A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare's Plays

Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin
Faber and Faber
(2004)

The original intention had been to publish a double book review comparing this Pocket Guide with Dorling Kindersley's Essential Shakespeare Handbook. In fact, while there are obvious similarities between the two books, it seems much fairer to publish separate reviews and to recommend that readers look at both before making a purchase (or two).

A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare's Plays was the first in what is becoming a dynasty of small books from Faber and Faber analysing playwrights or genres. We have already reviewed the Ayckbourn and Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg will follow very soon.

The formula works on a number of levels and, in particular, students may well find the expert analysis of each of Shakespeare's plays from Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin an excellent substitute for diligent study.

Indeed, the canny Professor or teacher may well decide that a degree or A-level should be awarded to these two writers rather than a number of students who might be tempted to borrow their words surreptitiously!

In this book, Edward III is omitted, presumably on the basis of uncertainty about attribution but the rest of the canon gets equal coverage.

Each play is covered in seven pages. The source(s) are identified, the story told and characters listed. A fair proportion of space is given over to detailed "biographies" of significant characters and these are probably the book's greatest strength. They obviously includes the Hamlets and Henrys but more surprisingly extend to others such as First Player or even Common People.

The plays are then set into social and political context and some of the more important productions identified. The authors also prefer quotations to white space where they haven't quite filled the seventh page.

The director and writer make a good combination and the analysis is both intelligible and perceptive, although it can have a tendency to sound overly-academic.

As a brief introduction before a trip to any Shakespeare play, this genuinely pocket-sized book serves its purpose perfectly.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher