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About this book

An essential introductory text that provides students with a lively and enjoyable tour of Shakespeare's life, his writing career and the theatre of his time. Concise yet comprehensive, the guide examines the texts of twenty widely-studied plays, and the Sonnets, illuminating both their original contexts and their later reception. Lucidly written, with no jargon, this is an invaluable overview of Shakespeare's life and works for students who may be studying Shakespeare for the first time.

This is an ideal set text for modules on Shakespeare, Jacobean Drama or Renaissance/ Early Modern Literature which may be offered at all levels of an undergraduate Literature degree. In addition it is a helpful resource for students who may be studying Shakespeare’s plays as part of a taught postgraduate degree in Literature.

Table of Contents

1. First Things

Abstract
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.
Michael Alexander

2. The Recorded Life

Abstract
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.
Michael Alexander

3. Plays, Player, Playwright

Abstract
The first substantial public playhouse in Britain since Roman times was built in 1576. Its name, the Theatre, invoked classic precedent, though it was a wooden playhouse, not a marble theatre. The builder was James Burbage, a joiner or carpenter. His new Theatre stood in Shoreditch, north of the walls and outside the regulatory powers of the City of London. Its timbers were to be taken down in 1599 by the Chamberlains Men and re-erected as the Globe, a new playhouse on Bankside, south of the City and of the river Thames.
Michael Alexander

4. Poetic Dramatist

Abstract
If Shakespeare had died in the plague of 1594 at the age of 30, his name would be that of a promising playwright who had achieved less than Marlowe. However, the four plays he wrote for the reopened theatres are less crude, more conscious; their writing and shaping more careful and consistent. He had completed two accomplished long poems, and the new plays have richer poetic dimensions than their predecessors. Indeed, these four plays are sometimes called, for want of a better term, lyrical.
Michael Alexander

5. Histories

Abstract
Shakespeare is sometimes said to have invented the history play, but it is truer to say that he brought a new and simple genre to a high state of perfection. This is not to belittle his Greek and Roman histories (classed in the Folio as tragedies), but there had been such classical plays before. Shakespeare wrote ten English histories in all, listed in the Folio in the order of the reigns of the kings in their titles. The reign order was not the order of composition. The first tetralogy was written in 1590-3, in order of composition: 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.
Michael Alexander

6. The Merchant of Venice and the Whirligig of Time

Abstract
This play appeared in print in 1600, with a title page reading The most Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the Extreame Cruelty of Shylocke the Iew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just Pound of his flesh: And the obtaining of Portia, by choyse of three Chests. Written by W. Shakespeare. On the next leaf, the plays story is introduced not as most Excellent but as comicall. History has since made its story less comical, which is the reason the play receives extended attention here.
Michael Alexander

7. To the Globe

Abstract
Drama needs some conflict, and the conflict in Much Ado About Nothing can be uncomfortable, if not in the same way as in The Merchant of Venice. Much Ado lacks the poetry of most of Shakespeare’s comedies of love, but it is an effective stage play, with a fine central role for Beatrice. The situation of a couple mutually attracted but each accustomed to dominate in conversation is ideal for the stage, and the play is well constructed. Yet the devices by which their friends and Shakespeare bring Beatrice and Benedick together are mechanical; their brilliant wit contests can now seem laboured; and the humour of Dogberry and his associates, though simple, is often unretrievable. The play is predominantly in a ‘realistic’ prose undiversified by the music and other charms of verse that enrich As You Like It and Twelfth Night, plays.
Michael Alexander

8. Hamlet and Horatio’s Question

Abstract
The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the most varied and complex of Shakespeares plays, seems to have been a hit. It travelled far from the boards of the Globe. Two different printed versions soon appeared, and English players took the play to Germany. Hamlet is revived more often than any other play, re appearing on the stages and in the literatures of the world. Generations have read, performed, watched and quoted from Hamlet. Indeed the play has become so familiar in the Englishspeaking world that its reappearances in later literature are often unserious, as for example in Mr Wopsles comically inept performance in Great Expectations. 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.
Michael Alexander

9. Taken to Extremes

Abstract
‘Comedy’, ‘history’ and ‘tragedy’ are useful terms. They enable the simple generalisation that Shakespeare began mostly with comedy and history, came later to tragedy and returned to comedy. But for those studying Shakespeare’s 39 surviving plays at closer range, three categories are not enough. Polonius over classifies, but classification has its uses. The present book has already found it helpful to mention Senecan tragedy, revenge tragedy, the tragedy of blood, romance comedy and love comedy. Chronology offers further groupings: the later comedies are often called the ‘late romances’, a term preferable to the ‘last plays’, since although they were Shakespeare’s last single-handed pieces, he collaborated on three further plays. During the nineteenth century a rough order of composition of Shakespeare’s plays became clear enough for its stages to be made out.
Michael Alexander

10. Tragedies

Abstract
Each of the four greater tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, ends with the death of the protagonist, but they are not very like each other. One difference is in how far the protagonist is responsible for his situation. Hamlet begins with a good man in a bad place from which there is no good way out, a humanist prince in a Gothic prison. In the other plays a pronounced mismatch exists or soon develops between an admired leader and a time which is out of joint. Othello is the victim of intrigue and calumny. In the Britain of King Lear, innocence has to go into exile or disguise if it is to survive; yet it was Lear himself who foolishly opened the box of evils. Macbeths tragedy is almost entirely of his own making: on a hint from the Weird Sisters, and egged on by his wife, a general murders his king and disjoints a whole country.
Michael Alexander

11. Late Romances

Abstract
These plays mark a decided change of tack from the series of tragedies which ends with Coriolanus. The first of them, Pericles, written in collaboration with George Wilkins, survives only in a poor and pirated copy. Omitted from the First Folio, it was dismissed by Ben Jonson as ‘a mouldy tale’. It would not appeal to Jonson’s classical taste, for it is a popular story of an old-fashioned kind, a romance derived from Apollonius of Tyre, of the third century, late in the Hellenistic period of Greek literature, one often recycled in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare relies on a version by Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, and the play has a Prologue spoken by Gower in a medieval kind of English verse, a signal to the audience to expect an old-fashioned romance. He changes the name of the King of Tyre from Apollonius to Pericles, a name he found in a modern ‘Greek’ pastoral romance, Sidney’s Arcadia (the source also of the Gloucester subplot to King Lear).
Michael Alexander

12. Retrospect

Abstract
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.
Michael Alexander
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