The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith

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The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith

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Category: Reference
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Clearly laid out, well written and beautifully succinct guide to Shakespeare's plays and poems - ideal for school students or theatre-goers daunted by the challenge of the Bard.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 258 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9780521149723

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Does the world need another guide to Shakespeare's plays? There are plenty about and students these days have the added resource of the Internet to get the basics. However, if it does, then this is as good as any you will find. It's nicely written and beautifully clear and above all, succinct. In fact I'm doing a disservice to Emma Smith already by terming it a guide to his plays, because she also includes the poems and sonnets.

Each work (ie play or poem) is given its own brief chapter, ordered alphabetically. Some key facts are given such as number of lines etc, and then there is a brief outline of the plot and characters, usually running to about a page each. There then follows a piece on the context and composition of each work. All of this is well done and very readable, although that in itself doesn't add a great deal of value as this sort of information is fairly easy to locate.

More interestingly, for each work there is then a brief consideration of key performances, both in the theatre and on film in some cases. It's not trying to be comprehensive but rather aims to identify some approaches. Each play also has a black and white photograph of a recent production. This is an interesting addition and most of the photographs are of modern dress versions which serves to reinforce the continuing relevance of these plays rather than presenting them as all doublet and hose. Ultimately, this may end up dating the book in the medium term though as there is a tendency to focus on recency rather than the past. Thus, for example in the excellent index, Sir John Gielgud gets five mentions while the outgoing Artistic Director of the RSC, Michael Boyd gets eight entries. However it does have the advantage of making it seem more current and relevant to younger readers.

The real strength of the book's contribution though is the well written and beautifully succinct Themes and Interpretations of each work which draw out some interesting ideas that will be manna from heaven to students and teachers in particular but also to theatre-goers as well. Even if you thought you knew a lot about the plays, there is fresh information to be found here.

The book concludes with context issues such as Shakespeare's life, theatre, print, apocrypha and his language.

Shakespeare said that brevity was the soul of wit - it's also the soul of an excellent teaching aid and resource for the modern theatre-goer. Unless you are set on more detailed academic investigation, then this is probably the only guide you will ever need to Shakespeare and his plays.

Our thanks to the kind people at Cambridge University Press for sending us a copy of this excellent guide.

Also worth checking out are The Shakespeare Handbook by Michael Schmidt and Robert Maslen and Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal.

Buy The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith at

Buy The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide by Emma Smith at


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