The Bard at 450 | Collection Development


As we approach William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, our fascination with his life and work shows no sign of fading. Each year brings new biographies, revised editions of the plays and poems, and books promising to make his creations easier for readers encountering them for the first time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there are enough books about Shakespeare to fill an entire library. Readers and librarians alike are justified in feeling overwhelmed.

There is no such thing as an official or definitive edition of the Shakespearean canon; his works are subject to endless analysis and interpretation as criticism changes to reflect current trends in academic writing and research. Authors, like actors and directors, continue to find ways to make the Bard’s works relevant to modern life. With few surviving documents to tell us the facts of the man’s life, authors rely on Shakespeare studies to describe the world in which he lived.

For example, many biographies talk about the grammar school in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is likely where he received his early education, but there is no definitive evidence that he ever attended. Because there is not a standard biography, every few years new works promise to reveal or explain fresh aspects of his ­experience.

Your library’s collection

When considering how to proceed, libraries should provide a selection of accessible, up-to-date titles by and about Shakespeare. Nearly all of the books listed here include notes and bibliographies, making them solid starting places for further exploration.

Every library should have at least one copy of the collected works, but there’s no need to buy every new edition of the plays. While there are changes in editorial approaches, materials published in the last 15–20 years qualify as up-to-date. Most libraries will also want to have individual circulating copies of the most commonly studied and performed titles, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry IV Part I, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and the sonnets.

It’s a good idea to have at least two biographies. A good mix will include one full-length scholarly work that examines the author’s life and times and one necessarily shorter, “just the facts” version. Carry a title about the authorship controversy; the idea that there was (and remains) a conspiracy to conceal a secret author of Shakespeare’s plays has a hold on the popular imagination.

There are no obvious rules for weeding a Shakespeare collection. Readers will likely be interested in recent books, which will contain contemporary references and illustrations, but there is no reason to discard older editions if they continue to circulate.

A public library collection needs to serve a wide range of users, from high school students encountering the plays for the first time to longtime fans (or bardolaters) in search of the latest biography or critical study. Several of the books included here are by noted scholars but written for general audiences and thus will appeal to both new and experienced readers of ­Shakespeare.

Avoid simplified editions

A subset of the Shakespeare publishing industry is devoted to books marketed with the promise of making Shakespeare easy to understand. However, these rarely deliver on their promise. Readers will be much better served by the summaries that accompany the plays and by the shorter reference works, biographies, and introductions listed below, all of which are written to help readers find their way through Shakespeare and to understand not just what’s happening in the plays and poems but why they’ve remained popular and relevant for more than 400 years.

Starred titles (redstar) are essential for most collections.

Reference companions

handbookredstarDunton-Downer, Leslie & Alan Riding. Essential Shakespeare Handbook. DK. 2013. 480p. illus. ISBN 9781465402264. pap. $19.95.

Character and plot summaries for every Shakespeare play and a few short guides to his life and times fill this visually appealing volume. The rich illustrations include original documents and engravings and photographs from stage and film adaptations. This simple, colorful handbook is a perfect companion to the playwright’s complete works. (LJ 8/04)

oxfordredstarWells, Stanley & Michael Dobson. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford Univ. 2009. 541p. illus. ISBN 9780192806147. pap. $39.95.

An essential reference work, this dictionary-style collection of entries on topics related to Shakespeare includes actors, directors, theater companies, critics, contemporaries, and themes, with longer articles on each of the plays and poems. (LJ 10/15/01)

Collected works

The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works. rev. ed. Bloomsbury. 2011. 1392p. ed. by Richard Proudfoot & others. ISBN 9781408152010. pap. $30.

The Arden Shakespeare is the most visually pleasing modern edition of the collected works. By dispensing with in-page footnotes, the editors are able to deliver the text in a clear, well-spaced layout that is easy to follow.

pelicanredstarThe Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Penguin. 2002. 1808p. ed. by Stephen Orgul &

A.R. Braunmuller. ISBN 9780141000589. $70.

This work opens with short chapters about the theater, a biography, and a note on how the texts were compiled. There is a summary of each of the plays; the text is lucid and legible, with extensive footnotes.

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. 2d ed. Oxford Univ. 2005. 1344p. ed. by Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor. ISBN 9780199267170. $40.

The editors draw largely from the earliest printed versions of the plays in an effort to produce an edition that is as close as possible to the originals as they would have appeared in the theater and include updated stage directions. With introductory essays, summaries of each play, and a glossary. (LJ 7/05)

Introductions to the Bard

Crystal, Ben. Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard. Icon. 2010. 272p. ISBN 9781848310544. pap. $15.95.

Drawing on his experience as a Shakespearean actor, Crystal offers an irreverent and illuminating look at the Bard’s language. He reveals how actors examine the poetic structure of the plays for clues about how to present them and provides an insightful guide to reading Shakespeare that will appeal to all readers.

talesLamb, Charles & Mary Lamb. Tales from Shakespeare. Puffin. 2010. 448p. ISBN 9780141321684. pap. $4.99.

While dated in many aspects, these stories remain excellent introductions for readers of all ages engaging with Shakespeare for the first time. Originally published in 1807, the Lambs’ work summarizes the plots of the most popular plays in a narrative form that is reminiscent of fairy tales.

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors. Vintage. 2013. 528p. ed. by Susannah Carson. ISBN 9780307742919. pap. $16.

Prominent actors and authors, for example, Joyce Carol Oates, James Franco, James Earl Jones, and Ralph ­Fiennes, talk about the influence of Shakespeare on their lives and careers. (LJ 3/1/13)


stageredstarBryson, Bill. Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Harper. (Eminent Lives). 2008. 208p. ISBN 9780061673696. pap. $13.99.

In this short introduction, Bryson’s investigation of the known elements of Shakespeare’s life is combined with details about Elizabethan England, all in lively, readable prose.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Norton. 2005. 448p. ISBN 9780393327373. pap. $16.95.

Greenblatt approaches Shakespeare’s biography by drawing clues from existing documents and the published plays. He poses interesting theories about Shakespeare’s “lost years,” potential ties to Catholicism, and relationships with other playwrights in an engaging, very readable book. (LJ 8/04)

worldredstarMacGregor, Neil. Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects. Viking. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780670026340. $36.

British Museum director MacGregor looks closely at 20 objects that typify private and political life in England during the time Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, accompanying his descriptions with many colorful illustrations. This approach brings the reader closer to Shakespeare’s audience by looking at their thoughts about Queen Elizabeth, their fear of the plague, the weapons they carried, and even what they ate at the theater.

Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street. Penguin. 1999. 416p. ISBN 9780143114628. pap. $20.

In 1612, Shakespeare testified in a court case involving other residents of the boarding house in which he lived. Beginning with this rare documentary evidence of Shakespeare’s personal life, ­Nicholl dives into the details of the case, describing the other lodgers and the surrounding world of early 17th-century London, from its homeowners and tradesmen to its thieves and prostitutes. While often more a portrait of London than a biography of Shakespeare, this compelling book offers a great array of details about life in the city.

1599Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Harper. 2006. 432p. ISBN 9780060088743. pap. $14.99.

This “biography of a year” looks at England at a time when Shakespeare was writing and performing some of his most memorable works. Shapiro fills biographical gaps by delving into evocative details of social, political, and artistic life in London in 1599. (LJ 9/15/05)

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: For All Time. Oxford Univ. (Shakespeare). 2003. 480p. illus. ISBN 9780195160932. $99.

Shakespeare scholar Wells creates sketches of the playwright’s life by examining artifacts and documents. Chapters study the growth of his reputation from that of a popular London playwright to the most renowned author in the world. Color photographs and illustrations make this a particularly helpful resource. (LJ 1/03)

Play Series

The citations given here are only for Hamlet, however, the reviews apply to the entire series. Both publishers sell many of Shakespeare’s plays as individual editions.

hamletredstarShakespeare, William. Hamlet. S. & S. (Folger Shakespeare Lib.). 2012. 432p. ed. by Barbara A. Mowat & Paul Werstine. ISBN 9781451669411. pap. $9.95.

For individual plays, these editions are appealing in their presentation of easy-to-read text with footnotes on alternate pages, next to the text, instead of buried in small print at the bottom of every page. The notes are precise and often feature contemporary illustrations. Supplemental essays convey modern perspectives on the plays, which are likely to be of interest to students.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Modern Library. (RSC Shakespeare). 2008. 272p. ed. by Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen. ISBN 9780812969092. pap. $8.

In addition to reliable text and distinct notes, the “Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Shakespeare” editions include a useful scene-by-scene analysis as well as a helpful review of the play in performance, primarily looking at past RSC stagings. These notes will be of interest to all readers but especially to students and others acting in a Shakespeare play.


sonnetsredstarShakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems. S. & S. (Folger Shakespeare Lib.). 2006. 704p. ed. by Barbara A. Mowat & Paul Werstine. ISBN 9780743273282. pap. $13.95.

Presented with helpful annotations and short explanatory essays, the sonnets are accompanied by a short summary and glossary on the facing page so that the poem itself is footnote free. Essays address the possible biographical nature of the poems and place them in the context of other similar works addressed to wealthy patrons.


Bate, Jonathan. Genius of Shakespeare. Oxford Univ. 2008. 432p. ISBN 9780195372991. pap. $24.95.

Bate examines the history of Shakespeare’s reputation in an attempt to discover and explain the enduring nature of his work. This look at the very idea of literary genius is recommended for readers who have been moved by Shakespeare’s poems and plays and are trying to understand why. (LJ 4/1/98)

humanBloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead. 1999. 768p. ISBN 9781573227513. pap. $25.

Literary scholar/critic Bloom devotes an essay to each of the plays on the idea that Shakespeare’s work is responsible for our conception of what it means to be human. His focus on character traits that make up Shakespeare’s greatest creations (Hamlet, Falstaff, Rosalind, Iago, and Cleopatra, among others) welcomes new readers.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. Anchor. 2005. 1008p. ISBN 9780385722148. pap. $23.

Garber looks at the universality of Shakespeare with commentaries based on classes delivered at Harvard; contains analyses of the text and major themes in each of the plays. (LJ 12/04)

shakespeareredstarVan Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. NYRB Classics. 2005. 336p. ISBN 9781590171684. pap. $15.95.

Published in 1939, this essay collection is recommended for readers who, having just read or seen one of Shakespeare’s plays, are in search of a short but thoughtful ­interpretation.

Who was Shakespeare?

Michell, John. Who Wrote Shakespeare? Thames & Hudson. 1999. 274p. ISBN 9780500281130. pap. $24.95.

Michell’s survey of the authorship debate looks at the evidence against William Shakespeare and discusses the cases for Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford, among others, as the true authors of the plays and poems. While not as thorough as James Shapiro’s Contested Will (below), this favors the anti-Stratfordian view and will appeal to readers who may have already made up their minds that William Shakespeare did not write the works that appear under his name.

contestedredstarShapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? S. & S. 2010. 352p. ISBN 9781416541624. $26.

This engaging and fair history of the Shakespeare authorship debate examines the cases for Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true authors of the plays and provides a fascinating look at some of the most prominent anti-Stratfordians, including Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller.


Last Will & Testament. color. 85 min. First Folio Pictures,, dist. by PBS, 2013. DVD ISBN 9781608839841. $24.99. SDH subtitles.

This compelling documentary on the authorship question intermixes interviews with historical re-creations of Elizabethan England from the movie Anonymous. The first half examines the case for William Shakespeare as author, the second argues that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true writer of the plays.

kingsredstarShakespeare: The King’s Man. 2 discs. color. 177+ min. Athena Learning. 2013. DVD ISBN 9781598289619. $39.99. SDH subtitles.

Hosted by James Shapiro (1599; Contested Will), this documentary looks at the early years of the reign of King James I and the influence of the changing political scene on the later plays of Shakespeare. Interspersed with scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions of plays including Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest, and Measure for Measure, the documentary is both entertaining and effective in portraying the dramatic changes that came to England with the coronation of the new king.

uncoveredredstarShakespeare Uncovered. 2 discs. color. 360 min. Blakeway Prods., 116 Films, & THIRTEEN in assoc. with Shakespeare’s Globe, dist. by PBS, 2013. DVD ISBN 9781608838530. $34.99. SDH subtitles.

In each episode of this series, a well-known actor or director hosts an entertaining and easy-to-follow examination of Macbeth, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, Hamlet, and The Tempest, discussing each play’s plot, history, and interpretation. Scenes from modern and older versions of the scripts provide examples, which are expanded upon by interviews with directors and scholars. Highly recommended for students, as well as for anyone who enjoys or wants to learn more about Shakespeare’s plays.

Web Resources

Folger Shakespeare Library

The website of the Folger Shakespeare Library contains an accessible and authoritative collection of resources about Shakespeare, including a short biography, summaries of the plays, and images of many of the works, including the First Folio, as they were originally printed. The website includes sections devoted to students, families, and K–12 teachers.

MIT Shakespeare

Started in 1993, this online guide remains a reliable resource for readers interested only in a simple, cogent copy of the full text of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet

Despite its outdated appearance, this site houses an impressive and comprehensive collection of links to online resources about Shakespeare and his works.


appredstarShakespeare. Free; Shakespeare Pro. $9.99. Readdle

iOS apps available for iPhone and iPad

These apps offer a terrific user experience for readers who want the convenience of having Shakespeare’s works at their fingertips. The free Shakespeare app includes the full text of all of the plays and poems in a clear, easy-to-read presentation. The Shakespeare Pro version is a full-fledged reference work, including, in addition to the plays and poems, a short biography of Shakespeare, a glossary, portraits, and well-known quotes.

The Sonnets. Touch Pr. $13.99

iOS app for iPad

Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets come to life in this stylish, immersive app. Users can follow along with the text while watching a video of each sonnet as read by an experienced Shakespearean actor or actress. Additional features include notes on the sonnets from the Arden Shakespeare, images of each page of the original 1609 printing, and video and text of noted Shakespeare scholars discussing the poems. For students as well as experienced readers of ­Shakespeare.n

Nicholas Graham has been working in special collections and digital libraries for the past 15 years, holding positions at the University of Georgia, MIT, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is currently Program Coordinator for the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center






To submit titles (new and/or backlist), contact Barbara Genco four to six months before issue dates listed above (email:

SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!


  1. Ann Zakelj says:

    A round of applause for this collection of Shakespeare-related literature, truly some of the best there is from the orthodox point of view. If I may be so bold as to suggest two more, both from the perspective of alternative authorship: Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He? – The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon, and Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare By Another Name, The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare.