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The Infinite Variety: Books on the Bard

Posted on 25th April 2016 by Waterstones
A curated selection of some of the best Shakespeare books available on Waterstones' shelves.

Shakespeare occupies an interesting presence in the Waterstones universe. Most branches will carry one or two alternative versions of the text – i.e. the forever struggle between the Oxford Shakespeare and the Penguin, both equally valid but both enjoying their respective champions – but these are generally outnumbered by the vast array of books on the works themselves. From standard, nuts-and-bolts titles on Shakespearean stagecraft through to the most gloriously erudite dissections of his legacy, the publishing around both Shakespeare and his plays is rather vast.

Any listing of highlights can only hope to scratch the surface, but the following is representative of why books on the playwright are experiencing their own kind of renaissance, really exploiting the shortcomings of the internet in presenting proper depth and context. 

Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary – David Crystal and Ben Crystal 

As a figure synonymous with the power of language, David Crystal is surely the perfect candidate to pen probably the ultimate (but entirely approachable) lexicographic breakdown of Shakespeare’s language.

Crystal was heavily involved with a programme of ‘Original Pronunciation’ at Shakespeare’s Globe in the mid-2000s and has continued to work as a consultant at the same theatre for many productions since. In addition, The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary rather nicely combines an academic eye with the dramatic, with his collaborative son Ben an accomplished actor in his own right.

This is one of those books that is a small revelation on every page, utterly absorbing and a steal at £12.99.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts by Gordon McMullan and Zoe Wilcox

Like the Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary, the sumptuous Shakespeare in Ten Acts does what only books can; just a joy to flip through, with the kind of photographic presentation that the internet just cannot rival.

Based squarely on the British Library’s exhibition of the same name which was launched a week last Friday, this volume offers stunning access to one of the world’s great Shakespearean archives, supported by a chapter apiece from ten of the world’s most regarded scholars on the subject. Acting as editors are Gordon McMullan, director of the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London, and Zoe Wilcox, lead curator.

At £25, this is another book that offers both solid value and forms a lasting record of an outstanding exhibition.

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard by Ben Crystal 

Not to be outdone by his father, Ben Crystal’s solo contribution to this list shines as the perfect passport to Shakespeare’s universe. Careful to contextualise the Bard’s language to the times the works were written, at every turn Crystal provides insight after insight that strips away much of the apparently arcane mystery of the text.

Shakespeare on Toast first saw print around eight years ago. In the wake of 2016’s celebrations, the book has been rather nicely spruced up with three supplementary chapters, additional notes and so on, providing a veritable Rosetta Stone toward interpreting the texts overall.

Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor 

Neil MacGregor (until recently, Director of the British Museum) here turns to the same alchemy he deployed for his previous publishing blockbuster A History of the World in 100 Objects, alighting on twenty items that have something to say about the times for which Shakespeare wrote.

The array is pleasingly wide-ranging: the famous Robben Island Bible, for instance, a copy of the Complete Works signed by thirty-two political prisoners during incarceration, including Nelson Mandela; a slightly macabre reliquary which contains the right eye of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, Roman Catholic martyr; and Doctor John Dee’s obsidian scrivening mirror, an object at the heart of his occult practice.

Together these objects provide the spine for MacGregor’s searching, magpie-like enquiry, revealing a torrent of fact and detail behind the stories that drove Shakespeare’s narrative. Hugely rewarding and one of our top-selling titles on the playwright this year.


Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries by Antony Sher

Perhaps the only people that genuinely experience the true power of Shakespeare are the performers who transform into the characters he sculpted. Some thirty years ago, Antony Sher wrote the greatest account yet of that transformation in Year of the King, his gripping diary of realising Richard III for the stage. Here Sher faces a very different challenge – the Falstaff of Henry IV. Like its predecessor, Year of the Fat Knight charts the actor’s approach to the role, beginning with the rudiments of research through to the final, hugely complex task of bringing his Falstaff to life within the environs of the RSC.

Memorable in Year of the King was the virtual by-product of Sher’s creative process – a myriad of sketches and paintings, the external evidence of the leaping thoughts within. Pleasingly, Year of the Fat Knight is populated by precisely the same method and once again Sher’s intelligence and candid honesty carries the day.

The breadth of titles available is a gift to Booksellers and certainly some of our larger branches have the resource to take associations to the next level, such as the displays assembled below by bookseller Claire Salisbury at our northern flagship branch Manchester Deansgate.

Here Claire has curated a number of novels which have a certain association with the play they are featured alongside. For instance, here we have the parallel themes of enchantment, surrender and delusion present in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Iris Murdoch’s The Flight of the Enchanter; prophecy and blind will at any cost fuel both Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Shakespeare’s Macbeth; whilst Juggling by Barbara Trapido artfully mirrors the arch comedic devices of Twelfth Night to present a gloriously bubbling  portrait of family and friendship.

Not every Waterstones has the scale of somewhere like Manchester Deansgate but all of our shops offer a gateway to really getting more out of Shakespeare's writing in this special anniversary year. 


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