Reading Shakespeare is written for anyone studying William Shakespeare or simply reading some part of his work. It addresses Shakespeare and his writing career as directly as it can. Yet he is not a simple writer, and aspects of his work are no longer familiar. He wrote in verse, the normal medium for plays in his day, and verse was expected to display a certain eloquence, though Shakespeare soon varied his style, and also introduced prose. English itself has changed over four centuries, making some features of Elizabethan English unfamiliar; yet we can understand Shakespeare’s adventurous language and read it with enjoyment. Human lives have also changed a great deal in these centuries, as have our ideas of human nature; but Shakespeare’s understanding of life remains strikingly valuable. This human understanding was what Samuel Johnson valued most in him. Dr Johnson’s conclusion, in the Preface to his edition of the plays of Shakespeare, was that from reading his work ‘a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions’. Few hermits or confessors will pick up this book, but many contemporary readers are able to say that some of their most pleasant and vivid learning about the possibilities of human life has come to them through their experience of Shakespeare’s plays.
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Prof. Michael Alexander
- Macmillan Education UK
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