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Books on the Bard

Colin Butler offers a round-up of his favourites

A-level English literature is now following in the footsteps of key stage 4 by asking for Shakespeare in context, so many English teachers will be wanting to compile their own stock of easy-access literature. A good collected works is indispensable, and, while you can download the entire oeuvre from the internet, I find that the fully illustrated second edition of the Riverside Shakespeare edited by G Blakemore Evans (Houghton Mifflin pound;75) solves a lot of problems. In addition to all the plays and poetry, there is an excellent time-line and a compendium of relevant documents, contemporary notices and early critical comments. So, John Manningham on Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple in 1602, Henry Jackson on The King's Men's Othello at Oxford in 1610 or Simon Forman on Macbeth and The Winter's Tale at the Globe in 1611 - it is all in there.

For textual information and staging, I increasingly use the Arden third series (Nelson pound;6.99-pound;8.99), the Oxford Shakespeare (OUP pound;5.99-pound;6.99) or the New Cambridge Shakespeare (CUP pound;5.95-pound;6.95). Some of the Ardens are distinctly antique, but their footnotes are comprehensive and their back-up material is usually pretty good. For example, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus both include complete relevant sections from North's Plutarch. The Oxford editions come with excellent histories of the texts, and the New Cambridge books, which are still appearing, give useful emphasis to staging. For the sonnets, however, I go first to John Kerrigan's New Penguin Shakespeare edition.

Stagecraft is in at the moment, and the classic tome remains Andrew Gurr's The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642 (CUP pound;17.95). Now in its third edition and highly informative about the public theatres, the halls and performances at Court, it is well-indexed and easy to use. Last year, Gurr (with Mariko Ichikawa) brought out Staging In Shakespeare's Theatres (OUP pound;12.99). Rich in practical detail, it includes a close study of Hamlet in performance.J L Styan's Shakespeare's Stagecraft (CUP pound;19.95), 30 years old, is still worth having. And the illustrator-extraordinary, C Walter Hodges, has compiled his New Cambridge drawings of Shakespearean stagings in Enter The Whole Army (CUP pound;40). A browser's joy, these masterly pen-and-inks offer many useful hints on how key scenes might have been staged by Shakespeare's troupe.

As for lives of the Bard, S Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (OUP pound;10.95) is as good as any: it wears its scholarship lightly, and its index is efficient. But 1998 saw Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life (OUP pound;11.99) appear, and I like it a lot. It is clear, informative and a good read. Like Schoenbaum, Honan keeps legend and fact well separated. There is also Andrew Gurr's The Extraordinary Life Of The Most Successful Writer Of All Time (now out of print, so try libraries) with 300 colour photographs of how it all might have been.

Shakespeare used a lot of words unfamiliar to us, so an early port of call for me is often Alexander Schmidt's Shakespeare Lexicon And Quotation Dictionary, a venerable and highly reliable two-volume Dover paperback (pound;17.95) that promises "every word defined and located" and "more than 50,000 quotations identified" (third edition, enlarged by G Sarrazffi).

Then there is C T Onions' A Shakespeare Glossary (OUP pound;12.99) and, for the naughty words, Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy (Routledge pound;13.50). Buy it and say farewell to innocence. Frank Kermode's recent Shakespeare's Language (Allen LanePenguin pound;7.99) includes text-specific linguistic studies of Hamlet and the great later plays.

Francois Laroque's Shakespeare's Festive World (CUP pound;20.95) is full of information about Elizabethan and Jacobean seasonal and religious festivals; and The English Review continues to be strong on A-level Shakespeare (tel: 01869 338652, subscription pound;19.95 four issues a year).

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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