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.
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:
- Romantic comedies
- English history plays
- Roman plays
- 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.
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
- 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!
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:
- 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.
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.