As a student of English Literature and Drama studies, the name Shakespeare is more than likely to crop up at some point in my four year degree! Actually, he is studied a lot less than one might think considering the magnitude of his influence and the ubiquity of his works. The need to study Shakespeare, and to understand his own particular mode of theatre making, I believe is central to the canon of literature written in English and therefore is worthy of intense and in-depth study.
The Rough Guide to Shakespeare written by Andrew Dickson, is an extremely useful, and very aptly entitled, handbook. In layman's terms, this does exactly what it says on the tin, which is rare for any sort of secondary critical material on Shakespeare's works. The most frustrating problem when settling down to study a Shakespeare play is the abundance of confusing and oftentimes far-fetching criticism that Shakespeare's plays and poems have elicited through the years. You could easily spend more time rifling through, rather than studying, the glittering array of critical material written from every single possible angle one can think of. The question that often pops into the mind of the eager student is: where on earth do I begin? May I suggest The Rough Guide as a good place?
What this guide offers is a simple and accessible starting point for people interested in learning about Shakespeare. It is suitable for both newcomers and old-comers, so to speak. Every one of his plays, listed here alphabetically, comes with a short blurb, publication dates, an act by act synopsis plus character list, a short essay, a production history, a list of notable screen and audio adaptations as well as including useful secondary material. Not only all that, but also included in the Contexts section is a brief history of the man himself, an essay on the Elizabethan stage, a list of handy books and websites, a glossary of terms and, for me most delightfully, pictures! Not bad for a 500 hundred odd page book.
I think it is fair to say that this guide has a lot to offer by way of information about William Shakespeare. Never before will you have to scour your brain to try and differentiate between the characters of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, or become confused between Henry VI part I and Henry VI part II. In this way, The Rough Guide acts as a pseudo Shakespearean dictionary if you like. Any time you need to know which clown appears in which play, flick through The Rough Guide and you shall have your answer in a matter of seconds. The quick synopses of the plays also come in handy as a brief reminder or simply as a way of making clear the intricacies of a Shakespeare plot.
Anyone who is interested in studying Shakespeare, either as a student or otherwise, would do well to purchase The Rough Guide to Shakespeare.