The best William Shakespeare books

24 authors have picked their favorite books about William Shakespeare and why they recommend each book.

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Providence of a Sparrow

By Chris Chester,

Book cover of Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds

An electrician and his wife rescue an orphaned baby house sparrow and raise him into adulthood and beyond. This beautifully and at times hilariously told story is full of precious revelations about the rich personality of a bird routinely overlooked by us.


Who am I?

I started watching animals as soon as I could walk. That eventually led to a PhD in animal behavior and a career in animal protection. I now focus my energies on writing books that seek to improve our understanding of, and most importantly our relations with, other animals. I've written four previous books: Pleasurable Kingdom, Second Nature, The Exultant Ark, and What a Fish Knows (a New York Times best-seller now available in fifteen languages). I live in Belleville, Ontario where I enjoy biking, baking, birding, Bach, and trying to understand the neighborhood squirrels.


I wrote...

Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World's Most Successful Insects

By Jonathan Balcombe,

Book cover of Super Fly: The Unexpected Lives of the World's Most Successful Insects

What is my book about?

For most of us, the only thing we know about flies is that they're annoying, and our usual reaction is to try to kill them. In Super Fly, the myth-busting biologist Jonathan Balcombe shows the order Diptera in all of its diversity, illustrating the essential role that flies play in every ecosystem in the world as pollinators, waste-disposers, predators, and food source; and how flies continue to reshape our understanding of evolution. Along the way, he reintroduces us to familiar foes like the fruit fly and mosquito, and gives us the chance to meet their lesser-known cousins like the Petroleum Fly (the only animal in the world that breeds in crude oil) and the Chocolate Midge (the sole pollinator of the Cacao tree). No matter your outlook on our tiny buzzing neighbors, Super Fly will change the way you look at flies forever.

Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

By Jan Kott,

Book cover of Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

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.


Who am I?

My book is about political intrigue, violence, war, heroes and villains, libels and dreams, secret plots to overthrow governments, and murders most foul. It unfolds during a tense era of cultural upheaval and radical social change. A lifetime immersed in the works of Shakespeare helped prepare me to write it. I spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. My foreign postings placed me at the center of historic events and, at times, in the line of fire.


I wrote...

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

By Stephen Kinzer,

Book cover of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

What is my book about?

During the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, two immensely powerful brothers led the United States into a series of foreign adventures whose effects are still shaking the world. John Foster Dulles was secretary of state while his brother, Allen Dulles, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this book, Stephen Kinzer places their extraordinary lives against the background of American culture and history. He uses the framework of biography to ask: Why does the United States behave as it does in the world?

The Brothers explores hidden forces that shape the national psyche, from religious piety to Western movies—many of which are about a noble gunman who cleans up a lawless town by killing bad guys. This is how the Dulles brothers saw themselves, and how many Americans still see their country's role in the world.

Soul of the Age

By Jonathan Bate,

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

Critics argue that William Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him because he lacked the knowledge of classical myth and history basic to his plots and imagery. Jonathan Bates proves that the curriculum of the grammar school in Stratford-on-Avon provided an education sufficient to explain Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Bate reviews books in English and Latin that Shakespeare would have read and that created his rhetorical brilliance. 

I treasure Bate’s biography because my own background originated in a rural, agricultural setting outside the social and economic circles that usually produce academic types. Bates disproves the fallacy that only the privileged and elite can survive and thrive in life and careers.


Who am I?

Fake news is not new. Biographies, in particular, are fraught with fallacies and fake stories. When fake news slanders individuals, reputations are ruined and lives destroyed. That’s what happened to Elizabeth Wydeville, Queen Consort to Edward IV, and mother of the two princes who disappeared during Richard III’s reign. When I discovered the slander that destroyed Queen Elizabeth’s reputation, I began a 5-year research project to set the record straight. Some fallacies are deliberate, originating in envy or power putsches. Others derive from historical laziness or incompetence. What I learned from my research has determined my choices of biographies, stories that tell previously unrevealed truths about individuals.


I wrote...

Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)

By Arlene Naylor Okerlund,

Book cover of Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)

What is my book about?

Elizabeth Wydeville, mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London during Richard III’s reign, was slandered from the moment she married King Edward IV.  Accused of being “low born”—and a scheming woman who used sex and beauty to enhance her fortunes—her reputation as a cunning vixen prevailed for 500 years. These lies originated in propaganda spread by political enemies: the Earl of Warwick and his followers. 

For 500 years, Elizabeth has been vilified. Why have modern historians accepted politically motivated lies and ignored Elizabeth’s renowned virtue and social status? Historians have twisted and distorted facts to demean a loving mother, faithful wife, generous benefactor, and intelligent Queen Consort of England—the ancestor of every subsequent British monarch.

Shakespeare's Kings

By John Julius Norwich,

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

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!


Who am I?

My book is about political intrigue, violence, war, heroes and villains, libels and dreams, secret plots to overthrow governments, and murders most foul. It unfolds during a tense era of cultural upheaval and radical social change. A lifetime immersed in the works of Shakespeare helped prepare me to write it. I spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. My foreign postings placed me at the center of historic events and, at times, in the line of fire.


I wrote...

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

By Stephen Kinzer,

Book cover of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

What is my book about?

During the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, two immensely powerful brothers led the United States into a series of foreign adventures whose effects are still shaking the world. John Foster Dulles was secretary of state while his brother, Allen Dulles, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this book, Stephen Kinzer places their extraordinary lives against the background of American culture and history. He uses the framework of biography to ask: Why does the United States behave as it does in the world?

The Brothers explores hidden forces that shape the national psyche, from religious piety to Western movies—many of which are about a noble gunman who cleans up a lawless town by killing bad guys. This is how the Dulles brothers saw themselves, and how many Americans still see their country's role in the world.

Contested Will

By James Shapiro,

Book cover of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

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.


Who am I?

My book is about political intrigue, violence, war, heroes and villains, libels and dreams, secret plots to overthrow governments, and murders most foul. It unfolds during a tense era of cultural upheaval and radical social change. A lifetime immersed in the works of Shakespeare helped prepare me to write it. I spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. My foreign postings placed me at the center of historic events and, at times, in the line of fire.


I wrote...

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

By Stephen Kinzer,

Book cover of The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

What is my book about?

During the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, two immensely powerful brothers led the United States into a series of foreign adventures whose effects are still shaking the world. John Foster Dulles was secretary of state while his brother, Allen Dulles, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In this book, Stephen Kinzer places their extraordinary lives against the background of American culture and history. He uses the framework of biography to ask: Why does the United States behave as it does in the world?

The Brothers explores hidden forces that shape the national psyche, from religious piety to Western movies—many of which are about a noble gunman who cleans up a lawless town by killing bad guys. This is how the Dulles brothers saw themselves, and how many Americans still see their country's role in the world.

Twice-Told Tales

By Nathaniel Hawthorne,

Book cover of Twice-Told Tales

Many works of fiction explore the core human motivations and how they guide human behavior, but perhaps none more thoroughly and incisively than this collection of Hawthorne short stories. Hawthorne’s stories undoubtedly inspired The Twilight Zone and countless other works of fantasy and science fiction that convey messages about how human desires and cultural worldviews lead people toward thwarted goals and tragic outcomes. As such, they nicely complement the analyses conveyed by the other four books I have recommended. His stories explore guilt, anxiety, and ambition, as desires for security and growth conflict with the values of prevailing worldviews and often lead to misguided or fruitless efforts of people trying to make a lasting mark on the world.


Who am I?

I am a Regents Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. Ever since I was a child growing up in the South Bronx, I have been interested in why people are so driven to believe they are right and good, and why there is so much prejudice in the world. This has led to me to a lifelong exploration of the basic motivations that guide people’s actions, and how these motivations influence how people view themselves and others, and the goals they pursue.


I wrote...

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

By Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski

Book cover of The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

What is my book about?

This book presents the co-authors’ ground-breaking psychological research, which shows how the awareness of our mortality influences human action and how cultures keep fear of death at bay by providing worldviews that infuse our lives with order, stability, purpose, and significance, allowing us to pursue our goals without becoming overwhelmed by the knowledge of our ultimate fate. But our efforts to maintain our worldview and be significant contributor to it lead to personal, interpersonal, and societal problems. The Worm at the Core offers ways we can better come to terms with death and lead lives of courage, creativity, and compassion. The reader will come away with a new way of understanding human evolution, child development, history, religion, prejudice, art, science, mental health, war, and politics in the twenty-first century. 

William Shakespeare

By S. Schoenbaum,

Book cover of William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life

Schoenbaum’s massive compilation of documents from the life of William Shakespeare is the “go-to” book for anyone who wants the facts about the Bard. A large, folio-size edition, the book contains facsimiles of over 200 contemporary documents that record important moments and events in the life and career of Shakespeare. Arranged chronologically, Schoenbaum’s quite readable narrative explains the significance of each image and creates a living person from the documents that define Shakespeare, the man.

For anyone who asks the question, “Who Was Shakespeare,” Schoenbaum provides the answer. I love “just the facts.”


Who am I?

Fake news is not new. Biographies, in particular, are fraught with fallacies and fake stories. When fake news slanders individuals, reputations are ruined and lives destroyed. That’s what happened to Elizabeth Wydeville, Queen Consort to Edward IV, and mother of the two princes who disappeared during Richard III’s reign. When I discovered the slander that destroyed Queen Elizabeth’s reputation, I began a 5-year research project to set the record straight. Some fallacies are deliberate, originating in envy or power putsches. Others derive from historical laziness or incompetence. What I learned from my research has determined my choices of biographies, stories that tell previously unrevealed truths about individuals.


I wrote...

Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)

By Arlene Naylor Okerlund,

Book cover of Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)

What is my book about?

Elizabeth Wydeville, mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London during Richard III’s reign, was slandered from the moment she married King Edward IV.  Accused of being “low born”—and a scheming woman who used sex and beauty to enhance her fortunes—her reputation as a cunning vixen prevailed for 500 years. These lies originated in propaganda spread by political enemies: the Earl of Warwick and his followers. 

For 500 years, Elizabeth has been vilified. Why have modern historians accepted politically motivated lies and ignored Elizabeth’s renowned virtue and social status? Historians have twisted and distorted facts to demean a loving mother, faithful wife, generous benefactor, and intelligent Queen Consort of England—the ancestor of every subsequent British monarch.

Shakespeare the Player

By John Southworth,

Book cover of Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre

Written from an actor’s perspective, Shakespeare The Player researches acting companies in Stratford-on-Avon and England during Shakespeare’s youth and adolescence. Southwark explores the possibilities of Shakespeare spending those “Lost Years” from 1585-1592 as an apprentice with acting companies. Shakespeare The Player provides otherwise obscure information about the world of the theater during Shakespeare’s formative years as an actor and writer. 

How else did Shakespeare learn the crafts of writing, playing, and directing for which Robert Greene lambasted that “upstart crow…the only Shakes-scene in a country” in 1592?


Who am I?

Fake news is not new. Biographies, in particular, are fraught with fallacies and fake stories. When fake news slanders individuals, reputations are ruined and lives destroyed. That’s what happened to Elizabeth Wydeville, Queen Consort to Edward IV, and mother of the two princes who disappeared during Richard III’s reign. When I discovered the slander that destroyed Queen Elizabeth’s reputation, I began a 5-year research project to set the record straight. Some fallacies are deliberate, originating in envy or power putsches. Others derive from historical laziness or incompetence. What I learned from my research has determined my choices of biographies, stories that tell previously unrevealed truths about individuals.


I wrote...

Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)

By Arlene Naylor Okerlund,

Book cover of Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (England's Forgotten Queens)

What is my book about?

Elizabeth Wydeville, mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London during Richard III’s reign, was slandered from the moment she married King Edward IV.  Accused of being “low born”—and a scheming woman who used sex and beauty to enhance her fortunes—her reputation as a cunning vixen prevailed for 500 years. These lies originated in propaganda spread by political enemies: the Earl of Warwick and his followers. 

For 500 years, Elizabeth has been vilified. Why have modern historians accepted politically motivated lies and ignored Elizabeth’s renowned virtue and social status? Historians have twisted and distorted facts to demean a loving mother, faithful wife, generous benefactor, and intelligent Queen Consort of England—the ancestor of every subsequent British monarch.

Shakespeare's Dog

By Leon Rooke,

Book cover of Shakespeare's Dog: A Novel

Shakespeare’s Dog is the craziest Shakespearean book I’ve ever read. Not only is the young Stratford Shakespeare’s tale told by his dog, Hooker ̶ the dog speaks a kind of faux-Shakespearean: full of Elizabethan-esque vocabulary and syntax, Anglo-Saxon bawdry, new-coined usages of common words (“the wind flummoxed”; “I knelled the truth”).  Moreover, Rooke must really know his dogs. Because the dog-viewpoint (a frustrated Shakespeare “bites his toenails”) seems right on the money. The struggle of a prodigy youth and his prodigy dog to escape the tawdry, shallow, raucous banality of provincial small-town life is told with vividness, wit, and pathos.


Who am I?

I have a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University, and I have taught English for 30 years. I have studied and taught Shakespeare, Tudor drama, English linguistics, the Reformation, and various other aspects in the literary and cultural history of the 16th century. The 16th century is a time of great upheaval and the more I study it, the more I am fascinated by how pivotal this epoch is in the creation of the modern world, for better and for worse. I seek out books that chart, from grandest to most intimate, this momentous time’s transformations.


I wrote...

Lady Grace's Revels: A Tale of Elizabethan England

By Theodore Irvin Silar,

Book cover of Lady Grace's Revels: A Tale of Elizabethan England

What is my book about?

It is Michaelmas in rural Renaissance England, and Thomas Smith and William Philpott, scriveners, cannot believe their luck. They have been invited to revels at the manor house of Lady Grace Atwater, Countess of Burnham. There will be food, drink, dancing, and gracious company culled from a diverse assortment of county societies. Thomas has even written a poem for the occasion. All goes well until a certain Sir John, a master swordsman out to better himself by whatever means, makes an entrance. Soon, all is not well, and a cascade of revelations lays open the decadent underside of the glamourous aristocratic life. 

The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus

By William Shakespeare,

Book cover of The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus

A very early effort at a blood-soaked Roman tragedy written (at least partly) by England’s poet laureate. It throws its characters into a boiling cauldron of destructive evil, devising ghastly ways of killing most of them, and features one of the Elizabethan theatre’s most uncompromising villainous monsters, the racially profiled Aaron. It is customary among Shakespeare scholars to try to disown Titus for its lurid gratuitousness, but it does contain some fine poetic writing, brief flashes of the riches to come, and an anticipation of the subtler malevolence that would come to dominate the English stage in the succeeding Jacobean era. Those inclined to celebrate chaos as a purely constructive force might profit from lingering amid Shakespeare’s horrors.


Who am I?

My work has always been interested in the ways in which systems can be disrupted and subverted by taking radical fresh approaches to them, even where the prevailing view is that overturning them can only lead to the dreaded chaos.


I wrote...

An Excursion Through Chaos: Disorder Under the Heavens

By Stuart Walton,

Book cover of An Excursion Through Chaos: Disorder Under the Heavens

What is my book about?

A study of chaos, disorder, mayhem and confusion in history, philosophy, religion, and the arts, asking whether order is always preferable to everything being in a mess.

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