Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays: A Practical Guide To The Twenty Best-Known And Enduring Works is a manual for students and enthusiasts of the Bard, and comes from a performing arts journalist and drama critic who revises and expands a 2008 publication, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays.
More than just another interpretation of Shakespeare's language and meaning, Cynthia Greenwood's survey delves into the history of drama, stage production, and London theater in the 1590s. It considers not just the plots and intentions of each story, but how actors and directors make choices in staging and performing Shakespeare's plays. It's packed with interpretations of famous soliloquies and discussions surrounding the original script versions, as well as highlights of stage performances throughout history that illuminate Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, and histories. These illustrations paint the bigger picture of his time and offer approaches that playgoers might consider before delving into individual plays.
This full-faceted exploration provides literature and performing arts students with a powerful background necessary to gain a better understanding of Shakespeare's intentions, influences, and the changing nuances of stagecraft over the centuries. From a study of how Shakespeare's playwriting evolved to blend prose into poetic structures, to his part ownership in the Globe, as well as the a heady Elizabethan theater business that cultivated a lively interplay between audience and performance, readers receive far more than another recap of Shakespeare's literary prowess.
It would have been all too easy to narrow the focus to Shakespeare's time, but Greenwood follows the trail of changes in Shakespearean drama into the modern era. Her account surveys notable screen productions in a chronology that also looks at our understanding of controversial plays that have challenged directors trying to remain faithful to the Bard's approach, while also addressing, say, sexism in plays like The Taming of the Shrew, which today invites hostile audience reactions.
Opening chapters that offer a general historical, sociological, and political analysis of Shakespeare's life, times, and playwriting career are followed by specific segment-by-segment analyses of his major works, leaving no stone unturned. Readers (especially college-level students in literature and the performing arts) seeking more than a casual investigation of the Bard's ongoing relevance, impact, and meaning in past and present stage works will relish this outstanding survey.
If only one book were to be chosen for a collection that desired to include an analysis of Shakespeare's works, stagecraft, and times, Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays should be the item of choice. It's technical, analytical, yet lively enough to make for thoroughly absorbing reading to many different levels of Shakespearean and acting enthusiasts.
--Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review
Shakespeare can be intimidating. While everyone knows he is a genius and that his works are timeless masterpieces, many are still reluctant to read or see one of his plays. Many people simply believe that they will not “get it” and that the language will be too difficult for them to comprehend and appreciate. Unfortunately, these initial barriers to entry prevent many from experiencing the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and the deeply emotional journeys of his characters.
Thankfully, Cynthia Greenwood’s new book Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays: A Practical Guide to the Twenty Best-Known and Enduring Works provides a wonderful resource for anyone interested in learning more about Shakespeare and his greatest plays.Greenwood’s incredibly informative and eminently readable practical guide through Shakespeare’s greatest plays provides a wonderful new resource for Shakespeare beginners, actors, and also those who already consider themselves well-schooled in the Bard.
Before jumping into an analysis of each of these plays, the book begins with several fascinating and well-researched chapters about Shakespeare’s life and the political and social world in which he and his theatergoers inhabited. As she does throughout this book, Greenwood manages to convey the critical information needed to get an understanding of this material in an easily readable and interesting way. The remaining introductory chapters provide the reader with helpful ways to think about Shakespeare’s works in performance as well as a brief history of the publication of his plays. When read together, these introductory paragraphs set the stage for the reader to more fully appreciate and understand the plays Greenwood explores in her later chapters.
For instance, although Greenwood only touches on it briefly, her discussion of “Ptolemy and Renaissance Cosmology” as an influence on Shakespeare’s works was particularly insightful. Similarly, her detailed chapter on the look and feel of an Elizabethan theatre helps put the reader in the audience of one of Shakespeare’s original productions.Guides like these which spend a chapter on each individual play (such as Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All and Isaac Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare) typically focus on deep textual analysis of themes and classical references in each given play. While these are great for people who are already seriously interested in Shakespeare’s plays, they are often too dense to hold the interest of a casual reader or someone who is just getting introduced to Shakespeare.
What is most remarkable about Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays is the way in which the author manages to provide a thoughtful, well-researched, and readable analysis of each of these twenty works in a relatively short chapter. Dozens of books have been written about many of these plays, but Greenwood is able to condense her thoughtful discussion of these plays to about fifteen pages each play. Notwithstanding their brevity, each chapter contains a brief summary of the plot and introduction to the characters, an analysis of the play's major themes, as well as a brief history of the play’s performance over the centuries.
Greenwood also takes the time in these chapters to provide insight from a number of actors and directors as to how they approach various parts in a given play. These discussions of choices actors and directors make help illustrate to the reader the countless perspectives from which one can approach these plays. This commentary also is particularly helpful when discussing plays that modern audiences might be uncomfortable viewing such as The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew. The discussion by Sidney Berger, the late director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, about the problems with satisfactorily resolving the ending of Taming and how he found the solution through an extremely close reading of Kate’s final speech, was fascinating. These passages also emphasize the importance of seeing these plays performed as opposed to just reading them. With such a wealth of information in so few pages, these chapters are perfect for those who have some familiarity with the play but might look for a brief refresher before seeing a performance.
Also interspersed throughout each chapter are various sidebars, or as the author calls them “interludes”, which provide interesting tidbits of information or close-readings of some of the most important passages of each play.While each chapter in this book provides a lot of information, Greenwood’s analysis of each of these plays will undoubtedly leave the reader wanting more. Thankfully, this book has a helpful appendix containing additional resources for further reading as well as an appendix with brief summaries of the plays not discussed in this book.
Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays is a phenomenal resource for anyone who has an interest in Shakespeare. This book will be the go-to guide that readers will undoubtedly refer to before seeing or reading one of Shakespeare’s plays. My only negative criticism of this book is that it only covers twenty of Shakespeare’s plays. With analysis as helpful and interesting as is contained here, I hope Ms. Greenwood supplements this edition in the future with chapters on all of Shakespeare’s plays! All in all, Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays is an enjoyable tour through Shakespeare’s works that manages to make Shakespeare a little less intimidating. -- Ben Alper
TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan: June 14, 2019—Foreword Reviews, a book review journal focusing on independently published books, announced the winners of its INDIES Book of the Year Awards today. The awards recognize the best books published in 2018 from small, indie, and university presses, as well by self-published authors. You can view all of the winners here:
“Being surrounded by the year’s best books from independent writers and publishers is a humbling and invigorating experience that we take seriously at every step of the judging process,” says Managing Editor Michelle Anne Schingler. “As the INDIES progress, our editors, and our librarian and bookseller judges, have the honor and the privilege of discovering and rediscovering independent titles that give us hope about the future of publishing and that, at their best, make us consider the world around us anew.”
Over 2,000 entries were submitted in 56 categories, with Foreword’s editors choosing approximately 10 finalists per genre. Those finalists were then mailed to individual librarians and booksellers charged with picking the Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners.
Guide to Shakespeare’s plays wins Gold award for Reference
Foreword editors selected the nonfiction title, Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays: A Practical Guide to the Twenty Best-Known and Enduring Works, to receive the 2018 INDIES Gold Award for Reference. “At a time when Shakespeare’s plays are slowly disappearing from university English department reading lists, I am honored that DECIPHERING SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS has been chosen as a Foreword INDIE Book of the Year, out of ten finalists in the Reference genre,” said author Cynthia Greenwood.
“For my part, winning the top prize in the Reference category is a significant honor after the many years of effort involved in producing this book,” said author Cynthia Greenwood.
Tin House was named the INDIES’s Publisher of the Year. “Traditional publishers forget to prioritize new, exciting, and diverse voices,” says Schingler. “For the past twenty years, Tin House has helped to fill that gap, publishing brilliant works from an array of daring literary voices. We were stunned by their releases this year, from thrilling debut science fiction titles to boundary-breaking poetry collections, and we can’t wait to see what they produce next.”
Founded in 1998, Foreword Magazine, Inc. is the publisher of the only review journal completely devoted to independent publishing: Foreword Reviews, a Folio: award-winning bimonthly print review journal. Foreword exclusively covers university and independent (non “Big 5”) publishers, the books they publish, and their authors. Foreword is based in Traverse City, Michigan, with staff based worldwide.