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Everything Shakespeare

1227booksshak_genealogy Shakespeare's Family Tree

Reserve 17 feet of wall space in your home or apartment: Shakespeare's Genealogies is neat enough, not to mention bizarre enough, to frame and hang -- and fret over which side to display. Vanessa James' accordion book is one of the cleverest gift items and smartest introductions to Shakespeare scholarship I've ever seen.

Printed on durable stock, the book provides single-page descriptions of plot and setting for all 42 narrative works authored or contributed to by William Shakespeare, including the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plays are not only grouped thematically, but arranged to justify the inclusion of genealogical charts linking characters and relationships, historical or otherwise.

The volume is physically slim, but the breadth of the various added features impresses. Several pages alone are devoted to Shakespeare's ancestry and progeny; there's also a section on myths and legends in his work and world. James takes pains to ponder the age-old debate about Shakespeare's authorship, offering information both illuminating (Titus Andronicus was "possibly" written with George Peele; Sir Thomas More was written "by Anthony Munday with scenes by Shakespeare and others") and astonishing (Macbeth contains "possible additions by Thomas Middleton"). There are lists of Shakespeare's contemporaries, patrons, and actors.

The book is absolutely studded with art -- James isn't too proud to borrow from Hollywood and Broadway. There's a 1963 photo of Juliet Mills as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream in London; a look at Tarquinius and Lucretia, Titian's 1570 painting; a photo of Kevin Kline as Falstaff in Lincoln Center Theater's 2003 production of Henry IV; a 1938 Al Hirschfeld caricature of the musical The Boys From Syracuse; a still of Claire Danes as a dead Juliet in the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet; and Benjamin West's 1788 painting King Lear. And that's just a start.

If there's any criticism to be made of the book, it's that it isn't especially utilitarian: Most people don't have 17 feet of wall space. But the concept is dynamic, and the contents are remarkable and substantial.

Shakespeare's Genealogies: Plots & Illustrated Family Trees For All 42 Works, by Vanessa James, Melcher Media, 2007, hardcover, 108 pages, $24.95.

-- Leonard Jacobs

The Complete Shakespeare 1227bookswill_shakes_comp

Why buy yet another compendium of Shakespeare's works? One reason might be that this mammoth volume (nearly 2,500 pages and endorsed by London's Royal Shakespeare Company) aims to be -- and may well be -- the best bound Bard ever published. It's beautifully organized, exquisitely presented.

Edited by two widely recognized Shakespeare scholars, it begins with a 63-page general introduction that covers everything you've always wanted to know about Shakespeare but hadn't thought to ask. There are his humble youth and marriage at age 18 to Anne Hathaway; his contemporaries on and off the stage; the peculiarities of Elizabethan society; and an analysis of his well-documented background as an actor before he picked up his pen. There are too the famously differing first and second folios to consider and the question of how the editors went about preparing the texts for publication, with literally thousands of footnotes to underscore the point. Germane topics can seem far-flung: the venues where Shakespeare's plays were acted; the problem of the Black Death in England; the practical matter of how, in an era before photocopies and quick transcriptions, actors learned new plays.

Other elements right old wrongs. In "Preliminary Pages of the First Folio," a text that is often omitted from collections of Shakespeare, the reader is afforded a window into the 17th-century mind as scholars write about his plays at the time of their initial publication. Sixteen pages of black-and-white photos follow, including an image of leading Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage; a parchment page of Sir Thomas More written in Shakespeare's hand, including cross-outs and revisions; and photographs of modern actors in various roles, including Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, and Kenneth Branagh.

Each play is preceded by an essay that explains its background and then a "key facts" box that actors will especially love. Here the dimensions of each role are represented as a percentage of the whole play. For example, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream speaks 12 percent of the play (59 lines) in five scenes; the title character in Richard III delivers 32 percent of the play (301 lines) in 14 scenes. Let the memorizing begin.

William Shakespeare: Complete Works, Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Random House, 2007, hardcover, 2,494 pages, $65.

-- Leonard Jacobs

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