I just finished The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Margreta DeGrazia & Stanley Wells, eds.; Cambridge UP, 2010). This medium-sized companion is a good overview of the basics, and would definitely be useful for a school/uni library or on the shelf of any Shakespeare enthusiast. The chapters include a biography of the man by Stephen Greenblatt and a look at the theatres of early modern London by Tiffany Stern, as well as discussions of textual theories and other literary concerns such as Shakespeare’s writing process and how his works came to print. There are chapters on the various genres of the plays, including one on the comedies by Stanley Wells. Discussions of how race, religion, and gender resonate through Shakespeare’s plays are included, as are chapters on Shakespeare and the media, popular culture, global Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in performance. The final chapter is filled with suggestions for further reading and online exploration of Shakespeare in general.
By way of example, in Claire McEachern’s chapter, “Shakespeare, religion and politics,” one section addresses questions of interiority, transformation, and individual action (194-195). The entire chapter is interesting, but I found her short examination of these particular questions especially thought-provoking. When interiority differs from practice, how is this presented on stage? Does performance affect interiority? Do words? Her answers look at Hamlet, Prince Hal, boy actors in female roles, and the dynamic between Iago/Othello, Claudio/Hero, and Rosalind/Orlando. For me, these few paragraphs considering of depth of character as opposed to visual array stood out from the rest of the piece.
The following complete chapters were also standouts (in my humble opinion):
Anthony Dawson, “Shakespeare on the stage” – an interesting look at the physicality inherent in Shakespeare’s texts, such as directed movement, gesture, and stance. He also discusses staging and scenery and how they intersect with the actor and character, as well as how the architecture of the stage contributes to performance.
Jonathan Gil Harris, “Shakespeare and race” – Harris looks at the complexities of race in the texts, how “race” as a word has variable meanings, and its use. His chapter explores “race” in not just Othello, but also examines how it runs through Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice. (I highly recommend this chapter.)
Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare, sexuality and gender” – Orgel examines sexuality as it pertains to maturity, gender identity, and marriage in early modern England and Shakespeare’s plays in particular. His findings are intriguing and surprising, and the chapter is an excellent read. Plays treated by Orgel include Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet; he also presents cultural and medical beliefs from the period, as well as historical anecdote and legend. (This is another I highly recommend.)
Last but not least, the final chapter on further reading is impressive. Page after page is filled with suggestions for further research on everything from the complete works to stage history to music, including books, journals, and online sources. This catalog of information, along with the bibliography provided at the end of each chapter, gives the student or Shakespeare enthusiast a plethora of ways to increase their knowledge (or just skim around for the enjoyment of it). This overall abundance of sources alone is worth the price of the volume.