The Best Books That Help Us Understand Shakespeare And His Times

The Books I Picked & Why

Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

By Jan Kott

Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

Why this book?

This classic work, first published in the 1960s, interprets Shakespeare’s work as portraying societies corrupted by injustice, cynical political maneuvering, and government surveillance. When it first appeared in the 1960s, it made Shakespeare’s plays seem chillingly relevant. It has the same effect today.


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Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

By Jonathan Bate

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

Why this book?

A uniquely insightful literary scholar leads readers on a wonderfully rich ride through Shakespeare’s life, showing at each point how his experiences shaped his writing. No book brings the Bard so vividly to life, and none more masterfully shows how his work sprung from the turbulent world of Elizabethan England.


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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

By Stephen Greenblatt

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

Why this book?

This book is shaped by a frank admission that much about Shakespeare’s life remains unknown, and sets out to fill in the blanks.  The author is as qualified as anyone to write a book about Shakespeare full of phrases like “may have,” “must-have,” and “probably did.” It brings the world of Elizabethan theater to vivid life, and is enriched by provocative speculation about Hamlet


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Shakespeare's Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485

By John Julius Norwich

Shakespeare's Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485

Why this book?

Shakespeare’s magnificent history plays have been described as “a feast of Henrys and Richards.” Who were those kings in real life? This book tells their true stories, and compares those stories to what Shakespeare wrote about them. Turns out he stuck pretty close to history!


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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

By James Shapiro

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Why this book?

Shakespeare scholars hate discussing the “authorship question” for the same reason astronomers hate discussing whether space aliens kidnap human beings. There is no real “question.” But because guessing who wrote the plays has become such a parlor game, James Shapiro took on the challenge. His book tells the crazy history of the “authorship question” and makes irrefutably clear that yes, the fellow from Stratford really did write those plays. This should settle the issue forever—but of course it won’t.


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