Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion
An invaluable reference. Defines just about every word Shakespeare used, and includes other helpful keys to understanding his language.
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition
There are many good one-volume editions of the complete works of Shakespeare, but I have a sentimental attachment to this one; it was the first one I owned, and the first place I read most of these plays.
If you’d rather read your plays one by one, there are plenty of editions to choose from. For a basic, clear edition with very helpful notes, try the Folger Library Shakespeare series. For more dense, scholarly editions, try the Arden Shakespeare series or the The New Cambridge Shakespeare series.
The Eloquent Shakespeare: A Pronouncing Dictionary for the Complete Dramatic Works
If you’re reading or performing the plays and want to know how to pronounce “victual” or “boatswain” (hint: it’s not how they’re spelled), this is the book for you.
Shakespeare: The Biography
There are so many Shakespeare biographies out there. This recent one does a good job of laying out what we do know in a clear and engaging way, and speculating about the missing pieces.
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
A very exciting and sweeping story of Shakespeare’s life, and almost entirely made up. Instead of dwelling on the biographical details, this book uses the wealth of information we have about the times Shakespeare lived in to guess at what inspired his writing.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
Like Will in the World, this book brings Shakespeare’s works to life using Shakespeare’s world. Because it focuses on just one incredibly busy and eventful year, it mines great details that may have gone into the creative work of a playwright just coming into the height of his powers. Also, check out the sequel, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Who wrote the works of William Shakespeare? Spoiler alert: it was William Shakespeare! But why do so many people think it was somebody else?
Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare
Isaac Asimov wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 books, and they’re not all about interstellar government. One of them just happens to be this entertaining and informative guidebook to Shakespeare’s plays. Each play he covers gets the full Asimov treatment, including analysis and background information. A great resource for beginners, it feels like having a smart friend sitting next to you to fill in gaps in your knowledge.
Shakespeare After All
So, so, so smart. Play by play, the scholar Marjorie Garber takes you through Shakespeare’s works. Each essay digs deep into the language to find real insights about the plots and characters. Pretty advanced thinking, but never inaccessible. NOTE: There is a very similar book by a writer whom I will call Shmarold Shloom. Resist the temptation and read this book instead.
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Just as Shakespeare After All covers Shakespeare’s plays one by one, this does the same with his sonnets. This is poetry analysis at its most skillful and readable; you’ll feel like you’re inside the language.
Prefaces to Shakespeare
These essays are decades old, but they still really hold up. Written by a talented playwright and actor, they were some of the first to look at Shakespeare’s plays from the perspective of staging rather than just scholarship.
I find this book so entertaining. Then again, I am a huge nerd. It looks at how culture that used to belong to everybody gradually became the property of the elites. It includes some amazing stories about the weird ways (and places) Shakespeare was performed in America back in the day.
Shakespeare and the Arts of Language
A key to how Shakespeare’s language does what it does. It covers everything from his poetic rhythms to his rhetorical devices to his love of terrible puns. A little scholarly, but you don’t have to be an expert to get a lot out of this book.