As a Shakespeare buff, I have several complete editions of Shakespeare’s works. Yet I’m not satisfied with any of them. And I don’t know if I’ll ever find one that suits me.
Shakespeare wrote a lot. Packaging all of his works in a single edition is very difficult. Publishers of complete Shakespeare editions – there are a half-dozen of them, not counting cheap paperbacks of public domain texts – make a lot of choices when creating an edition of the works. For example, the Oxford Shakespeare touts the following:
“The second Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works reconsiders every detail of their text and presentation in the light of modern scholarship. The nature and authority of the early documents are re-examined, and the canon and chronological order of composition freshly established. Spelling and punctuation are modernized, and there is a brief introduction to each work, as well as an illuminating and informative General Introduction. Included here for the first time is the play The Reign of King Edward the Third as well as the full text of Sir Thomas More. This new edition also features an essay on Shakespeare’s language by David Crystal, and a bibliography of foundational works.”
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the text of the Oxford edition, claims:
“Instructors and students worldwide welcomed the fresh scholarship, lively and accessible introductions, helpful marginal glosses and notes, readable single-column format, all designed in support of the goal of the Oxford text: to bring the modern reader closer than before possible to Shakespeare’s plays as they were first acted. Now, under Stephen Greenblatt’s direction, the editors have considered afresh each introduction and all of the apparatus to make the Second Edition an even better teaching tool.”
And the RSC Shakespeare offers the following:
“A definitive modernized edition of Shakespeare’s text based on the 1623 First Folio (the first and original Complete Works lovingly assembled by Shakespeare’s fellow actors and the version of Shakespeare’s text preferred by many actors and directors today); Thought-provoking essays on each play and a superb general introduction by Professor Jonathan Bate; Jargon-free on-page notes which explain words or references unfamiliar to modern audiences; Photographs of classic or unusual performances; Clear, single-column page design, with plenty of space for writing notes; A key facts ‘box’ for each play which summarises the plot, major roles, language and sources.
Leading the editorial team is renowned Shakespearean scholar Professor Jonathan Bate who has worked in close collaboration over many years with the artists and archivists at the RSC. His introductions and notes draw on a unique wealth of experience and resources and will help the reader to understand Shakespeare’s plays as they were originally intended – as living theatre to be enjoyed and performed.”
Complete editions of Shakespeare are created mostly for students, rather than the common reader, and this explains why publishers highlight elements of their books that will incite teachers to prescribe them. But for the non-student who wants an edition of Shakespeare, how is one to choose?
The Oxford Shakespeare is certainly the least reader-friendly; there are no notes at all, and a mere 15 pages of Glossary at the end of the volume. This keeps the page count down; at only 1,424 pages, it’s one of the shortest, and this low page count allows for good-quality paper. For comparison, the RSC Shakespeare is 2,552 pages, but has copious bottom-of-page notes, which make reading much easier. The Oxford Shakespeare is also a “just the text” edition, which is where the Norton Shakespeare comes in: at a whopping 3,440 pages, it includes introductions, illustrations and essays. The RSC edition is similar; it has introductions, and also contains appendices with texts that are not in the First Folio (the RSC edition is based on the First Folio, whereas other editions conflate different source texts).
While size is one issue, paper quality is another. As I said above, the Oxford Shakespeare has very good paper; the Norton’s paper is thin, and the binding of its one-volume paperback edition makes the paper warp. The RSC hardcover (I haven’t seen the paperback) has very thin paper, and I find reading uncomfortable, as I can see the text on the other side.
But the RSC has an advantage, shared by the Norton: the texts are in single columns, making them easier to read. I find the double-column layout of the Oxford and other editions far too confusing; it’s hard to tell where a line break is in the original text, compared to the line break required by the column width.
Perhaps the solution is to not put all the plays in a single volume; after all, reading a book that big is uncomfortable. If you want to read a play in bed, none of these editions will be practical. The Norton, however, is the most flexible, offering three versions: a single-volume hardcover or paperback, a two-volume paperback (Early Plays and Poems and Later Plays), and a four-volume paperback (Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, and Romances and Poems). At around 1,000 pages each, these books would be much easier to handle. (Though not having seen them, I’m not sure if the paper is better in the multi-volume editions than the one-volume edition.)
Yet all of this ignores the text. The editorial choices and assumptions are far more important than page layout, but for a book this size, the latter weighs much more in most readers’ choice (unless, of course, they are students, and have to buy a specific edition). I applaud the RSC’s choice of using the First Folio, but I do not know enough about Shakespearean textual research to know, for any specific edition, whether or not textual differences matter to me. I trust the scholars who oversee these editions, but, again, I favor the RSC edition, as this leans toward performance. If only the RSC edition were available in a multi-volume set, with better paper…
A final note about ebook editions. There are a few complete Shakespeare editions (aside from cheap, or free, public domain versions), and the formatting of all of them is horrible. However, the $10 Shakespeare Pro app has pride of place on my iPad and iPhone. While the text is not edited by scholars, and there are no introductions, the ability to read any of Shakespeare’s plays on a portable device, and access excellent notes for words I don’t understand, makes it trump all of the existing books. If only publishers of complete Shakespeare editions would do something similar…
It may be that, while more economical, a single-volume edition of Shakespeare is not the way to go. In a future article, I’ll look at individual editions of the plays, as well as ebook editions of them.