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William Shakespeare-Related Recommendations

To celebrate DCPL’s recent “Searching for Shakespeare” collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library, we wanted to curate a list of books that are directly and indirectly related to the Bard. This includes plays, historical fiction, and non-fiction. There are certainly many, many more books written on the subject, but presented here is a modest starter- a sample set, if you will. The intention is to encourage curiosity in Shakespeare, and highlight different access points and opportunities for learning, connecting, and creating. Shakespeare’s works can and should be accessible to all- it is part of global cultural heritage and we are all entitled to partake in the legacy!

Richard III, Folger edition

Shakespeare often took plots from classical myths, legends, and histories (it’s true- he was a literary genius and a copycat, but it was common practice at the time for writers to repeat and adapt established stories). This play is a historical tragedy. There actually was a Richard III. How much he resembled this version is a matter of historical debate, but this one is deliciously devious. What is so compelling about villains? Richard makes himself easy to loathe by announcing his nefariousness at the beginning of the play. His dastardly schemes (including lies, manipulation, and flat-out murder) result in his ascent to the throne of England. But it is not a long-lived reign, and Richard gets his comeuppance. The curses of Queen Margaret, which predict this downfall, are especially cutting and magnificent. The Folger edition provides great explanatory notes and definitions of terms alongside the text of the play, which make it easier to interpret the esoteric and poetic language. Folger versions of Shakespeare’s plays are also available online, for free!

Macbeth, graphic novel edition

Cover art for Macbeth Graphic Novel. A Scottish warrior, Macbeth, clad in armor and fur, holding a blood-stained sword.

Graphic novels are a fantastic way to approach Shakespeare, especially if you want to watch the story unfold, accompanied by a plain text adaptation. If anybody is turned off or intimidated by the complexity and archaic language of Shakespeare’s work, here is a wonderful option. Given that plays are written to be performed, it seems fitting to have vivid illustrations of the action. Macbeth (aka “the Scottish play”) is presented in all its supernatural, bloody glory. It is a story of ambition, violence, and madness- perfect for this medium. The Weird sisters are giving Tales from the Crypt, and I’m here for it! Enjoy!

Learwife by J.R. Thorpe

Book cover of Learwife. A woman's silhouette portrait with a purple and red pattern background.

This book is an offshoot of King Lear and examines a character who isn’t even in the play. The absence of Lear’s queen is felt, and readers, actors, and scholars have pondered for centuries: what kind of a woman was she? Who could beget such daughters as Goneril and Regan? Where is she? In this book, Thorpe provides both prologue and epilogue to the play, from the perspective of Lear’s banished wife. Not an especially sympathetic narrator, she offers a shrewd and sharp perspective of the world. This takes place after the events of the play, and shares this fallen matriarch’s reaction to her family's tragedy. Dormant memories surface and readers are presented with a mystery- why was she banished?  This is a fabulous example of how Shakespeare’s plays can serve as a launching point for compelling works of artistic speculation. Learwife provides gritty detail and moving pathos. More thought-driven than action-packed, this book is poignant, powerful, and plausible- it works with what we’re given in the text of the play and continues themes of loyalty, power, and madness. If you are a fan of the play (and King Lear is a popular favorite amongst Shakespeare fans), you will appreciate this addition to the saga.

A Tip for the Hangman, by Allison Epstein

Book cover of A Tip for the Hangman. Image of Tudor-era courtiers meting underneath a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, with a motif of cherubs and death in the background.

In this work of historical fiction, Epstein gives us Tudor England and Shakespeare’s London in grand and gross detail. The main character is Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, a bright, charismatic lad who is recruited as a spy for Queen Elizabeth I. In reality, Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, a fellow playwright (and often the subject of the “authorship” debate in Shakespeare studies). In fact, “Will Shakespeare” makes a brief appearance in this tale of cloak-and-dagger intrigue and suspense. Kit is an irresistible protagonist. He is clever, charming, resourceful, poetic, gutsy, and as a reader you really want him to prevail. This book has a seductive edge to it: it is sensual, political, visceral, and very difficult to put down.

The Millionaire and the Bard, by Andrea E. Mays

Book cover of The Millionaire and the Bard. Portait of William Shakespeare partially obscured by the Title and subtitle.

This is the fantastic true story of Henry Folger and his mission to amass the greatest Shakespeare collection in the world- which is housed at his namesake library here in Washington, DC. That’s right- the biggest and best collection of Shakespeareana is in DC, not London, not Stratford! In partnership with his wife Emily, also an avid Shakespeare scholar, Folger embarked on a quest to collect and preserve as many copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio he could find. When English scholars, collectors, and archivists realized that an affluent American was buying up these treasures of British culture, the game was on, so to speak. Auctions of antique books never seemed so exciting. Mays provides excellent context and breathes life into the dusty world of literary scholarship. It is also exciting to learn about this unique piece of local history. The Folger Shakespeare Library is truly a gem and unique resource in Washington, DC. After years of renovation, it will re-open to the public in November 2023! DC Public Library is proud to have a relationship with this wonderful DC institution. We’re libraries supporting Libraries, all serving the DC community!


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About the Author

Christine G. is a Library Associate at DC Public Library. A lifelong bibliophile and an avid fan of libraries, she loves her job at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. She has somewhat eclectic reading taste, but she is always down for a good biography or historical fiction, especially family sagas. In her spare time, she keeps busy with volunteering and interesting side jobs in local theater, church, and freelance research projects. She enjoys good coffee, meandering walks around DC, and practicing yoga.

Audiences: Adults
Topic: Partnerships