BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide Edited by Stanley Wells & Lena Cowen Orlin

I should’ve read this before I read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  This book is where I got everything I know about William Shakespeare, the time in which he lived, & facts about the plays that I included in my recent reviews.

As I said, all my (beautiful, fancy-pants) copy of Shakespeare’s works had was the plays & poetry.  Plus, some pretty pictures.

If you’re nerdy like me, you’ll love this book.  It has:

  • Shakespeare’s life & times
  • Shakespearian genres
  • Shakespeare criticism
  • Shakespeare’s afterlife

All this, & much, much more, could be yours if the price is right.

(I am now legally obligated to say that the list I provided is pretty much all there is.  There is no “much more,” let alone “much, much more.”  However, it is broken down into smaller groupings of essays, which I can claim is “more.”)

This book is around 700 pages, including the indexes & listing the various sources.  To keep this (reasonably) brief, I’m going to list the main sections’ sub-sections. 

Each subsection is broken down into individual essays, but I’m not going to list any unless one piqued my interest.  Honestly, this whole book was interesting!

This review contains no spoilers.  Unless my geekiness spoils it for you, in which case… there’s no helping you.

Shakespeare’s life & times

The section on Shakespeare’s life, the culture, religion, & theater was soooooo freakin’ good!  It filled me in on so many details that impacted the writers of the time.

The 14 subsections in this part cover 164 pages of Shakespearian awesomeness:

  • Why study Shakespeare?
  • Shakespeare’s life and career
  • Theatre in London (the printers of this book are in England, so I’m using the spelling they do when typing out these lists)
  • Shakespeare’s audiences
  • Conventions of playwriting
  • Shakespeare’s fellow dramatists
  • The language of Shakespeare
  • Shakespeare’s verse
  • The society of Shakespeare’s England
  • Daily life in town and country
  • Love, sex, and marriage
  • Changing attitude towards religion
  • Ideas of order
  • Shakespeare’s view of the world

Now, I don’t normally like history.  This book, however, filled in a lot of the blanks I’ve had about William Shakespeare.  This part of the book shows how the culture & society in which Shakespeare lived shaped his writing.

As a wannabe writer, I love knowing what impacts the art created.  It makes me look to the same elements going on around me today & wonder how they impact me.

Well, actually, I wonder how they impact quality writers.

Shakespearian genres

The section on genres has 9 subsections. 

It also introduces “READING” section.  In these essays, the authors choose a specific example of Shakespeare’s work & examine it in more detail. 

Which, makes sense, considering this part of the book introduces the various genres Shakespeare indulged in:

  • Introduction
  • Romantic comedies
  • English history plays
  • Tragedies
  • Roman plays
  • Romances
  • Comical and tragical
  • Non-dramatic poetry
  • Unfamiliar Shakespeare

I think the most interesting sections were “Comical and tragical” and “Unfamiliar Shakespeare.”  They discuss plays often called “problem plays” that don’t fit into any of the other categories publishers of the First Folio designated (Comedies, Tragedies, & Histories were all they wrote).

On the other hand, the subsection “Comical and tragical” seems a bit broad for my tastes.  Almost every one of Shakespeare’s plays has some elements of both comedy & tragedy in them, so that title could apply to them all.

Shakespeare criticism

I have to say – this was the section I was looking forward to the most when I read the table of contents.

I read a lot of literary theory in college.  Most of it was dry & kind of hard to understand.  Frankly, Shakespeare was easier than the papers I read.

In my geeky little world, I got giddy reading the essays’ titles.  I studied a lot of feminist theory, but I hadn’t really expanded my views. 

These sections gave me the chance to look at works I’m familiar with through the lenses of unfamiliar theories:

  • The critical tradition
  • Humanist interpretations
  • Character criticism
  • Source study
  • Close reading
  • Feminist criticism
  • Studies in sexuality
  • Psychoanalytic criticisms
  • Materialist criticisms
  • Post-colonial criticism
  • Deconstruction
  • Performance history: Shakespeare on the stage, 1660-2001
  • Performance criticism

Some of my favorite sections were:

  • Feminist criticism – (duh) history of feminist criticism, a feminist approach to The Taming of the Shrew, etc.
  • Close reading – looking at word choices, how Shakespeare plays with language, creates words & phrases, etc.
  • Studies in sexuality – how the definition of “sexuality” has changed since Shakespeare’s time, how the public view of male relationships/friendships has changed, etc.
  • Psychoanalytical criticisms – touches on Freud & the unconscious mind’s impact on language, discusses different “schools” of understanding Freud’s theories, gives a brief introduction to other psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan, etc.
  • Post-colonial criticism – looks at how European attempts to take over the world brought Shakespeare’s writings to other cultures & how other cultures view/interpret his writing, race & other stereotypes in Shakespeare’s plays, etc.

If I were to go back & re-read any play, applying any of these theories, I could probably write a 10-page paper.  Now, think of what I would do if I re-read all the plays!

Shakespeare’s afterlife

Before you ask, no – this section is not about Shakespeare’s ghost haunting the London theaters.  Unfortunately.

This part of the book discusses all the impact Shakespeare has had since his death in 1616:

  • Introduction
  • Shakespeare published
  • Shakespeare and the modern British theatre
  • Shakespeare on film and video
  • The question of authorship
  • Shakespeare’s influence
  • Shakespeare and translation
  • Commemorating Shakespeare
  • Internet and CD ROM resources

Since this book was written in 2003, some of the computer-related sources are out of date.  Case in point – they discuss CD-ROM resources.

I remember when CD-ROM was a big deal.  Reading about it as a legitimate source made me feel both nostalgic & old.

Who else remembers Oregon Trail on CD-ROM?  For that matter, I think I still have it somewhere. 

Sorry, wait, where was I? 

This final section is the ideal way to end a book about Shakespeare.  Most of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t published until 8 years after his death, so his work didn’t spread beyond Europe until after his life ended.

Specifically, the argument about whether Shakespeare wrote all his work interests me.  I think his working with other authors, not having his stuff printed during his lifetime, & the work of theater companies did to shape is work to their needs makes it seem like he “didn’t write it all.”

Not to mention, his work is so good & he wrote so much of it that it seems unbelievable that it all came from one man.

Final Score:

5 out of 5 stars!  Overall, this book was fantastic.  It hit every geeky bone in my body.  I learned more about Shakespeare & interpreting his work than I ever thought possible.

I thought I was a Shakespeare nerd before I read this book.  Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide showed me how wrong I was.

I couldn’t be happier about it.

14 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide Edited by Stanley Wells & Lena Cowen Orlin”

  1. Wait, what? Shakespeare’s ghost haunts people!? We went to the fucking globe and nada. Fuck you Shakespeare, I wanted to be haunted. I feel like that statement has soooo many meanings, and none of them mean what I actually meant.
    Oh well, fuck it. That’s why god invented you, and why god invented head injuries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to tell you, but Shakespeare’s ghost only exists in the CD-ROMs made after his death.

      You know, some people do claim to have slept with ghosts. There’s one meaning for that sentence!

      How’s your head feeling, love?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My short-term memory is slowly coming back, and stuff, but still very, very bad. I have another MRI tomorrow. Because of the thing in my brain (I know I told you, Rae and B about it personally, but I don’t want anyone else to know about it, so I’m being vague on purpose), they have to do a lot of tests and exams because the only reason it wasn’t removed years ago was because I had all the symptoms, but it was stable. I was a rare case, and the neurosurgeon wasn’t against it, but we both agreed why have surgery if you can just take medication to help? But if anything has changed, I don’t know yet what that will mean.

        Ha ha ha that reminds me of the Doctor Who S2 finale where some lady married a ghost.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m glad your short term memory is starting to come back! I hope the tests show nothing too serious.

        I know you were having problems with your short-term memory… which is why I didn’t mention that what I said was, “Shakespeare’s afterlife – Before you ask, no – this section is not about Shakespeare’s ghost haunting the London theaters. Unfortunately.”

        Your comment was so intriguing I thought I’d play along. It would be so cool to meet Shakespeare’s ghost. I’d sleep with him, if it were possible. & if I believed in ghosts. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh my bad!!! Reading and remembering was almost impossible like a week ago, and I would have been trying so hard (I know, not what you’re meant to do – but still!) at least it makes for a good story!!!!!!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That’s the only reason I mentioned it now. I know you’re getting stronger & your brain is getting back its keen edge, so I figured you could take the news.

        It’s really not a “my bad” situation though – you read the post, which means waaaaaaaaaay more to me than missing a single word or phrase. Really comparing a mountainous effort to a mote of a mistake.

        Also, like you said, it makes for a good story! I would be quite pissed off too if I had heard that Shakespeare was haunting London (although, the Globe where he spent most of his time has been gone for a long time; I think the 1996 reproduction would suit him ill) & I didn’t see him.

        Like, OMG. I’d change my mind about believing in ghosts if I heard I could potentially meet Shakespeare’s ghost. 😍 😍 😍

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Ha ha ha ha I’m still finding it so difficult to read information and then write about it. I can read information and understand it all and remember, but there’s still a missing link between reading stuff and then going to write it down (it’s why I haven’t restarted the Leaders posts yet, though I’ve now written TWO new posts, so I’m proud of that! But it does take longer atm), so I do apologise if that happens again! Also, sometimes I write a word that is close to the word that I actually mean. Scott’s been helping out with most posts, but if it happens in convos, just thought I’d let you know!

        Damn, if the dead could talk, honestly. Can you imagine what we’d learn? What we’d know?

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I totally get it, sweetie. It’s a slow recovery process from a head injury for the average person; your unique situation makes it more difficult.

        Your posts have been really good lately! I’ll admit, because I’m hyper-critical (ugh, issues from my Dad’s influence) & feel the need to say what I see, that there have been a couple of typos or missed words, but it all still makes sense. I haven’t really noticed any in our comments, other than the original one that started this whole conversation. 🙁

        If I do, I think I’d like to continue to just ignore them. Everyone is allowed typos & missed words! I shouldn’t have even mentioned it in the above paragraph – it’s almost compulsive for me to do stuff like that. I think that’s something I need to work on; perhaps it’s a desire to be smart & prove how much I know or notice? Hmmm… I must think on this. 🤔

        I always wonder, if the dead could talk, what they would think of how we interpret what they’ve said/done/written? Can you imagine Shakespeare coming back today & going, “WTH were you people thinking?? I was writing this stuff to turn a buck – all this stuff you’re saying was in my writing? Never even crossed my mind!” 🤣

        Liked by 1 person

      7. I don’t mind!! I actually love it!! I wish I could just be like ‘Ariel, go and just edit it’, honestly, I think it’s great. I was just talking to my dad about you, actually, and how you’ve helped my entire writing thing and everything and I was telling him about the Drunk Reviews and stuff and how I’m just so excited to send you my plan when I finish it, because I feel like there’s a huge difference in my writing, and I’m getting different writing styles. But honestly, I like things to be perfect, so I honestly don’t mind. I honestly genuinely prefer it. I figure I can’t learn or grow if no one ever says it, no matter how small it is. And if there’s one thing I love, it’s just learning.

        Ha ha ha ha I can imagine!!! But oh my god the questions we could ask! I always thought Harry Potter didn’t use all those ghosts to the best of his ability

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Aww! I wish I could help edit too! I thought about that earlier in this conversation, like, “Ugh, if this were a Serenity-type blog thing, I wouldn’t have to bring it to your attention.”

        It’s because I know you have way more important stuff on your mind that I feel like holding back is appropriate. Most people won’t notice such inconsequential bits & bobs & it doesn’t affect the message, tone, or quality of your writing.

        Still, you & I share that “perfectionist” itch. I think that’s one reason I struggle to post – it’s never good enough. But, I’m working through it because of support from people like you, Rae, & B. Putting ourselves out there, like you said in your recent post, is tough for many reasons! Either it’s too personal, too uncomfortable, or too clinical. It’s like, da fuq?!

        Yeah, legit teared up when I read what you said to your Dad. Or that you talked to your Dad about me at all. I’ve mentioned you to my Dad too, but he doesn’t remember 99% of the people I mention or even introduce him to, so I call you my friend in Australia (he won’t remember that either; I’d put money on it).

        Man, I never thought about Harry Potter talking to the ghosts in Hogwarts. A lot of them seemed a bit… odd, even for being centuries-old spirits. Like Moaning Myrtle was a perv & Nearly Headless Nick a bit of a prat, y’know? I would understand not wanting to have in-depth conversations with them.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Well, I can always add you to here if you wanted. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, but it seems like an unfair request for you, and I’d prefer if you focused on your writing, because I’m enjoying the fact that you’re writing. I think you’re doing an amazing job ❤

        Of course I do! I always talk about the people who matter to me, and you really matter to me. My dad won’t always remember everyone’s names, but he will remember who I’m talking about most of the time. Weirdly, though, my dad (when he met my bridesmaid friend) my dad really, really disliked her, but he LOVED her best friend/MOH, Kimbereley. He thought she was lovely, and he still sometimes remembers her, which is pretty incredible for my dad, considering he’s met her like twice.

        Yeah, I wouldn’t want to speak to a perv, and I do think Nick is a prat, but I’d still want to ask questions!!! I’d have definitely asked someone about the Bloody Baron far earlier, but I’m also the type of person that’d be given something and I’d want to know everything

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Awwwww! I have to say, I’m honored that you’d even suggest giving me editing permissions to your page! I’m also tickled pink that you think my writing is good, even if I’m sticking to mostly book reviews at the moment (soooo many books… must…make…reviews…shorter… darn verbosity! 😄).

        I think that, for now, I’ll just promise to drop you an email if I see any major typographical errors – how does that sound? Like I said, most of what I see is seriously minor. It does no damage, nor detract from your posts’ point. If you prefer, I’ll drop you a line whenever I see anything, but, it’s really nothing major!

        Considering what you’re going through, I’m impressed as heck. 😍

        My Dad is… interesting. He doesn’t understand the concept of “friends,” nor does he really pay attention when the topic of conversation isn’t himself. He’s a good guy, deep down, don’t get me wrong. He’s just a weird duck (I guess that’s where I get it from). 🤪

        I’m trying to remember all the players in the sad story of your bridal party. You don’t have to explain it all, again, but maybe you could tell me this – looking back on what happened, would you say your Dad is a good judge of character? 🤔

        I’m with you on the talking to ghosts, even if they’re … problematic. I’m so darned curious, I’d probably ask a lot of really silly & potentially thoughtless questions.


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