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Birthday presents
William Shakespeare celebrates his 440th
Essential Shakespeare Handbook
By Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding. DK, 480 pages, $25.
Shakespeare’s Songbook
By Ross W. Duffin. Norton, 528 pages, $39.95.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee" are the lines with which William Shakespeare concluded Sonnet #18, but even he might be surprised by the abundant life his works have led — and generated — in the almost four centuries since his death. DK Publishing celebrates his 440th birthday with one of its trademark colorful glossy volumes, Essential Shakespeare Handbook. Norton’s present, Shakespeare’s Songbook, is neither colorful nor glossy, but it is exhaustive and in the end more essential.

Not that you can fault DK for its presentation. The introductory section encompasses "The Life of William Shakespeare," "Shakespeare in His Time," "Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatre," "Shakespeare’s Canon," and "Shakespeare’s Language." The plays follow grouped by genre: histories, comedies, tragedies, romances; then there’s a section on the poetry and a concluding "Global Shakespeare" essay. For each play, there’s a detailed "Dramatis Personae"(with the number of lines each character has), a lengthy "Plot Summary" (with snippets from the text), and pages on "Reading the Play," "Seeing the Play," and (for the better-known works) "Beyond the Play." Boxed sections alert you to "Historical Sources" and "Literary Sources," as well as providing "Language Notes" and information about unusual stagings. It’s all copiously illustrated with photographs of Shakespeare’s settings (doubtless cribbed from DK’s extensive travel series), artists’ renderings of scenes from the plays, and, best of all, countless photographs from theatrical productions and movie adaptations: these range from the Negro Theater Project’s 1936 voodoo Macbeth to Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a 1999 Kathakali King Lear and a 2001 Kyogen Comedy of Errors at the Globe in London, and from the films of Laurence Olivier to those of Kenneth Branagh.

Compiled by Harvard lecturer Leslie Dunton-Downer and New York Times European cultural correspondent Alan Riding, Essential Shakespeare Handbook is, moreover, not just a pretty face. The section on Shakespeare’s life bruits the possibilities that he was gay and/or Catholic; the one on his language reminds us that it was the Norman Conquest that opened up of England — and English. The canon is up to date in its inclusion of Edward III while recognizing that Shakespeare probably didn’t write the entire play. The boxed sections identify the sack that Falstaff drank as sherry and note the use of stars as a metaphor in Romeo and Juliet. The book is packed with information as well as with gorgeous visuals.

I just wish it had been packed with care. Even a cursory glance reveals the misspelling of names like Lillian Gish, Elisabeth Bergner, Katharine Hepburn (twice), Toyah Willcox, and Günter Grass plus numerous other typos. The ballet that George Balanchine created from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is credited to Felix Mendelssohn, who provided the music but not the choreography. The time line identifies 1 Henry VI as Shakespeare’s first play even though Dunton-Downer and Riding acknowledge that 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI came before it. Linguists will be surprised to learn that the Shakespeare-coined "petition" and "traditional" came into English from "Germanic" sources; historians (notably A.J. Pollard) will wonder at the statement that Richard III is known to have murdered Henry VI himself; Shakespeareans of all stripes are apt to balk at claims that The Merry Wives of Windsor is the Bard’s "most enduringly popular comedy" and that Henry V is "not one of Shakespeare’s literary masterpieces." The notion that Henry V might be more than a piece of patriotism escapes the authors, who too often cling to a simple-minded Bard whose work they describe in clichés and platitudes. I have more than 100 Shakespeare books on my shelf, and for $25 I’d absolutely add this one, but it should have risen above groundling level.

Shakespeare’s Songbook is aimed at a small smaller and more knowledgeable audience. Compiled by Case Western Reserve music professor Ross W. Duffin, its 528 pages embrace not just the songs that are sung in Shakespeare’s plays — "Blow, blow, thou winter wind," "Under the greenwood tree," and "It was a lover and his lass" in As You Like It, "O mistress mine" in Twelfth Night, "Willow, willow" in Othello — but also those that are only alluded to, like "My mind to me a kingdom is," from the exchange between Henry and his Keeper in act three of 3 Henry VI. Music, lyrics, history, sources, a pronunciation guide, indexes of every sort, and a companion audio CD — it’s all here. Fleshed out with woodcuts and other monochrome illustrations, Norton’s presentation is attractive and easy to use. "Handsome is that handsome does," Oliver Goldsmith wrote, and this does very handsomely indeed.

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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