Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Desert Island Shakespeare

Tess says: I asked the tutors for the names of two books about Shakespeare which were important to them. This could be for any number of reasons: perhaps the book first turned us on to Shakespeare, or solved a difficult problem. I thought students might like to know what we admired, and why. The idea is not that you should read them all and then talk about them in your essays as a desperate attempt to get marks, but just to show you the many and very different things which have influenced our thinking about Shakespeare. You'll notice that many of these books are not very new, and have acquired 'classic' status. Perhaps this is the sign of a truly great Shakespeare book? Also notice that at least two of them were not originally written in English, attesting to the huge international importance of Shakespeare and reminding us that English speakers do not have a monopoly on understanding his works.

Tess Grant's choices

Francois Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage  (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

"I've chosen this book because I love ritual, so this is like a fantasy story-book to me as well as a work which makes me understand Shakespeare better. It explores in detail the festivities of early modern England in which Shakespeare was immersed and on which he was drawing when he wrote the plays. It deals with traditions we have now largely lost: the church year, the origins and conventions of Hallowe'en, Twelfth Night, Candlemas...all so important to Shakespeare's original audience. " 

Andrew Murphy, Shakespeare in Print: A History and Chronology of Shakespeare Publishing  (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

"This book tells us about the history of Shakespeare as a publishing phenomenon, right from his own times to the present day. We learn how and why editors hijacked Shakespeare for their own nefarious purposes, and presented Shakespeare and his text as something which was often more a reflection of them and their political views than it was of any 'authentic' text. It makes me laugh to see the lengths editors go to to persuade themselves and others that their Shakespeare is the true one. But it also contains a warning for all editors of early modern texts to consider their own motives." 

Penny freedman's choices:

Russell Jackson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare On Film (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

"I think I am a good theatre-goer but a bad film-goer so I found this book a revelation. A combination of overview and detailed readings of particular films, it informs, surprises and provokes in equal measure, and it sent me back to watch again and watch better."

Robert Smallwood (ed.), Players of Shakespeare 5 (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

"I would like to take the whole of the Players of Shakespeareseries to my desert island but I guess that would be cheating, so I have singled out volume 5, which contains essays full of insight from some of our best actors on their experience of playing major Shakespearean roles, mainly for the RSC. They include Anthony Sher on Leontes and Macbeth, Alexandra Gilbreath on Hermione, Frances de la Tour on Cleopatra, David Tennant on Romeo and Simon Russell Beal on Hamlet." 


Steve Purcell's choices:


Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978; pbk 1987).

"Shakespeare’s plays made sense to his audiences not in and of themselves, but because they utilised recognisable theatrical conventions and traditions. In this detailed and groundbreaking study, Weimann analyses Elizabethan drama’s tension between emerging Renaissance styles and the residual popular traditions of Medieval mystery and morality plays (and indeed folk culture more broadly). Weimann identifies in Shakespeare’s plays a shifting dynamic between representational performance and popular entertainment (as one Elizabethan writer put it, “mingling kings and clowns”). This book is important reading if you are interested in thinking about the theatre’s cultural meanings during the Elizabethan period."


W. B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance (Cambridge Unversity Press, 2003).

 "Where Weimann situated Shakespeare’s plays within their own cultural and dramatic contexts, Worthen considers them in ours. A thought-provoking and influential study of Shakespeare in modern performance, Worthen’s book contrasts what he calls a ‘literary’ approach towards the text – in which all performance choices are supposed to somehow replicate the text – with a ‘performative’ one, which recognises the differences between writing and action. Worthen considers some of the non-literary factors which influence the making of meaning in modern Shakespearean performance, analysing Shakespeare not only as an early modern author, but also as a modern cultural phenomenon. This is essential reading for anyone thinking about modern theatre and its 'fidelity' – or otherwise – to Shakespeare."


Paul Botley's choices:

Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (3rd edn; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

 ‘A meticulous and admirable piece of scholarship, first published in 1987, which attempts to reconstruct the experiences of attending an early modern play. If you want to know where the toilets were, what the groundlings smelled like, or what could happen if you sat in someone else’s chair, this is the book for you. An appendix lists all known playgoers of the period: this collection of 250 names is a useful reminder of just how fragmentary our knowledge of the subject is.’

Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne and their Contemporaries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983).

‘Goldberg’s book is an ambitious attempt to treat the cultural phenomena of the period as a whole. He brings together a very wide range of materials and genres to argue that life at the court of James I was intensely theatrical, and maintains that this courtly context is essential to our understanding of Jacobean drama. He’s always stimulating and provocative, and I thoroughly approve of his methods even when I disagree with his conclusions.’

Paul Prescott's choices:

I very much admire all of the other books, but if I think about what floated my boat as a student, two books spring immediately to mind. In their very different ways these books substantiate Ezra Pound’s dictum that ‘Literature is news that stays news.’


Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary (1961; Methuen, 1968)

Kott described Troilus and Cressida as ‘amazing and modern’ and indeed every chapter of this great book is devoted to the premise that Shakespeare’s plays adumbrate the tragedy and the absurdity of the mid-twentieth century, especially as experienced in societies (such as Kott’s own Poland) repressed by a succession of interchangeable elites. If the readings are dark and unsettling, the style is fresh, direct and liberating, surely one of the reasons why the book has had such a profound influence, especially on theatre and film directors.


Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare: a cultural history from the Restoration to the present (Vintage, 1991)

Gary Taylor’s Shakespeare is always ‘amazing and modern’ because he is constantly being reinvented to suit the prejudices and passions of successive generations. Here, what Shakespeare might have meant is irrelevant; it is we who make meaning by Shakespeare (cf. Terry Hawkes) whose work I’d also want on this rather odd desert island). Taylor leads the reader on an erudite and mischievous excursion through three centuries of cultural fisticuffs in which critics, editors, actors, economists, educators and politicians of all persuasions scrap it out in a futile attempt to prove that their version of Shakespeare – the man and the works – is definitive.

Anyone who reads these two books will see that, on the contrary, our readings of Shakespeare are inherently contingent, always inflected, never pure. That’s the fun (and the futility) of it. The fists still fly. Get stuck in!


Sarah Poynting's Choices:

Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642 (4th ed.; Cambridge University Press, 2009)

This is, perhaps, a rather predictable one to choose; now on its fourth edition (2009; revised and very considerably augmented — I’m going to have to buy yet another copy), Gurr’s book, with his Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, is still an indispensable introduction to the history of early modern theatre(s). He provides essential information not just on all elements of the London stage (acting companies, playhouses, the players themselves, and staging), but on the inescapable business and political relationships in which its practitioners were enmeshed. This is supported by a generous number of illustrations, evidence quoted from contemporary sources, and all manner of entertaining anecdotes; facts are there not just for their own interest, but to convey a sense of what it was like to be there. The implications of small details are teased out: the opening sentence is ‘Hamlet, like any other Shakespearean nobleman, wore his hat indoors’. It’s a fascinating window on the world inhabited by all those involved in Elizabethan, Jacobean (and to a rather lesser extent) Caroline theatre. For a fictional depiction of that world, you might enjoy Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, on the life and death of Christopher Marlowe (not to be read for historical accuracy!), which vividly evokes an atmosphere combining intellectual excitement with terrible brutality.

Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance (1984; University of Illinois Press, pbk. 1987)

Woodbridge introduced me — and many of us — to the querelle des femmes, the early modern literary pamphlet debate on the nature of women. This isn’t a book primarily about Shakespeare, though his plays figure largely in her discussion of the relationship between the debate, the historical position of women, and dramatic representions of them: her section on the character type of the stage misogynist, for example, includes references to Claudio, Benedick, Leonatus, Enobarbus, Hamlet, Troilus… Read alongside Ian Maclean’s rather strange and wonderful The Renaissance Notion of Woman (published in 1980 as a Cambridge monograph on the History of Medicine), Woodbridge’s book gave me my first real insights into a significant context within with to understand the depiction of gender in plays of this period. It still hasn’t been entirely superseded, though its arguments and conclusions have necessarily over the past quarter-century been rendered more complex and ambiguous. There are, of course, any number of critical works specifically on women in Shakespeare with which to follow this up.