The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays

In 2004 Al Pacino portrayed Shylock on screen with heartrending pathos in Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice. In 1996 Kenneth Branagh created a captivating, nuanced Hamlet in a four-hour tour de force, without excising any of Shakespeare’s verse.

The resurgent interest in adapting classics for the big screen reminds us that Shakespearean theatre is a social art form. Understanding Shakespeare’s plays is within everyone’s grasp – it doesn’t have to be a dull academic exercise.

THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS (Penguin/DK/Alpha Books) brings Shakespeare’s 400-year-old dramas alive in a new introduction for students, playgoers, and general readers. Written by Cynthia Greenwood, a performing arts journalist and critic who has taught Shakespeare’s plays to college students, the guide offers the essence and experience of the Shakespearean spoken word. This new reference book doesn’t just dissect great soliloquies on the page.

This guide is an invaluable reference tool for high school and university students, drama students, professional and amateur actors, teachers, playgoers, drama critics, and casual readers – or anyone who wants to discover, brush up on or reacquaint themselves with Shakespeare’s plays. Inside the book:

  • Cultural and historical contexts are provided for 20 major plays, using refreshing perspectives from directors and actors in lengthy, original commentary;
  • Each major play is explored in depth, explaining Shakespearean terms;
  • Each chapter offers close attention to language and verse;
  • Appendices include Shakespeare’s likely collaborations with other playwrights, a glossary, suggested further reading, and resources for viewing live performances and video/audio recordings.

Introductory chapters also remind us that Shakespeare was at the forefront of Western show business. (Most Americans don’t think about Shakespeare as a highly talented entrepreneur – they think of him as the author of plays they couldn’t get excited about in school.)

This book brings you closer to the heady, behind-the-scenes world of freelance playwriting and the London theatre scene of the 1590s. It also lends insight into decisions that theatre people make while acting and staging Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth, to name a few.

The Complete Idiots Guide to Shakepeares Plays

What People Are Saying

“If you think Shakespeare is stuffy and impenetrable, then allow Cynthia Greenwood’s new guide to take you through his greatest plays and unlock all the marvels. While his plays are always best revealed in performance, this book will help you understand the language of Shakespeare, reveal the heart of some Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, and entertain you with insights about the plays from veteran actors and directors. Whether you’re new to Shakespeare, a student or inveterate theatre patron, you’ll find this book invaluable.

Jeffrey Bean, veteran member of the Alley Theatre resident
company and Broadway actor

“Greenwood’s goal is to make Shakespeare’s plays accessible to general readers and playgoers, and her aim comes through in every chapter of her introductory guide. Readers who want a quick brush-up on a play’s plot, character, and historical context will find everything they need. Others who seek facts about Shakespeare’s life as a poet and playwright, clues to deciphering his Elizabethan verse, or why some plays are controversial won’t be disappointed.”

—Ron Severdia, Publisher and editor of

“A handy reference for theatre students of all ages. Something you’d want on your desk at home when you are pulling for inspiration for an audition tomorrow, or preparing for a final and need ‘a quick take’ on a specific text or general Elizabethan background. Greenwood’s guide to Shakespeare’s plays will come through with a helping hand, making sense of the language and the motivations of Shakespeare’s enduring characters.”

Diana Howie, Playwright and author of Susanna & Will and Susanna of Stratford

“In her new book, Greenwood gives students and playgoers the chance to inhabit Shakespeare’s plays as actors and directors do. Here she translates soliloquies and speeches, making sense of ancient verses that still inspire speakers of modern English. The plots of King Lear, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and others are clearly set forth, and symbols and structures underlying the bard’s familiar comedies and tragedies are carefully interpreted.”

Raymond Caldwell, founder and artistic director of the Texas Shakespeare Festival

“Cynthia Greenwood up – ends Shakespeare as a chore for school days, turning it into the thrilling theater it truly was…and is.

Thomas C. Dulaney, author of 1777: Invasion

Photo Credits:

Images taken from The Bodleian First Folio: digital facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Bodleian Arch. G c.7.

Illustration of Globe theatre by Robert P. Molder

Awards & Reviews

Nominated for a Falstaff Award for Best Book (2008) –

The Falstaff Awards recognize extraordinary achievement in the areas of Best Play, Best Director, Best Performance by a Male or Female Actor, among other performance and technical categories. (Click on above link for the entire press release and link to all 2008 Falstaff winners.)

Best Book or Publication Nominee
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays, by Cynthia Greenwood

Midwest Book Review

The works of Shakespeare are world-renowned but can be a little intimidating for someone just starting out. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays is a guide for those who want to better understand this series of famous works without earning a Master’s degree in English Literature. Covering both his major plays such as Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet to his lesser known ones, the guide also entertains with facts and stories about each of the plays and the man behind the pen himself, Shakespeare. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays” is a must for any stage actor who doesn’t fully understand the bard’s work.
—Midwest Book Review