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The Riverside Shakespeare (1997)

This is the definitive collection of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Think of it as an entire course on Shakespeare squished into one single volume. The notes on Shakespeare's life and times are invaluable, and the introductory essays to each play are pretty much the best overview you can get.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (2005)

Harvard professor Greenblatt constructed this fascinating biography of Shakespeare's life. Greenblatt knows the Bard's work inside and out—one reviewer described him as more familiar with Shakespeare than the Dark Lady of the sonnets was—and his take on the playwright's life is well worth a read.

James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)

1599 was a milestone year for William Shakespeare. The Globe opened, and Shakespeare enjoyed an immensely productive year in which he wrote many of his best-known plays. Rather than trying to scrounge up details on Shakespeare's personal life and speculate on his psychological motivations, Shapiro looks at the current events that may have shaped Will's plays.

Anne Somerset, Elizabeth I (2003)

This biography is a fascinating introduction to Elizabeth and her era. The brilliant and complex Queen Elizabeth I defined England as Shakespeare knew it for most of his life. Her reign paved the way for an artist like Shakespeare to emerge, and her love of the theater (Shakespeare's plays in particular) was vital to furthering his career.

Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays

Shakespeare wasn't the only talented playwright in town. Born the same year as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare's contemporary and rival. The gifted dramatist was murdered under mysterious circumstances at the age of 29, but the body of work he completed during his short life shows the breadth of his talent. His plays include Tamburlaine, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, and The Jew of Malta.

Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (1991)

The themes of Shakespeare's plays are universal, transcending place, race and time. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, author Jane Smiley sets the story of King Lear among feuding sisters in an Iowa farm town. The chilling depiction of betrayal, jealousy and family drama illustrates the cross-cultural relevance of the Bard.

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