One of the most impressive contributions to Shakespearean scholarship that I have ever come across is Isaac Asimov’s Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Originally published in 1970 in two separate volumes, I have the two-volumes-in-one edition by Wings Books. How anyone could have composed this 800-page monster exegesis is beyond me, but we’re talking about the genius biochemist/science-fiction writer Asimov, who published more than 400 books (did you catch that number?). This is a scene-by-scene (and at times, it seems like a line-by-line) analysis of the 38-plays in the canon, plus the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Most informative is the historical context in which he places each work ("In Shakespeare's time Austria was a great power, but in the time of the play it was still a rather minor German duchy"), and most humorous is his penchant for pointing out the dizzying amount of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms that exist in the oeuvre (“But in actual history, Richard III was always on good terms with his old mother . . .” ; “It may well have been a Danish rather than a Norwegian invasion of Scotland that Macbeth had to deal with at that time . . .” ; “The title ‘Duke of Ephesus’ is as anachronistic as ‘Duke of Athens’ and with even less excuse, since there never was a Duchy of Ephesus in medieval times as there was, at least, a Duchy of Athens”). Geographical and topographical details abound (“If we imagine a French setting, the Forest of Arden would be the wooded region of Ardennes, straddling the modern boundary between France and southern Belgium”), as well as hundreds upon hundreds of explanations of allusions (and allusions within allusions!), etymological nuances, and historical sources for the plays. The maps are also invaluable (“The Mediterranean in the Time of Julius Caesar,” for example), and the thematic analysis is brilliant. One gets the sense in reading this prodigious text that Asimov wrote it all from memory. Of course not, but he makes it look really easy.
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, June 2008