All the world’s a page: The best books about Shakespeare’s world

Shakespeare tends to draw you in. If you get hooked, it’s hard to back away. I’ve been hooked for years, starting with an excellent class in high school all the way up to my experiences volunteering for several seasons  at the late, great Pop-Up Globe here in Auckland. And lord knows, seeing plays in person has been difficult the last year or two. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Shakespeare fans. Enough books have been written about Shakespeare to fill up a Pop-Up Globe, and despite the fact that what we actually know about his life could probably fit in a few greeting cards, that doesn’t stop mountains of speculation, linguistics, analysis, fiction, parody, explanation, conjecture and discourse. Here are a handful of my favourite go-to books on Shakespeare’s world for when you’re seeking a fix of the Stratford sage.

There are an awful, awful lot of Shakespeare biographies out there, which confounds when you think about how little true biographical information we’ve got. I quite enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare for a general primer, and the always amusing Bill Bryson’s pithy, brief Shakespeare is a good overall introduction to the vast world of Bard studies. For a general guide to the plays I actually really like DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook, which I picked up at the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland years ago – it’s compact enough to haul along to a play for summaries if you want to be that nerd in the theatre. As a photographic tour through Shakespearean history, Shakespeare’s Restless World by A History of the world in 100 Objects author Neil MacGregor is excellent. 

For my money, the most consistently entertaining explicator of Shakespearian life these days is James Shapiro, who’s written several great books on the Elizabethan theatre. He’s written what I consider the definitive debunking of the whole “Shakespeare didn’t actually exist” business, Contested Will, and two very thorough examinations of specific years in Shakespeare’s life, 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Those two tomes do a fascinating job of looking at the world around Shakespeare and how the politics and society of the time led to plays like King Lear. Shapiro then delivered a truly great combination of Shakespeare and the modern world, Shakespeare In A Divided America, which is a history of how this most British of writers found a home in America over two centuries, with Presidents and poets and rioters swept up in his wake. From the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to a very Trumpy take on Julius Caesar in 2017, it’s an excellent look at how the past isn’t even past when it comes to Shakespeare’s relevance. 

Another recent book was written by an old work colleague of mine, Paul Chapman. Secret Will: How People, Events and a Dancing Horse Inspired Shakespeare   is a bit in the vein of Shapiro’s work by investigating the world the Bard lived in and how it affected his writing. It’s a great bit of detective work which explores the violent, unsettled world Shakespeare lived in and how it informed him. I’m a mere amateur Bard buff compared to Paul, who packs his book with fascinating anecdotal side trips down all sorts of historical roads spinning out from the plays, from hidden disses on well known Elizabethan actors to the peculiar fad of the “dancing horse” to the man who inspired the real Shylock. These kinds of forensic investigations can be dry, but Paul gives Secret Will a relaxed, entertaining tone throughout. I learned a lot from it and it’s well worth seeking out. 

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch is billed as a “post-mortem” biography and it starts with Shakespeare’s death at just 52, and looks at how he nearly fell into obscurity when theatres themselves were banned during the English Civil War. Lynch also takes close looks at how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays have changed over the years, how their language has been bowdlerised and mutated by would-be improvers over the centuries, and the curious phenomenon of “rediscovered” Shakespeare plays that actually turned out to be forgeries. It’s a good primer to explain why this long dead dude still obsesses people.

The late Harold Bloom was almost a living caricature of the windy, self-important academic, but his many writings on Shakespeare gave him the right to brag, culminating in his massive doorstop of a book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. My edition of it even thicker than Shakespeare’s own complete works, but it’s a towering work that analyses every play he wrote with the sweeping overall thesis that the Bard’s writing is a milestone in human development and self-image, “creating” much of what we think of today as being human. Dipping in and out of it is like a master class in criticism. Bloom also did several shorter books focusing on characters like Falstaff and Hamlet that are well worth seeking out. I don’t always agree with Bloom and he could definitely be a bit pretentious, but he also almost always leaves me thinking – the sign of an excellent teacher. 

Speaking of obsessions, you can’t go wrong with The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays for a hit of literary sleuthing that delves deep into the legacy of the First Folio – the only real way that any of us even know who Shakespeare is, and how the surviving Folios from his time have become insanely high-priced fetish objects for collectors. It looks at Henry Folger, an American businessman who became utterly obsessed with obtaining copies of the Folio, and where they are today. Having had a rare chance to actually see one in Auckland a few years back,  I admit I can see the appeal of coveting some of these ancient texts and Mays’ book is thrilling reading even for non-Bardophiles. 

Whether you’re obsessed with the words, the history or the cultural impact, there’s literally libraries of Shakespeare to take the centre stage while we wait for a more normal world. Or as Prospero puts it in The Tempest, Me, poor man, my library/Was dukedom large enough.”

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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