The best books for understanding the dark side of Shakespeare's world

Jacopo della Quercia Author Of License to Quill: A Novel of Shakespeare & Marlowe
By Jacopo della Quercia

The Books I Picked & Why

The Witchcraft Sourcebook

By Brian P. Levack

Book cover of The Witchcraft Sourcebook

Why this book?

Of all the books I consulted while writing my own, this is the one that surprised me the most and that I most frequently revisit. It is a collection of historical documents on witchcraft in the Western world from the Roman Empire to the eighteenth century, and I cannot recommend a better book on the subject. It's fascinating, painstakingly researched, instantly accessible to any reader, and either hilarious or horrifying, depending on how you pick your poison! There is a particularly interesting document that details how one sells their soul to the Devil which I was delighted to see referenced in Robert Egger's 2015 film The VVitch. He must have either read this book or consulted that same document during his research, which was clearly to his benefit.


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Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage

By Stephen Budiansky

Book cover of Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage

Why this book?

If you’ve ever been a fan of the James Bond books or movies, spy-thrillers, or anything involving MI6, this book is about where it all began: the golden age of English espionage. Filled with captivating plots and characters straight out of history, this book was the bedrock that I built my story upon. Please check it out. You will never look at English history the same way again.


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Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy

By Park Honan

Book cover of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy

Why this book?

It might surprise you to see a Christopher Marlowe biography over any book on William Shakespeare in this list, but Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy is seriously that good. It made me fall in love with the scoundrel now credited as co-author to Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays and who likely had a hand in several more. However, this book is also a captivating glimpse into the real-life exploits and suspicious murder of one of the greatest writers in English history. This book should have been made into several films by now. There’s just so much to like about Marlowe, his vices, and his many secrets. Please get yourself a copy and enjoy the rascal.


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Shakespeare the Man

By A.L. Rowse

Book cover of Shakespeare the Man

Why this book?

Shakespeare the Man is not the best book out there on William Shakespeare. There are many others that are better researched and less opinionated. However, Rowse gave me the best impression of what Shakespeare has meant to centuries of dramatists and researchers. It was recommended to me by the late Dr. John M. Bell of NYU, who was the most knowledgeable man on Shakespeare I've ever known. I see why he recommended this. It's a short but thorough read, and very enjoyable. Just don't treat Rowse's every word as gospel. His book is about Shakespeare, the man and myth.


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De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem

By A. Vesalius, G. Hartenfels, J. Dalton

Book cover of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem

Why this book?

De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem ["On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books"] will likely catch you by surprise since, unlike most books featured on this website, this one was printed back in 1543. Fortunately, this means that anyone with a working Internet connection and web browser can access this mystifying medical atlas from the sixteenth century. Annotated editions of On the Fabric of the Human Body are available online from numerous medical colleges, so please take the time to find and appreciate this masterpiece of anatomy and artistic imagination.


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