Shakespeare 400th anniversary: 6 best books

From the wealth of new and reissued publications celebrating the Bard, we select the most enlightening reads

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The Independent Online

This year sees the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616. There are a huge number of publications celebrating the Bard’s life and works, from new biographies and studies of the playwright’s global influence to pocket-sized primers of his most influential works. We’ve read our way through a number – both new titles and the best reissued books – to bring you a selection that celebrates his diverse legacy. There should be something on this list to inform both Shakespeare aficionados and newcomers to the oeuvre. Happy reading. 

1. The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate: Picador, £9.99

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The author and editor of several acclaimed Shakespeare books, Jonathan Bate is one of the foremost authorities today on the Bard’s life and works. Reprinted with a new cover for 2016, this is by turns a biography, a history, a polemic and a eulogy. Few books give as comprehensive a portrait of Shakespeare: the man, the works, his language, his intentions, his anxieties and his rivals are all covered as components of his legacy. It's fluidly written, moving effortlessly from a discussion of Shakespeare’s sexuality to a rant against the authorship sceptics, for example. This one is a must-read for those who really want to get under the skin of Shakespeare.  

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2. Shakespeare’s Binding Language by John Kerrigan: £35, Oxford University Press

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Shakespeare’s Binding Language is among the most imaginative books on Shakespeare to be published this year. John Kerrigan, an English professor at the University of Cambridge, identifies all the oaths and vows sworn between Shakespeare’s characters, and how these promises affect the characters' interactions in the plays. Kerrigan deftly moves from the toothless vows of the comedies – ‘swearing in jest’ – to the sinister vows of vengeance in the histories and tragedies (Othello promises revenge on Cassio and Desdemona with ‘the due reverence of a sacred vow’). Kerrigan’s view of Shakespeare’s characters as bound in a tangle of conflicting promises is a unique and refreshing view.

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3. Shakespeare in Swahililand: Adventures with the Ever-Living Poet by Edward Wilson-Lee: £20, Harper Collins

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Cambridge professor Edward Wilson-Lee’s half-history, half-travel book takes Shakespeare out of England and into the jungles, savannahs and bustling city streets of East and Central Africa. Wilson-Lee takes the region country by country, exploring Shakespeare’s ever-changing legacy. Through his travel and studies, Wilson-Lee encounters a myriad of memorable characters, such as a Macbeth-quoting street vendor in Luxor, or Julius Nyerere, the first Tanzanian president, studiously translating Julius Caesar through the racket of independence. The Shakespeare Wilson-Lee finds in Africa is one entirely unfamiliar to him: a Shakespeare at sea, a Shakespeare in the jungle, a ‘Shakespeare in Colonial Trousers’. As he writes in his conclusion: "the Shakespeare made in Africa has come to replace the one taken there".

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4. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro: £9.99, Faber & Faber

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For 2016, we get the sequel to James Shapiro’s excellent 2005 history book, 1599. In 1606, Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University, chronicles what he describes as Shakespeare’s most creative year – the year not only of King Lear, but also Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. Shapiro delves into the tumult of England in 1605/06, years blighted by plague and political conspiracy, to show the reader how certain events influenced the composition of these three tragedies. In King Lear, Shapiro finds a King James anxious about the unity of his kingdom. In Macbeth, he identifies the spectre of the narrowly-thwarted Gunpowder Plot. 1606 is a fascinating study of these three great tragedies and the Jacobean backdrop that shaped them.

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5. Shakespeare in Ten Acts by Gordon McMullan and Zoe Wilcox: £40, The British Library

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Accompanying the eponymous British Library exhibition starting this month, Shakespeare in Ten Acts gives the reader a glimpse into the history of the Shakespeare performance. From Richard Burbage, the first ever Hamlet, in 1601, to last year’s cinematic adaptation of Macbeth, this book is a rich account of the challenges of staging Shakespeare in different times. It takes a chronological format, covering the past four centuries. Writers identify key moments in the history of Shakespeare performance, such as the first woman to play Desdemona – an anonymous actress in 1660 – or the first black Othello, Ira Aldridge in 1833. The result is a captivating portrait of the ever-changing Shakespearean stage.

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6. The Bard in Brief: Shakespeare in Quotations by Hannah Manktelow: £10, The British Library

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Also accompanying the British Library’s exhibition is The Bard in Brief. It’s a small book, about 100 pages, exhibiting some of the handiwork for which the writer is famed. It includes soliloquies, sonnets and other famous passages in the Shakespearean oeuvre. With a short description of context attached to each snippet of Shakespeare, this is a perfect book for blagging some last-minute knowledge before 23 April. 

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Verdict

Dozens of excellent and original books have been, and still are being, published this year – but the most impressive books in this list are without a doubt The Genius of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Binding Language. Though somewhat formidable, these are books for readers who really want to know Shakespeare and his writing and why, four centuries on, he won’t go away. Bate perfectly captures Shakespeare’s imperishable allure with an Auden quote: "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living". The wealth and quality of the Shakespeare literature emerging this year shows that the Bard’s legacy is in good hands.

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