Anybody have any recommendations for a book that provides summaries of the big man's plays with a bit of detail about cast, plot, historic background? Not Cliff or York notes detail but something aimed at the casual reader.


PS Asking for a friend because I am of course cultured enough to know them all in detail.

The rough guide to Shakespeare gives all that sort of info. If they don't have time to sit down and read/watch then there are some lighter versions rewritten for children. Lambs tales from Shakespeare which is literature units own right. I recently got a modern set for younger readers which is quite nicely written. The main problem I find with condensed versions is trying to keep track of characters when the author has been allowed the time to develop the characters fully. 

Bill Bryson wrote an easy reading chatty book about his life - not so much about his plays though.

Thanks all. It's the summaries of the plays themselves that is key rather than his life or background and ideally in a single volume but will look up the couple suggested.

+1 for the Rough Guide. 

Classic Comics also do some of the plays in graphic novel form, with either the original text, plain text (plain english) or quick text (quick modern english) - Macbeth with the original text is an excellent read. 

Guy has just sent us off to ChatGPT. This site provides excellent an summary of Romeo and Juliet, a police procedural from the 1980s about organised crime in Verona Beach. 

There's a great book called shakespeare's kings by john julius norwich.  It doesnt really do what you ask but this is rof.

Are you sure about that? At some point Shakespeare wrote up a fair copy of some of his plays. He never got round to doing the whole lot. When you examine some of the great soliloquys they often stand alone as written poetry.  

Like an opera it's ok to cherrypick the best arias I reckon without having to watch the whole thing. We don't always have the time. 

Just give us the greatest hits compilation:

1. The quality of mercy is not strained

2. To be or not to be

3. Now is the winter of our discontent

4. Once more unto the breach 

5. Friends, Romans, countrymen. Lend me your ears

6. All the World's a stage.


No, most of Shakespeare's audience could not even read.  As an A level English lit veteran I find reading the plays (unless to act them) sucks the life out of them.

I am a A Level English Lit vet too and it certainly helped to have someone knowledgable take you through the plays and a chance to discuss them with others as you went along.

Reading the plays alone is hard going although you could say that about most plays.

By the by, the best advice I ever got from a Shakespeare teacher was ‘it’s all about sex’. Write about that in exams and you’ll be fine. 

yes I agree with that Chuffy, although at least modern plays are written in modern english.

yes english lit (most of war poetry aside) is all about sex, history is all about the rise of the middle classes.  

Shakespeare wrote for his audience. Good actors can convey a lot but we are about 500 years too late. It's simply too much old language for our modern brains to take in. Their memories were much better than ours.

Modern poetry often works better on the page. Your eyes are doing something that your memory could not. The shape of the lines, the position of the words, symmetry. Meaning can be lost if it's just read to you.  

Heh. I am also an English A level lit veteran. But I only got a B. In my defence BCC got you into any uni bar 2 when I applied