Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare
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Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare

4.22 of 5 stars 4.22  ·  rating details  ·  520 ratings  ·  49 reviews
Shakespeare's genius is marked by his rare ability to appeal to theatergoers of all types and all levels of education. But for most modern folks, the Greek and Roman mythology & history, let alone the history of England and the geography of sixteenth-century Europe that his works are laden with, are hardly within grasp. Isaac Asimov comes to make obscure issues clear t...more
Hardcover, Alternate Cover for ISBN 0517268256, 1513 pages
Published 1978 by Avenel Books (first published 1970)
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Forget Cliff's Notes, Cole's or any other crap that you think might help you get through those Shakespeare plays in highschool. this is really what you need. Although I always counted myself fortunate in that I seemed to take to Shakespeare's cadenced language in a very natural way from the beginning, I realise that not all students were/are so lucky, and that further assistance may be needed, especially in matters of historical analysis and so on. Asimov takes you by the hand in a thorough and...more
Aug 01, 2007 Patricia rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Shakespeariens (for alternate views) and non-Shakespearians (because it's suddenly interesting)
This book should be required reading for all non-English majors. (English majors should take it on themselves to read it.) It's also great if your grounding in ancient Greek history, ancient Roman history, mythology, and early-to-middle English history is weaker than it should be (and it probably is--remember, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it").

Basically, the book is just fun to read. Asimov's light wit and appreciation of irony, his understanding of human nature, all...more
I don't know if this is the decades-old version I have checked out from the library right now, but I'm assuming it's close enough. Holy cow. I've only read about 30 pages into the Julius Caesar portion, but I MUST buy this book. I do believe I have feigned reading Shakespeare until now. Holy cow. Silly me--I thought Asimov was just a Sci-Fi guy.

I bought this book.
Much like current books/film rely on audience knowledge of history and pop culture to tell a story or joke, Asimov explains those references as it relates to Shakespeare's work. Interesting to those who know WS's work, twice as interesting for those who don't. I'm the latter...
Mary Overton
Commentary on Hamlet:
"The history of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden during the Viking period before the time of Sven I is shrouded in darkness. We have nothing but legendary material ....
"The legendary material reaches us in a book written about 1200 by a Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, whose history of Denmark comes down to 1186. It is a Danish analogue of such British histories as that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and gives an account of some sixty legendary Danish kings....
"Included in Saxo Gram...more
Jordan Ayers
I am nowhere near having finished this somewhat reference-y book, but have noticed that there seems to be a large amount of people claiming that Asimov is here to help you "understand Shakespeare". Rather, he does not do much of that at all, in the literary sense. Asimov's 'Guide' only contains portions of each play in which there are references to mythology or history that is no longer common knowledge to the modern day student (or leisurely reader, as rare as the leisurely Shakespeare reader m...more
Alexander Arsov
Isaac Asimov

Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare

Avenel, Hardback, 1978.

8vo. xiv+670+843 pp. 2 vols. in one. Introduction by the author [vii-x]. Indexes to both volumes [pp. 793-843]. Illustrated by Rafael Palacios with 40 maps and 16 charts.

First published in 2 vols., 1970.


Vol. 1: The Greek, Roman, and Italian plays.

Part I. Greek
1. Venus and Adonis
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
3. The Two Noble Kinsmen
4. Troilus and Cressida
5. Timon of Athens
6. The Winter's Tale
7. The Comedy of Errors
8. Per...more
summa shakespearia

personally i find asimov's fiction to be a bit dry (almost brittle in style when compared to bradbury or vonnegut) and lacking the momentous revelations (on politics and religion) of frank herbert. a big exception would be his tremendous short story, "nightfall", perhaps the greatest of the genre.

however, you have to give the man credit for both the breadth and volume of his writing, especially in the realm of non-fiction. as a professor of biochemistry, asimov expectedly churn...more
While this is not a novel, I treasure it. Shakespeare lived in a VERY different time than we do today. I learned more form this book than my college Shakespeare class.

My favorite example is Hamlet. The people in the seats watching Hamlet, in Elizabethan England, would know the horrors of civil war. A kings son takes precedence over an uncle in Royal Succession. As long as Hamlet lives he is a deadly threat to Claudius. The audience would know every scene had the possibility of bloodletting. The...more
Volume I, at 670 pages, deals with the Greek, Roman, and Italian plays. In the book, Asimov explains practically all of the historical, mythological and scientific references in Shakespeare's oeuvre, including two long poems. In addition, Asimov makes some interesting scholarly inferences, such as suggesting that in "Troilus And Cressida," Cressida's depiction as a worthless woman has basis in the actions of Elizabeth I at the time, when Shakespeare's patron Essex had fallen out of her favor; or...more
This is one of the few ways to read a Shakespeare play. Like I said in my review of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare just expects his readers to understand certain historical information and background points that is simply not common knowledge in today's world. Asimov actually does a fantastic job giving a VERY in depth account of the background history of all of the important lines (or anything of note, really) of every scene within the play and expounds upon the different things that the characters...more
I balked when I first saw this on a bookseller's shelf. This thing is a BEAST. I mean, I'm all about big thick books that can double as a step to reach the highest shelf in the closet but damn...I'll be needing +8.00 readers by the time I get through it. And this isn't exactly "quickie" reading. This is a book that makes you want to spend serious time and attention to it. I don't think I've ever had such a high maintenance book before. It is a grand "fleshing out" perspective, a wordy cliff-note...more
This is part of my Shakespeare reference collection, which includes:

A Companion to Shakespeare
Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare
Essential Shakespeare Handbook
Imagining Shakespeare
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare
Shakespeare After All
Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare
The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare

For the plays I’ve read, I’ve also read the relevant sections in these reference books. When I pick up the next play in my Shakespeare re...more
Julie Davis
Another Shakespeare resource that is super helpful when going through the plays. Unlike the excellent analysis and thoughtful reflection of Harold Goddard's books, however, this is more based on the facts of the case (as one might say). If you're reading Macbeth and want to know all about the real Macbeth et al, then this is your book. It is fascinating and helpful in its own way. For example, I know know more about King James I's interest in demonology and the supernatural than I'd ever have th...more
Jun 29, 2007 Kevin rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Thespians | Shakespearians | People who Enjoy Plays
Shelves: theatrical
Curious as to how fast Puck can run? You'll find out in this book.

A book which always seems to find shelf life at the local bookstore since 1970, Isaac Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare is far more intricate and involved than anything Cliff Notes tries to be. Not only does he cover the actual motivations of characters, but he delvs into the whys, the whos, and the hows of the productions Shakespeare created.

Isaac goes from the insanely absurdly interesting (Puck's fastest running speed for instance)...more
David Powell
I don't know if this book is best described as an analysis of Shakespeare or a tribute to the wide-ranging genius of the late Isaac Asimov. In the Goodreads ranking of books about Shakespeare, I would rate it lower because it is not so much about Shakespeare but a historic background explanation, scene by scene, of the plays. That being said, if you are a teacher of Shakespeare, you will find a wealth of goodies to bring into the class for every play. I used it in the years when I taught individ...more
Obviously I didn't read the whole thing. I only had time to read the section on Henry V before returning it to the library, but I have my own copy on order at my local book shop. It's brilliant. The background and context for the play was fascinating, and I got so much more out of the play because of it. It's good to know what Shakespeare's audiences would have known, why Shakespeare might have done certain things, what the actual historical events were. So interesting. Highly recommended.
I came across this book while studying for my M.A. test. Someone in the study group photocopied the revelent sections. This is proably the best guide to the plays, at least in terms of symbolism and allusion. Asimov does a good job of keeping his opinion of the play out of his writing and simply explains the meaning of words and terms. Everyone who has to read Shakespeare needs to read this. If you are an English major, you should read this and buy your copy.
May 27, 2008 Jennyanydots rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: tolerating shakespeare buffs
Recommended to Jennyanydots by: me
rather engaging, mostly not. asimov is obviously brilliant, and he launches easily into excrutiating line-by-line interpretations and explanations that usually prove interesting. unfortunately, he is as ready to fully dissect his own statements as he is shakespeare's. his treatise on the 'there are more things in heaven and earth, horatio' quote, for example, was just a smidgeon long-winded. still, it's an entertaining read, if you like this sort of thing.
I picked up this book because I wanted to see what Isaac Asimov, world-renowned science fiction author and former chemist, would have to say about Shakespeare. It's an incredibly thorough examination of themes and subtext for the majority of Shakespeare's plays. This book does assume a fair amount of familiarity with Shakespearean text, so I wouldn't recommend it to someone just getting their feet wet.
Tom Stamper
A book you can go back to again and again for insight into the plays and to understand their histories. Asimov's take on Hamlet attempts to clear up the motivations and sanity of the lead character. His King John explains how Shakespeare used history to comment on current events. The reading of Shakespeare itself makes a lot more sense after understanding the background from Asimov.
Aug 20, 2008 Kathy rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Kathy by:
Asimov's book is great for the historical and geographical background of each of Shakespeare's plays. Each time I read one, I do so only after reading Asimov's chapter about it. However, it's not nearly as objective as Shakespeare A-Z. Asimov's personal opinions (and sometimes the inherent sexism of his generation) are woven into his narrative. Otherwise I'd give it a full five stars.
This is a pretty impressive book. It's huge, but he goes over all of Shakespeare's plays as well a two narrative poems, going into detail about the cultural and mythological basis of Shakespeare's many allusions, as well as tracking the historical underpinnings of his plots, both from history as we understand it and as it was understood during Shakespeare's time.
Catherine Jaime
While I do not agree with everything Isaac Asimov wrote in his guide to Shakespeare, his history and insight is unsurpassed. He goes through each play and points out the historical and literary references that are so easy for modern readers to miss. This book is one of my most frequent "go to's" when I'm studying and teaching Shakespeare!
I didn't actually read the entire thing because it is HUGE, but it is a great reference if you're studying Shakespeare and you want some really smart, in-depth analysis. I believe both volumes are no longer in print, but used copies are easy to find. This book is a must have for fans of Shakespeare, literature students, and English teachers.
May 15, 2011 Gwen marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reference
Reading only the English plays between King John all the way up to the Merry Wives. Right now I'm on Richard the II. Didn't know what a butt he was.

Now with Prince Hal in Henry the IV Part 1. Finally meeting Falstaff at his entrance...
Henry IV part two is postively boring.

Henry V has better plot movement so far.
Rather than another literary interpretation of The Bard's work, Asimov's essays focus on the historical, religious, and cultural aspects. They provide depth into why different gods might be called upon at particular times, the history surrounding the interactions of two geopolitical entities, etc.
The Good Doctor delivers marvelous insights into the historical and literary context which would have been familiar to any educated Elizabethan Englishman or Englishwoman, and even to the jokes accessible to those Elizabethans of more modest educational attainments.
As a concordance, this is incredibly well researched, designed, and usable. Thorough notes on every reference, the construction of metaphors, and the history behind the real-life cognates that Shakespeare used in his plays. Absolutely essential reading!
I read portions of this book every year as we prepare for our annual visit to the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. I'm going twice this year. Once for a girl's trip with Sophia and the Hammonds, and once with the rest of my family.

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Isaac Asimov was a Russian-born, American author, a professor of biochemistry, and a highly successful writer, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.

Professor Asimov is generally considered the most prolific writer of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. He has works published in nine of the te...more
More about Isaac Asimov...
Foundation (Foundation, #1) I, Robot (Robot, #0.1) Foundation and Empire (Foundation, #2) Second Foundation (Foundation, #3) The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, #1-3)

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