|William Shakespeare has been given more titles than can be counted: The best British Playwright, most influential English author, most accomplished author in history, best writer in the history of the English language, the best writer ever, the list goes on. Shakespeare also has the reputation of being rather thick, wordy, sesquipedalian, and just plain hard to understand. There are plenty of dictionaries, lexicons, and other books for dummies on Shakespeare that have been written to help the average person understand the greatest of playwrights. But boring teachers in schools across the world are continually giving students the impression that you have to be a genius to fully understand and appreciate Shakespeare.
Isaac Asimov shows us that one must only be a genius to single-handedly write a book that can really help people really understand what is really going on in the many works of William Shakespeare. And he does it quite nicely.
This book is not a bunch of footnotes put together. It is not entirely composed of word definitions, translations of the text to modern English, and not a summary. It is, as we are told in the title, a guide. Just as a tour guide walks us safely along the path explaining and educating, so too does Asimov with the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays and even a couple of his poems.
In the introduction Asimov reminds the reader that Shakespeare, although a writer “for all time,” was initially writing for an Elizabethan audience. The history, mythology, and other knowledge is what he was writing about. “Any yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?” And through the course of the rest of the book Isaac Asimov lets the reader know much more of what the writing was about – leading to greater enjoyment. Much greater. This reviewer, in fact, nearly leaped for joy after reading the chapter on Hamlet. A play regarded by many as Shakespeare’s greatest and most complex writing is made crystal clear. Each play is put into historical context, obscure passages and references are explained, and enjoyment of these plays increase exponentially.
The books can be used two ways. Primarily, a guide through the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays to be read from cover to cover. A tour guide requires you to be on the same path they are on, so if you haven’t read a play some of the chapter on that work might not be as helpful as it could be. The book can also be a reference. Each chapter need not be read in order. Each applies to a specific play, so during or after the reading of any play you may reference the appropriate chapter. Either way, be sure to read the introduction!
There’s a lot that can be said for this book, but in the end it really speaks for itself. Isaac Asimov doesn’t just prove his immense knowledge of Shakespeare’s language and history, but that once you know a thing or two about what The Bard is talking about you will have an appreciation for the plays. This work is strongly recommended to teachers and students of Shakespearean works both in the fields of Theatre and Literature. With Isaac Asimov as your guide you will truly find that William Shakespeare is a writer “for all time.”