The book is a study of four of Shakespeare's major tragedies - "Hamlet", "Othello", "King Lear" and "Macbeth". It looks at these plays in a variety of contexts - both in isolation and in relation to each other and to the cultural, ideological, social and political contexts which produced them.
Topics which are examined in order to throw light on the plays include the religious and philosophical developments of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages - especially the rise of protestantism and its effect on ways of thinking; the nature of ideas of harmony and hierarchy in Elizabethan and Jacobean England; the nature of the development of the English language, the growth of literacy, and the implications of that during the period; the development of the dramatic text - that is to say the idea of a play as a literary artefact - together with a consideration of the ways in which Shakespeare's playscripts became "texts" an examination of prevailing dramatic and theatrical conventions and constraints - especially the developing traditions of tragedy during the late 16th and early 17th centuries; and a description of the practical workings of Shakespeare's theatre - the players the playhouses, the companies and their audiences. By far the greatest attention, however, is paid to the plays themselves: "Hamlet", "Macbeth", "Othello", and "King Lear".
They are examined in terms of their success as dramatic texts - the way they work upon the stage - not only a present-day stage but also on the stage for which they were originally written. Their meanings are examined in the light of the relationship between present-day reactions to themes and the way in which they might originally have been received by Shakespeare's 17th century audience. The importance of Shakespeare's exploration of notions of theatricality is something which binds together the analysis of all four plays.