The Reduced Shakespeare Company. Granted I've read this before. A few times. But I love these guys, I love this book and it's a quick read.
This book isn't just a biography of Shakespeare. That's just one small part because, as has been said, there isn't really much to truly be said about the man without making wild conjectures. The majority the book focuses on the plays because, of course, "the play's the thing". They describe the histories, tragedies and comedies in general and then they provide a plot summary for each of the plays with notable quotes and ratings. It's like super cliff's notes. They also list out movie versions of the plays and rate them based on how well they work as movies. It is a fantastic catalog with some of my favorite movies listed (Scotland, PA anyone) as well as some films I've yet to see. The sonnets and other poems also get their own section, with Martin and Tichnor's top 10 sonnets printed here. 116 is included (my personal favorite) so another win.
Shakespeare's work makes up the bulk of the book, as it should, but there is one other section that is a lot of fun: Who Wrote This Stuff?: A reduced look at the Shakespearean Authorship controversy. Plus betting odds. I believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare but reading the anti-Stratfordian beliefs are fun. Also if I had to go with someone other than Shakespeare I'm going for Kit Marlowe because that one involves a faked death and spies! If I'm going to go with something ridiculous, I'm going all the way.
The book is wonderful for people who want to learn more about Shakespeare as well as his ardent fans. For those unfamiliar this is a perfect introduction, like The Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare (which I also own) but wittier. Between this and the other Reduced Shakespeare Company's work The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged] (which I previously wrote about), I prefer Complete Works [abridged]. But honestly, this is a close second for an unpretentious and funny foray into Shakespeare and his canon.
Title quote from page 3
Martin, Reed and Austin Tichenor. Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired [abridged]. Hyperion, 2006.