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.