The recently published Arden Guide provides a clear and interesting introduction to fourteen of Shakespeare’s major works. Those considered are not necessarily his most famous works, although classics such as Macbeth and Hamlet are included. The aim is to aid English Literature students in the transition between A-level and university teaching by introducing new ways of thinking that an undergraduate course demands. The fourteen chapters are neatly split into sub-sections tackling a different aspect of the play: discussions of different interpretations, the socio-historical context in which the play is set, deconstruction of Shakespeare’s language, and a focus on one particular performance.
The Essential Shakespeare is consistently clear and concise. Explanations of occasionally complex literary theories are especially helpful, as the guide gives a clear definition before explaining how ideas relate to the relevant text, instead of expecting the reader to understand the theories purely as an idea.
The cross-reference of texts is useful and a welcome inclusion, rather than simply looking at one play in isolation. The range of critics included, from past and present, enables readers to consider how attitudes to the plays have changed over time. Critical readings are also taken into consideration as historical context, as are attitudes and events of the time in which Shakespeare was writing, which in some cases adds a completely new dimension to a play.
A personal highlight is having a section of each chapter devoted to the analysis of a production of the play; film is included, catering to those who prefer to be directed to a place in which it’s possible to actually watch directors’ and actors’ visions of the play, rather than reading about a past stage production.
One small inconvenience of the Arden Guide is that it lacks a short explanation of the plot of the play at the beginning of the relevant section. For example, it’s difficult to follow some of the theories etc being discussed in one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, such as Cymbeline, when the plot is unfamiliar. However, ultimately the Essential Shakespeare is suitably relevant and academic whilst still being accessible and extremely useful for anyone studying Shakespeare’s plays.