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Why these Books?

Every other edition of Shakespeare’s plays is written by academic scholars. We are not academics. We are theatre practitioners. And Shakespeare created his plays not as books to be read, but as scripts to be performed in front of a live audience.

We have created these editions of Shakespeare's timeless works to share what we have learned bringing Shakespeare to life on stage.

Evidence-Based Shakespeare

There are many good ways to approach a play. Our way is not to try to add layers of meaning, but to dig down and find the meaning that is already there. In our view, Shakespeare had something quite specific in mind when he wrote these plays. Unfortunately, neither he nor his actors kept notes on his directing, so we are left with an archeaologist's puzzle, to decode his intentions for ourselves. But if we look closely enough at a scene, there is usually clear evidence of precisely what Shakespeare intended.

The Page Layout


On the left-hand pages of this book is the actual script. (We adhere closely to the First Folio.) We have numbered every line of dialogue to help match the notes on the right to the lines on the left.

Also, we have divided each scene into subscenes: Generally, when actors enter or leave the stage, one dramatic question ends and another begins. That’s how Shakespeare organized his stories. So we separate the subscenes in the script (e.g. 1.3a, 1.3b, 1.3c, etc.)

The Four Questions


The right-hand pages have four parts. These correspond to the four questions we address for every moment of the play:

1. What are they saying?

2. Why are they saying it?

3. What is the drama of the scene?

4. Why is the scene in the play?

The examples below all refer to this speech (in 1.7.a):

4 Parts.png

If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if th'Assassination
Could trammel up the Consequence, and catch
With his surcease, Success: that but this blow
Might be the be all and the end all. Here,
But here, upon this Bank and Shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come.

The "What" Column:
What is the speaker saying?


In the "What" column are extensive notes on what the character is saying. We define obscure or changed words (like "trammel" and "surcease"), we supply the missing words, we unpack the imagery (for example, "we'd jump the life to come" means we would jump into the deeper water of that future), and decipher the sentence structure, so that you can do more than just get past the line: so that you can navigate for yourself what it says, word for word; truly appreciate the intricate wordplay of Shakespeare's poetry.


The "Why" Column:
Why does the speaker say this?


No character in a Shakespeare play is ever just creating verbal fireworks for the sheer joy of it. Characters on stage (like people in real life) say things because they want something. So in order to really understand the play, we have to know what they want. Let's look again at "if it were done." This speech is often interpreted as a moral dilemma - Macbeth struggling with his conscience. But closer reading reveals that he is doing something else. He has already decided he would accept the moral consequences of murdering Duncan if he knew it would make him king. What Macbeth is worried about in this passage is rather the practical problem of how to do it without subjecting himself in turn to the same treatment.

The "Drama" Heading:
What is the question of this scene?


It is important to remember that these plays are scripts to be performed, not literature to be read. And Shakespeare knew that the way to prevent his audience getting bored was to make sure there was always a question they couldn't stand to leave unanswered. Will the Witches persuade Macbeth? Can they be trusted? Will Macbeth kill Duncan? Will he get away with it in the end? Shakespeare kept his audience hungrily hanging on the outcome of not just one, but many such questions. That is what "drama" is. Real drama can always be stated as a question. And Shakespeare was the consummate master of drama. In our experience, virtually every scene in every Shakespeare play, no matter how brief, either poses a question to keep the audience hanging, or provides the answer to such a question. In the scene discussed above, for example, the drama is, "Will Macbeth decide to kill Duncan?"


The "Purpose" Heading:
Why is this scene in the play?


Shakespeare's poetry is so rich and satisfying that it is tempting to believe poetry is all there is to see. And since most of Shakespeare's plays are based on stories from Holinshed, Ovid, Plutarch, or even a competitor playwright, it seems natural to view the story itself as unimportant.

But in our view, the poetry alone is only part of Shakespeare's creation. It is the architecture of the story that gives the poetry its power. "Life's but a walking shadow," taken by itself, is beautiful language. But it is only within the context of the play – after Shakespeare has led us step by step through Macbeth's downward trajectory into living Hell – that we can really feel it resonate in our deepest being.

Shakespeare did not simply take Holinshed's story and add poetry. He radically pruned, rearranged and added, until the original is scarcely recognizable. Shakespeare was a story alchemist, turning forgettable base metal into immortal gold. In these books we unpack and reveal the masterful framework of the story that underlies the script.


A Note about Learning


One question we’ve been asked about these books is: By providing interpretation, aren’t we robbing you of discovering the play for yourself? More specifically, given that this book is primarily intended for students, are we preventing fruitful class discussions by answering all the questions for you? Our answer is: definitely not! Rather, these books help students get past the preliminary questions and go straight to the eternal questions that Shakespeare shines such a bright light on: free will; corruption; ambition; courage vs. foolhardiness; caution vs. cowardice — fundamental issues for which nobody has ever found a final answer, but which we all must grapple with.

This book is coaching. Good athletes have good coaches and great athletes have great coaches. With these editions, our aim is not to read the play for you, but to provide some great coaching to help you read it at a higher level.

And of course, after seeing our evidence, you can decide for yourself what you think is happening in these plays. These books are intended as guidance, not doctrine. Although our series is the fruit of years of collaboration with dozens of actors and designers, it is still a work in progress. After years of working on these plays, we are still students; still reaching to comprehend Shakespeare’s legacy. We can never quite catch up. But we have loved spending our lives trying.

In fact, if you have a comment or suggestion, please email us:

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