A brief selection of books that help with the study of Shakespeare’s sources, texts, biography, and other background material.
Gordon Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985)—important treatment of the classical background, especially in drama, to Shakespeare’s plays
Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), 8 vols.—studying Shakespeare’s sources can often reveal a great deal about his art and thought; these volumes conveniently collect most of the known sources of Shakespeare’s plays.
Lukas Erne, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003)—an important book, which argues, contrary to much scholarship, that Shakespeare did write his plays with publication in mind, even though he did not live to supervise the publication of the First Folio.
Andrew Hadfield and Paul Hammond, eds., Shakespeare and Renaissance Europe (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2005)—a good set of essays on the Renaissance backgrounds to Shakespeare’s plays
David Scott Kastan, ed., A Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)—one of the best single volumes of background information on all aspects of Shakespeare and his plays
Mary Ann McGrail, ed., Shakespeare’s Plutarch, Poetica 48 (1997)—studies of Shakespeare’s use of Plutarch in his Roman plays and elsewhere
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World (New York: Pantheon, 1956)—provocative and controversial treatment of courtly love and the Petrarchan poetic tradition; background for understanding Shakespeare’s romantic comedies and his love tragedies
Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)—Shakespeare’s life told in terms of all the documentary evidence that survives, with valuable reproductions of the documents themselves (also available in a “compact” paperback edition)
James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010)—an excellent treatment of the issue of the authorship of the Shakespeare plays (Shapiro rightly concludes that Shakespeare did in fact write them)