The best books to understand and enjoy Shakespeare in the twenty-first century

Who am I?

I have been fascinated with Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare since I was a child and read a kid biography of the queen and saw a Shakespearean comedy. The two topics are completely intertwined—Elizabeth saw Shakespeare’s plays at court and the strong women in Shakespeare’s plays reflect the queen. Elizabeth and Shakespeare have been both my passion and my profession. I have loved teaching and writing about them. One of my favorite things to do is to go see Shakespeare plays and to see portraits of the queen at museums. This passion has so enriched my life. The queen and the playwright have been very good to me. 


I wrote...

The Reign and Life of Queen Elizabeth I: Politics, Culture, and Society

By Carole Levin,

Book cover of The Reign and Life of Queen Elizabeth I: Politics, Culture, and Society

What is my book about?

“There is no such thing as too many books on Elizabeth I and Carole Levin once more proves it. This book is the pinnacle of Elizabethan studies. Thoroughly researched with new primary evidence, scholars and students alike will find it indispensable for the study of Elizabeth I’s reign. This is undoubtedly a significant contribution to our understanding not only of the queen herself but of the politics and culture of her reign and as usual Carole Levin shows what a groundbreaking scholar she truly is.”

Estelle Paranque, New College of the Humanities, London, UK

The books I picked & why

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Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future

By James Shapiro,

Book cover of Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future

Why this book?

This book was amazing in helping me think about Shakespeare and the history of divisions in our own history. Like all of James Shapiro’s work, Shakespeare in a Divided America is filled with fascinating information delivered in lively and engaging prose. This book provides a cultural and historical exploration of how readings and performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the past two centuries have exposed fault lines in our country’s political and social fabric. In the nineteenth century, the assassination of President Lincoln and the deadly Astor Place Riots; in the twentieth-century debates over free speech, gender, immigration, and race; and in our own time controversies over political division and Trump-era extremism: Shapiro shows how all of these have issues played out through the vehicle of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Othello

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future

By James Shapiro,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shakespeare in a Divided America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year * A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist * A New York Times Notable Book

A timely exploration of what Shakespeare's plays reveal about our divided land.

"In this sprightly and enthralling book . . . Shapiro amply demonstrates [that] for Americans the politics of Shakespeare are not confined to the public realm, but have enormous relevance in the sphere of private life." -The Guardian (London)

The plays of William Shakespeare are rare common ground in the United States. For well over two centuries, Americans of all stripes-presidents…


Women Talk Back to Shakespeare: Contemporary Adaptations and Appropriations

By Jo Eldridge Carney,

Book cover of Women Talk Back to Shakespeare: Contemporary Adaptations and Appropriations

Why this book?

Jo Carney’s book is a wonderful way of appreciating both Shakespeare and contemporary literature that responds to the themes he developed all those centuries ago. This study explores more recent adaptations published in the last decade whereby women—either authors or their characters—talk back to Shakespeare in a variety of new ways. Carney puts modern works such as Prospero’s Daughter, Desdemona, Hag-Seed, The Gap of Time, The Porpoise, Station Eleven, and Hamnet into dialogue with the plays Othello, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, and King Lear. This beautifully written and very accessible book allows us to think about contemporary issues of sexual assault, gender expectations, and differences in new and very exciting ways as well as allowing readers to develop a new appreciation of Shakespeare.  

Women Talk Back to Shakespeare: Contemporary Adaptations and Appropriations

By Jo Eldridge Carney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women Talk Back to Shakespeare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study explores more recent adaptations published in the last decade whereby women-either authors or their characters-talk back to Shakespeare in a variety of new ways.

"Talking back to Shakespeare", a term common in intertextual discourse, is not a new phenomenon, particularly in literature. For centuries, women writers-novelists, playwrights, and poets-have responded to Shakespeare with inventive and often transgressive retellings of his work. Thus far, feminist scholarship has examined creative responses to Shakespeare by women writers through the late twentieth century. This book brings together the "then" of Shakespeare with the "now" of contemporary literature by examining how many of…


The Private Life of William Shakespeare

By Lena Cowen Orlin,

Book cover of The Private Life of William Shakespeare

Why this book?

Gorgeously illustrated and elegantly written, Lena Orlin’s new study of William Shakespeare shows her great skill at doing research to give us new ways to understand the playwright. She puts the evidence of his life within the context of other Elizabethan documents. Orlin proves that we can know more about Shakespeare by examining the lives of the people in his circles. As she tells us, this is neither a literary biography nor a full biography, but it is a book that follows the evidence to tell us much more about Shakespeare the man. Shakespeare cared deeply about his father and his marriage to Anne was much less contentious and a more pleasant partnership. Though there have been so many books about Shakespeare, Orlin helps us understand him beyond the myths. Her brilliant and thorough reading of documents presents a wonderful read.

The Private Life of William Shakespeare

By Lena Cowen Orlin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Private Life of William Shakespeare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new biography of William Shakespeare that explores his private life in Stratford-upon-Avon, his personal aspirations, his self-determination, and his relations with the members of his family and his neighbours.

The Private Life of William Shakespeare tells the story of Shakespeare in Stratford as a family man. The book offers close readings of key documents associated with Shakespeare and develops a contextual understanding of the genres from which these documents emerge. It reconsiders clusters of evidence that have been held to prove some persistent biographical fables. It also shows how the histories of some of Shakespeare's neighbours illuminate aspects of…


Hamnet

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

This compelling novel is inspired by the possible connection between Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet, and the death of his only son at the age of eleven. But the novel then expands out into an exploration of Shakespeare’s entire family, particularly his wife, Anne Hathaway, and the centuries of misinformation and vilification that have surrounded her.  This is historical fiction at its best: it is carefully researched but its portrait of early modern life is never heavy-handed; it asks us to separate what we actually know about Shakespeare and his family from misogyny and myth; and it is a beautifully written page-turner that offers a respectful but honest portrayal of Shakespeare, the artist, the husband, and the father.

Hamnet

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked Hamnet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2020 WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION - THE NO. 1 BESTSELLER 2021
'Richly sensuous... something special' The Sunday Times
'A thing of shimmering wonder' David Mitchell

TWO EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE. A LOVE THAT DRAWS THEM TOGETHER. A LOSS THAT THREATENS TO TEAR THEM APART.

On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.

Neither…


Kingship, Madness, and Masculinity on the Early Modern Stage: Mad World, Mad Kings

By Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy (editor),

Book cover of Kingship, Madness, and Masculinity on the Early Modern Stage: Mad World, Mad Kings

Why this book?

Today concerns over madness and disability are very much with us, especially if they connect with issues of power and masculinity. This was also true in the age of Shakespeare. Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy’s collection of essays on the topic of mad kings on the Renaissance stage is very readable and interesting, and tie in with contemporary issues. The book is divided into three sections: distracted kingship, fractured masculinity, and performed madness. The plays under discussion include Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry VI, and All’s Well That Ends Well. Gutierrez-Dennehy brilliantly and explicitly brings the topics raised in the collection into the twenty-first century

Kingship, Madness, and Masculinity on the Early Modern Stage: Mad World, Mad Kings

By Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kingship, Madness, and Masculinity on the Early Modern Stage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book provides a fascinating study into the history of kingship, madness and masculinity that was acted out on the early modern stage. Providing students of early modern history, theatre and performance studies and disability studies with interesting case studies to inform their upper level seminars and research.

Throughout the volume the authors engage with the field of disability studies to show how disability and mental health were portrayed and what that tells us about the period and the people who lived in it. Showing students, a new dimension of early modern Europe.

The chapters uncover how, as the early…


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