I know, I know, this is another one of those Shakespeare lists to celebrate his birthday (and his death day), which is estimated to be on April 23rd—it’s like, c’mon, we get it. Shakespeare was the best writer ever. Woo hoo. Who cares? What relevancy can Shakespeare possibly maintain over the course of 400 years?
Well, that’s what I’m here to try to communicate, and to do so I needed to make not one but two lists: one focusing on the richest and most convincing nonfiction books ever written on the Bard, and another highlighting Shakespeare’s profound influence on contemporary fiction. Between the two lists, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s historical legacy and his lasting effect on writers of today.
(NB: neither of these lists even pretends to be authoritative and complete; rather, they represent merely a sampling of myriad books I could have chosen but that necessity forced me to exclude.)
Without further adieu, I present Twice-Told Lists. Let us begin with nonfiction, shall we?
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7 Excellent and Important Nonfiction Books on Shakespeare
1. “Preface to Shakespeare” (1765) by Samuel Johnson
Technically, the book I’m recommending here is The Plays of William Shakespeare, but it is the inimitable Samuel Johnson’s Preface and his annotations to that book that I want to focus on. Famous for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and as the subject of what is probably the ur-text of biographies, James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), Dr. Johnson is equally remembered for another of his Herculean projects: the creation of a definitive Shakespeare. He believed the volumes he grew up reading were deficient in many ways and so sought to correct these egregious errors (attributed by Johnson, somewhat apoplectically, to actors and copiers who “mutilated” the texts) by producing his own volume. In doing so, Johnson not only established the critical tradition of definitive editions but also wrote some of the most insightful commentary ever written on the great Bard. In literature, Johnson stands almost as giant as Shakespeare. Reading this Preface, it’s easy to see why.
I flipped the script on this one: instead of a text based on Shakespeare, this one’s the text on which Shakespeare based his plays. This monomaniacal printer named Reyner Wolfe had the brilliant idea to make a “Universal cosmology of the whole world.” Should be simple enough, right? So he hired a couple of dudes—Raphael Holinshed among them—to write the thing, but of course they never finished it. What they did finish, however, has come to be known—though it’s a bit of a misnomer—Holinshed’s Chronicles. In it, you’ll find the plots of Shakespeare’s history plays, as well as the kernels of Macbeth, King Lear, and Cymbeline. Though it may seem an intimidating read, there are numerous surprisingly accessible versions to be found.
3. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) by Harold Bloom
Although it is undoubtedly true that Harold Bloom has in the last two decades become a curmudgeonly broken record—I mean, how many times can you write about Whitman, Blake and Emerson?—his seminal book on Shakespeare carries with it a radical, but also totally believable thesis: Shakespeare’s plays, and specifically the way he presented his characters like Falstaff and Hamlet, can be credited as the creating (or at least reflecting back for the first time) the psychological underpinnings of our everyday decisions and actions. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” monologue (not technically a soliloquy since Ophelia’s in the background of the scene, overhearing) and Falstaff’s many intricate pontifications capture the complexity underneath our external presentation. Shakespeare not only recognized how we think and found a way to represent it, he also figured out a means to make our thoughts—inherently undramatic as they are—central to the dramatic tension. Nobody had ever done it quite like that, Bloom contends, and now it’s almost impossible to imagine art, or ourselves, otherwise.
4. Women of Will: The Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare’s Female Characters (2015) by Tina Packer
Tina Packer—the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts and an expert on the Bard as an actor, director, teacher, and scholar—argues in Women of Will that by tracing the development of Shakespeare’s female characters, we can not only see the their depth and complexity greatly increase, but that also through this trajectory, we can see the depth and complexity of Shakespeare himself. The resulting work, based initially on a one-woman show that premiered in New York, is a wonderfully edifying tour through the Shakespearean canon and an important lens through which to view it.
5. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) by Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt’s instant classic biographical study Will in the World, on the other hand, offers a general tour of Shakespeare’s life—more specifically the scant details we have of his life—and even more specifically the tenuous narrative historians have built upon those meager morsels. In engaging but thoughtful prose (he’d go on the win the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and the National Book Award for his follow-up The Swerve: How the World Became Modern in 2011), Greenblatt takes the reader into Elizabethan London, and somehow crafts a convincing biography of Shakespeare while simultaneously reiterating how little we actually know about such a titanic figure in literary (hell, all) history.
6. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare (2010) by James Shapiro
You can’t really get into Shakespearean scholarship without getting into this thorny and controversial conundrum: owing to the paucity of information we have on the actual life of Shakespeare, is it possible that the person we thought wrote the greatest works of literature ever was actually a completely different person? What’s more, the stuff we do know about Shakespeare doesn’t exactly point to a literary genius: for a polymath with a staggering vocabulary, Shakespeare was uneducated and owned few books; though he wrote convincingly and beautifully about various geographies, Shakespeare apparently never traveled outside of England; and though he was the most popular and in-demand playwright of his time, there is scant evidence of his life in London at the height of his creative powers. Scholars have already acknowledged that many of the plays were written collaboratively, the possibility of which many for a long time denied outright. These new theories don’t impress the academics, who poo-poo any scrutiny. So rather than sift through the many books proposing many solutions (including his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, the earl of Oxford Edward de Vere, and, even, Queen Elizabeth herself), James Shapiro’s Contested Will is a wonderful guide through the whole topic, and more importantly, Shapiro—whose published numerous books on Shakespeare, including the recent and also wonderful The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606—considers why these arguments arose and what they mean about our view of greatness and genius.
7. Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard (2013) by Laura Bates
This last one is a personal, human story of Shakespeare. Too often Shakespeare’s work is reduced to actorly pretension or cerebral posturing, but it’s vital to remember the powerfully emotional effect his work can have a person. Laura Bates, who grew up in the slums of Chicago with her immigrant parents who spoke little English, became the first person to teach Shakespeare to prisoners in “supermax solitary confinement,” and Shakespeare Saved My Life recounts her deep, complex friendship with Larry Newton, a convicted murderer who comes under Bates’s tutelage. Their unlikely bond is forged through Shakespeare’s poetry, bridging the considerable chasm between an English professor and a killer focused on escaping—now if that’s not a testament to Shakespeare’s continued relevance, I don’t know what is.
6 Works of Literature Based on Shakespeare
1. Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace
You’d think with a title like Infinite Jest, more would be made of Wallace’s references to and uses of Shakespeare throughout his satirical and meditative masterpiece. Maybe the book’s mammoth length (some 543,709 words) and its disparate plot threads (one of which involves a radical political group of paraplegics known as Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, or, the Wheelchair Assassins) make the search for Renaissance-era influences seem a bit secondary—but the Incandenza family in charge of the Enfield Tennis Academy—who, along with Don Gately and his fellow recovering drug addicts, are also the novel’s main characters—are modeled pretty unambiguously on Hamlet. Young Hal (which was also Falstaff’s nickname for Prince Harry, who became Henry V) is Infinite Jest’s Prince of Denmark, his recently deceased father James is the King who haunts the story, and Avril, the mother, and Charles, the uncle, are Gertrude and Claudius, respectively. The parallels aren’t arbitrary: Infinite Jest takes as its subject the American obsession with entertainment, often of little substance, hardly requiring any engagement or effort but still effectively engrossing, so basing a major section of the novel on a 400-year-old Elizabethan play both speaks to our always-present need for storytelling and provides a contrast to the kinds of things we’re provided with that aren’t nourishing and that only mask themselves as storytelling. There is a difference, the novel maintains, between these poles—entertainment versus storytelling—with Shakespeare representing the perfect marriage of both, and TV culture merely the former but presented as if the latter.
2. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
Pushkin noted that Othello’s real flaw wasn’t his jealousy but his willingness to trust Iago at his word. Iago, on the other hand, implements complicated machinations but isn’t himself a very complicated character. Patricia Highsmith recasts Iago as a young enterprising con artist Tom Ripley who becomes obsessed with Dickie Greenleaf, a wealthy heir to a shipbuilding company. In a chilling scene, Dickie finds Ripley in his room, dressed in his clothes, practicing his mannerisms. We get, to put it simply, the story from Iago’s point of view, which, of course doesn’t mean it tries to justify his behavior. Rather, it is merely interested in probing such a fascinating and disturbed character. In the play, Cassio condemns Iago to prison and torture—dramatic but typical punitive consequences—but in Highsmith’s world, Ripley’s punishment comes in a more existential package: guilt and paranoia that will follow him around for the rest of his days (but JK not really though because there are like four sequels where this abstract retribution is pretty much rendered null and void since, e.g., at the beginning of Ripley Under Ground (1970) Ripley’s living a super cozy life of luxury on dead Dickie’s dime).
3. The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) by Arthur Phillips
A writer named Arthur discovers that his father has been in possession of a “lost play” by Shakespeare called, as you’ve probably guessed, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” Arthur and his sister set out to get the play published while also trying to figure out whether or not it’s all just another of their father’s elaborate con games. Told with a Borgesian attention to scholarly detail, the novel’s form follows that of a real such publication, replete with a preface, a long introduction (long enough, i.e., to be the novel part of the book), and, in a feat of impressive mimicry, the full text of “The Tragedy of Arthur.” As in, Phillips wrote a five-act Shakespearean version of King Arthur and put it into a novel—I mean, think of the temerity of such a notion, and then to do it well, and even convincingly? It’s a virtuoso performance, for Shakespeare fans, yes, but also anyone who appreciates bold and brazen and rare talent—like Shakespeare, but also like Arthur Phillips.
4. “Shakespeare’s Memory” by Jorge Luis Borges, from Shakespeare’s Memory (1983)
Speaking of Borgesian, let’s take a look at Phillip’s predecessor, the ultimate source of invented sources. Borges’s short story “Shakespeare’s Memory” contains all of his hallmarks: a fantastical premise involving literature (here a man is gifted the complete memories of Shakespeare), esoteric references and academic verisimilitude (e.g., de Quincey, Samuel Butler, John Florio, and (hey!) Holinshed are all name-dropped), and the powerful effects, both transcendent and dangerous, of literary works (Shakespeare’s memory threatens to overtake the protagonist, forcing him to give it away). Borges used text to examine texts—or often merely the idea of text in general—and is the paragon of criti-fiction (a term I’m sort of appropriating and slightly altering from Raymond Federman), if not its wholesale inventor. Reading him riff on a titan like Shakespeare is a rare, and totally and unapologetically nerdy, delight.
5. “2BR02B” by Kurt Vonnegut, from Bagombo Snuff Box (1999)
Here’s another imaginative great riffing on Shakespeare. Vonnegut’s 1963 short story (attributed, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to Vonnegut’s hyperbolic stand-in Kilgore Trout) explores a future world where Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue (again, not a soliloquy) has become a practical consideration. Aging has been cured and population is thus under tight control, so in order for a child to be born someone else must volunteer to die. A couple having triplets is forced to find three willing suicides—or else have their newborn children killed. It’s a dark tale, to be sure, but so is the speech it’s based on (which, while we’re on the subject, seems like an odd stretch of writing to become, along with Romeo and Juliet’s “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”, the most widely quoted and recognizable quotation from all of Shakespeare’s plays—for Christ’s sakes he’s contemplating suicide, and not only that, he’s also wondering why anyone should go on living and that the only reason we do is because we’re terrified of what comes after death; “cowards” is Hamlet’s word for it; and though it’s an immensely brilliant speech, it’s also defeatist and bleak and just depressing—which is fine, and in fact, I really like sad stuff, but it does make it strange that it’s so ubiquitously known and cherished).
6. Hogarth’s Shakespeare Series (2015—ongoing)
Finally, here’s an entire series of books by major writers taking on Shakespeare. Hogarth gave some of the best novelists a rad, unmissable opportunity: to adapt any Shakespeare play into a novel. So the likes of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Anne Tyler, and Howard Jacobson put their own spin on the Bard’s tales. Winterson, the influential author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) and Written on the Body (1992), chose the “problem play” The Winter’s Tale to turn it into The Gap of Time, while Atwood takes on Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, titled Hag-Seed (due out in October of 2016). Beyond the sheer excitement at seeing these great writers delve into the rich language and complex drama, the Hogarth Shakespeare series offers a fascinating way to return to some of Shakespeare’s most profound (and, as in The Winter’s Tale, problematic) plays and discover a new way into it. Shylock is my Name, Howard Jacobson’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, sees the titular character as Simon Strulovitch, an art dealer incensed over his daughter’s love of an anti-semitic footballer and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (forthcoming in June) is a redux of The Taming of the Shrew. (Totally nerdy extrapolation: imagine a course organized around reading one of these novels and its corresponding play, as well as seeing a performance of that play, thereby approaching an often daunting figure from three distinct but important perspectives: the text, a company’s interpretation on the stage, and another writer’s adaptation and modernization of the story and its themes—a kind of roundabout way to teach Shakespeare, not unlike the way learning a second language also inadvertently teaches you a ton about your first one.)