speculation about Shakespeare’s life as possible, and instead focus solely on the facts of his life that we definitely (or at least pretty definitely) know.
Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Belknap). Written by one of the greatest living critics, this book is perhaps the best one on the Sonnets. A remarkable close reader of poetry, Vendler provides detailed commentaries on all of the 154 sonnets and, like Spurgeon and Kermode, has some particularly astute things to say about the poems’ language. It’s a little pricier than most of the other books on this list, but it’s big, so it’s worth the extra money.
Of course, any list purporting to select the ‘best books on Shakespeare’ is going to be subjective and even tendentious – so do please leave us your suggestions for other titles below.
If you enjoyed this list, check out our pick of the 10 best books about literature and our interesting facts about the Bard. You might also enjoy our interesting Macbeth facts and our facts about Romeo and Juliet. Fans of language trivia might also like our selection of the best accessible books about the English language.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
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Reblogged this on Jude’s Threshold and commented:
Reblogged this on Rare Films & TV Classics on DVD.
So glad you included the Bryson book. It’s the book which introduced me to him and I’ve been a big fan ever since. I like his take because, as you say, he sticks to what is known. Plus, Bryson surprises you with facts which stick in your head long after you’ve finished reading. Down side – you become a terrible bore at parties!
I know the ‘bore at parties’ feeling well, having been that person! Bryson is a marvellous populariser of subjects – I love his A Short History of Nearly Everything, about science, for that reason. But I’ve not read one of his I haven’t liked. (Even his latest, One Summer: America 1927, was a page-turner!) He has an eye for a catchy anecdote and is a great debunker of misconceptions, which we love examining here!
I couldn’t agree more! No wonder I like both Bryson and this blog site so much :)
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Reblogged this on desperatelyseekingcymbeline and commented:
I’m re-posting this to give myself a nice easy-to-access reading list…
There are a couple of wonderful novels which capture the man, and are inventive, and also enhance the reader’s appreciation of Shakespeare’s works : Jude Morgan – The Secret Life of William Shakespeare and Robert Winder – The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare.
Oh, and both of them start from the premise that Shakespeare was in fact – Shakespeare, which I found a big relief!
Great blog post, there are certainly some good suggestions here for my future reading. I’m glad you put “Will in the World” on your list as it’s one book whose approach I found particularly enlightening. Another one I really enjoyed was “Shakespeare for all time” by Stanley Wells; there’s a little bit of biog at the beginning but mostly it’s about how Shakespeare’s works have been interpreted in subsequent centuries and how he came to be the cultural legend he is today.
Well, the nature of lists is that something always gets left off. Can I just commend you on the breadth of your lists – Bill Bryson is a really solid, non-threatening introduction to Shakespeare, in my opinion:)
Recently entertained by a one-woman play: The Second Best bed. Lichfield Literary Festival.
Brilliant, engaging acting and a well held story line.
Anthony Burgess wrote a good one. It’s weird and idiosyncratic but he’s incapable of writing a boring sentence so it rollocks along and has got a lot of beautiful illustrations in it.
I wrote to Burgess once. I admired him as a writer and I’ve read everything he wrote (including both Shakespeare (the biography) and Nothing Like The Sun (the fictional biography) but I couldn’t stand his obsession with Graham Greene, who I thought the better writer. It was as though Burgess was upset that Greene didn’t seem to notice him. After Greene’s death, Burgess wrote what was supposed to be an obituary of Greene but was in fact a paean to himself. I didn’t keep a copy of the letter but I do remember that it ended with the words, “You are, sir, a piece of shit.” He wrote back to me on a BBC postcard — his reply was brief but rather good. As one might expect.
The Bill Bryson book is brilliant. Great post! Will take a look at the other suggestions.
What an good idea for a post. I read Will in the World years ago and thought it was really interesting. Haven’t read the others. Oh, gosh, I can’t believe anyone still really thinks that anyone besides Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I researched this years ago, and the arguments are nonsense. Edward de Vere was dead for most of the time Shakespeare was alive!
Yes — and we know that de Vere DID write this:
Sitting alone upon my thought in melancholy mood,
In sight of sea, and at my back an ancient hoary wood,
I saw a fair young lady come, her secret fears to wail,
Clad all in colour of a nun, and covered with a veil;
Yet (for the day was calm and clear) I might discern her face,
As one might see a damask rose hid under crystal glass.
The man who wrote that also wrote Hamlet? I don’t think so.
Yeah, that was the other thing I thought when I did my research, that none of the others proposed sounded anything like Shakespeare. It was as if those proposing the idea were tone deaf.
Thanks for a great list! Any list is open for debate, but you did a fine job here.
All based on a spurious biography. Read Mark Anderson’s “Shakespeare by Another name” for a truly literary approach to the plays and their author — principally Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Whatever you say, Bob.
Reblogged this on yllibsomar.
Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man who was Shakespeare by Mark Anderson belongs on the list.
It’s book that goes so much further than any other in its ability to link the man who wrote the works with the works themselves. Writers write from experience. There’s a real man with real experiences behind the “Shake-Speeare” allonym.
It’s beyond time to stop smoking from the Disney-upon-Avon tourist industry crack pipe and strip the veil from the most fascinating whodunnit in human history.
Something the Stratford tourist industry won’t tell you – Will Shaksper of Stratford was mocked on the London stage in his own lifetime as an illiterate, braggart, pretender.
This latter is in the realm of fantasy or historical fiction . . .
I agree that the Kermode one about language is excellent! Another good one is by Peter Hall not sure of the exact title – smth like Shakespeare’s Notes to his Players? It is about the poetry of the plays and how actors should speak the lines.
Using ‘Shakespeare by Another Name’ to Study Shakespeare as a dramatist is like using ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to study monarchy as a form of government.
The Greenblatt book is the one I rely on most.
Brysons Book ist a bit superficial and shoudn’t be in a list of “best books”. How about MacGregors “Shakespeares Restless World” as a popular alternative? And I am missing Gary Taylors “Reinventing Shakespeare”, which is a bit older, but still an excellent book on the reception of Shakespeare through the ages.
There is also The Shakespearean Ethic by John Vyvyan – the most original book about Shakespeare acoording to Chrisopher Booker. Ive read most of it and find his thesis compelling.
Don’t know that one; I’ll look it up. Thanks!
Hi there. while not wishing to criticise any on your list, a few others might have made it: Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being; Secret Shakespeare; the Arden edition of Troilus and Cressida (and while not a book my post on this play), and Kermode’s long ago Arden on The Tempest. Also important is the dictionary of sexual imagery of the period in three volumes. Reading this will transform any person’s idea of Shakespeare.
Really good information. Learning about the man who wrote the manuals on the human condition has got to be a plus.