Reading Shakespeare: new editions

bedford shakespeare

“Why another Shakespeare volume?” ask the editors of the recently-published Bedford Shakespeare, Russ McDonald and Lena Cowen Orlin. Their answer is that most editions don’t answer the requirements of current students, particularly in the USA. ” We asked hundreds of students and instructors what their biggest difficulties were in the Shakespeare course, and we designed The Bedford Shakespeare in response. Students have told us that they often find Shakespeare’s language challenging, that it can be difficult to imagine the action of a play on the stage, and that they wished they had a stronger grasp of early modern history. The Bedford Shakespeare invites readers to engage with Shakespeare’s words, to experience his dramatic vision, and to take pleasure in reading and seeing his plays”.

And the book is a pleasure to read, in spite of its almost 2000 pages weighing in at 2 kilos. The editors have thought hard about ways of keeping the attention of their readers, and engaging those studying Shakespeare.

Within the text, most double-page spreads contain at least one “Aside”, a box containing a combination of text, quotes or pictures that relate to the scene. Visually they act as relief, but also provide an opportunity for reflection, perhaps offering an unexpected image such as the photograph of Maori warriors performing Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012. An “Aside” towards the end of Henry IV part 2 points out how a quarto stage direction naming an actor rather than his role helps us understand how Shakespeare wrote for a known company of players.

I also like the Context essays sandwiched between the plays. There’s a nice sense of serendipity about these: “Players” aptly comes between Julius Caesar and Hamlet, but “Religion” is between Othello and Troilus and Cressida. I can see myself returning many times to these succinct, enjoyable essays written by the two eminent editors. In fact all the editorial material in the book is well-chosen and readable. I expected to recognise most of it, but the editors have found lots of unfamiliar quotations that will provide a source for classroom discussion or private deliberation.

Many of the examples are from around the world, appealing to international readers as well as reinforcing Shakespeare’s internationalism. I’m certainly going to be browsing through it regularly and I hope it will find an audience among Shakespeare fans as well as students.

The publication has its own dedicated website where linked images, audio and video clips can be found. I’d like to see more of these online resources and very much hope this side of the Bedford Shakespeare will grow in time.  This page contains a link to the Bedford Shakespeare companion site through the logo on the right hand side of the page.

Kenneth Muir's Arden 2 edition of Macbeth

Kenneth Muir’s Arden 2 edition of Macbeth

A few months ago it was announced that the General Editors of The Arden Shakespeare (fourth series) will be Peter Holland along with Zachary Lesser and Tiffany Stern. The first individual Arden volumes based on the Globe Shakespeare text were published in 1899 and quickly became the most authoritative of editions.  Arden 2 was published between 1946 and the 1980s, with newly-edited texts: several are still current. In the 1990s Arden 3 began to appear, including the non-canonical plays The Double Falsehood and Sir Thomas More and two different editions of Hamlet based on the different contemporary editions of the play. The series should be completed in 2016, giving a few years before Arden 4 begins to be published around 2020. The publishers, Bloomsbury, have now stated “The general editors’ first task over the months and years ahead will be to imagine what a Shakespeare edition for the twenty-first century will be like—not least in terms of its online version as well as print publication.”

Meanwhile the one-volume New Oxford Shakespeare is scheduled for publication in 2016 under the leadership of John Jowett. This post explains how the Shakespeare Institute, of which Jowett is Deputy Director, is creating a new resource from the carefully-researched footnotes and glosses which were intended to be part of the original 1986 edition of the Oxford Shakespeare. Space considerations meant they could not be included, and the index cards have now been typed up by Library Support Assistants. This will form a valuable in-depth online resource to accompany the new printed version.

The_Unkindest_Cut_largeSo many editions aimed at students, yet a recent article in the Telegraph has revealed that “only a small fraction of English literature students in America’s top colleges are required to specialise in the works of the bard”. A new report published by the lobbying group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that only four of the country’s 52 highest-ranked academic institutions make a Shakespeare course compulsory, and that he is being marginalised as a result. The report, The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015 sadly notes “The Bard, who is the birthright of the English speaking world, has no seat of honour. A degree in English without serious study of Shakespeare is like a major in Greek literature without the serious study of Homer.”


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2 Responses to Reading Shakespeare: new editions

  1. Lar Bowe says:

    “Why another Shakespeare volume?”
    Yes, those are my words exactly, more new editions after I just obtained the RSC McMillan edition, which has become my first reference. Your article speaks to need for the new edition as…”most editions don’t answer the requirements of current students, particularly in the USA.” I find this difficult to believe as most editions speak most succinctly to the basis questions any student/reader would ask about the text. The second part of your article gives some rationale as to why it may be needed and segues with my observations on an online MOOC “Shakespeare in Community” in which I am currently enrolled. It is a light-weight approach to four plays and is to be lauded for its efforts to introduce Shakespeare to the uninitiated, apparently it has attracted enrollment in excess of 10,000, which is most positive! In the discussion fora I have been taken-aback by the lack of basic knowledge of Shakespeare and his works, even from those who would appear to be well educated, their profile generally shows them as Degree holders of one kind or another. Again in keeping with your blog the majority of those enrolled would appear to be from the USA. Good for them for trying to come to grips with his works and the “new” edition if it attracts a new readership/audience then it is most welcome but my bookshelves can’t handle another tome!

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Dear Lar
      Thanks for your comments especially on the current Shakespeare MOOC. I’m delighted to hear of the healthy enrolment and hope it will bring people to Shakespeare. The Bedford Shakespeare is apparently only available in North America, though I think it deserves a wider readership with its great editorial material.

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