Review: The Essential Shakespeare Handbook

by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding

When DK named their Shakespeare Guide Essential Shakespeare Handbook, they weren’t kidding: it’s definitely a handbook. It’s also about Shakespeare, and I think it’s essential!

It’s about the size of any other handbook. Small enough to fit into a backpack, messenger bag, or suitcase easily; large enough to read and hold comfortably. The difference between this and your Boy Scout Handbook is that there’s no place to check off the merit badges you’ve earned. And the subject matter.

This gem of a book is a wealth of quickly-referenced information. You get a brief bio of The Bard himself, a chapter on Elizabethan theatre, notes about Shakespeare’s works as a whole, and about his language. Then we move on to his plays.

The plays are broken up into four categories: Histories, Comedies, Tragedies, and Romances. Each section begins with a couple pages of talk on that particular category. Each section has a different color header which makes it very easy and quick to get to what you’re looking for.

Within the sections, you get several pages on each play. There’s so many goodies in there, it makes me all giddy. A few paragraphs of intro and history of the play is given. The date it was written is shown on a timeline, along with the length of the play (number of lines of text) in comparison to Shakespeare’s shortest and longest plays – Comedy of Errors and Hamlet, respectively.

Then there’s a page that lists every character with a few lines about them and how many lines of text each has; certain characters are marked with icons to denote a great role, comedic character/villain, dies, and more. There’s a little chart that even tells you how many lines of text are in each act, and another that gives you a percent of verse to prose comparison! There’s a full synopsis of each act, and then commentary about reading the play, the play in performance, and more!

This volume is one of the most useful books on my bookshelf. If ever I need to quickly and easily reference almost ANYTHING about Shakespeare’s plays I check here first. It’s not just great content, it even looks great! Check bookstores around you if you wanna flip though it before you buy it… you will. Trust me.

Essential Shakespeare Handbook