Musings on Downsizing Shakespeare


William ShakespeareWhile downsizing my library earlier this spring (25-30 boxes of books already removed from the shelves and some titles still left to cull), I had to think about what books to keep. This was tough for me, what with my passion for books and reading, parting with any book, especially one I’ve had for decades, can be like losing a child or a pet. 

But I persevered with my purge (with Susan making sure I did…).

I looked at every shelf to first decide which titles no longer served a need (used previously for my work, but now I’ve retired are more ornamental than functional), then which of those already read books I might eventually re-read (a short list), those which I still mean to read even though I haven’t got to them yet (a large selection), those for which I have nostalgia (like my Archy and Mehitabel books from the 1930s and ’40s, or my large collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novels and the Boys’ Own Annuals I got from my father), those which I still like to have as reference (dictionaries, poetry, Latin workbooks, typographic guides, etc.), and those which are standards that should always be in a personal library regardless of one’s situation (Machiavelli, Marcus Aurelius. Cicero, Seneca, a bible, an atlas, etc.)

Of course, Horace, Shakespeare and Chaucer are among the latter. I feel every library should have them at least in some form. These three authors speak not only to me; they speak to all of us, to the human condition, Shakespeare in particular. But which books are the best, the ones that deserve some of my limited shelf space? I have numerous editions, as well as books about the authors, their times, and their language, plus numerous literary criticisms and explanations of their works. Do I need them all?

I have about ten or twelve different editions of Horace’s poetry (Odes, Epodes, Satires, and Epistles) by various translators. Each translator provides a different approach, so each reading is different. These books are small and thin enough I can comfortably keep most if not all. I have some of his poems in older collections of Latin translations I can dispense with if space becomes contested. But perhaps I might part with Catullus… and will I read Ovid and Aeneas again? Will I ever re-read Homer?

It’s fairly easy for me to pick which editions of Chaucer to keep. I can hang onto only three if pressed for space. The largest is the Riverside Chaucer (I have both 2nd and 3rd edns— two of the latter, so I could possibly downsize one) for its comprehensive notes and full text with all of Chaucer’s works. The second would be Penguin’s Canterbury Tales (and maybe Penguin’s Troilus and Cresyde) for the portability and ease of reading. Finally, I’d keep a modernized version of the Tales in contemporary English (for inter-linear reading when the original seems a bit difficult or opaque, but I’d keep a verse edition; not a prose version). I’ll put the 2nd and the extra 3rd edns of the Riverside aside as potential downsizers, alongside three or four of the modernized editions I’ve collected. Sigh. Goodbye, old friends.

I have several Chaucerian biographies and histories of the 14th-15th centuries. It’s nice to know about Chaucer’s time and the stories behind his own tales to understand the historical and cultural contexts. But I’ve read these books in the past and am less likely to read these again. That dictionary of Middle English, however, is worth keeping because the notes in the other editions are not always as thorough as I like about the language. I can probably dispense with the textbooks on Middle English grammar, though. And the ones on Old English, too: I’ll never learn enough of it to read Beowulf in the original as I do Chaucer and Malory.

Shakespeare, however, requires more contemplation. Much more.

Shakespeare is a friend, a companion who has accompanied me more years and places than I can recall. I’ve taken his plays with me on business trips, and on vacation. I’ve sat reading him in the sun on a Mexican beach and under the midnight sun in Inuvik. I’ve returned to hotel rooms after long days at conferences and conventions to read him. I’ve carried him into waiting rooms from airports to doctor’s offices. He’s gone camping with me and ridden buses and subways in the city. he’s been my breakfast and dinner companion when I was single. I often sit outside on my porch with a glass of wine in the summer sunset reading him. Many a night I have read myself to sleep reading a play. Even as recently as this week, I opened Henry VIII to read.

I’ve watched (and own) countless movies made of his plays from the days of Laurence Olivier to Benedict Cumberbatch (I really recommend the BBC’s brilliant Hollow Crown series!). I have listened to his plays in audiobook form while driving back and forth to my radiation treatments. I have watched and listened to Patrick Stewart read his sonnets daily on YouTube.  I have seen the Bard live onstage (in my youth in Stratford, ON) and in live broadcasts at theatres. I’ve stood outside the vault deep within Britain’s National Archives and held Shakespeare’s original will in my trembling hands.*

And yet, I can’t claim to have read all of his works. I have read some of everything, but not every line of every play or poem. There are still words to discover in them, still acts and scenes to peruse and ponder.  Some I’ve read more than once (Julius Caesar at least three times in as many decades). And even those I have read completely deserve at least another reading. There always seems to be something of significance, some words of his that are relevant to the situation, some salient lines that suit the moment I can find when I read him.

Isabelle Allende wrote of how she discovered Shakespeare at the age of nine when her father gave her a Spanish translation of the Bard’s works**. I can’t say for sure when I first read him. Perhaps grade nine or ten, in a high school English class. I recall we read Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and may also have done Julius Caesar. But that’s not when he became a companion. That happened more recently. I think it was sometime in the past four decades. I’m not sure. Could be earlier. It just seemed that, rather suddenly, I was collecting books about the Bard and avidly reading his plays, and reading about them.

I suppose I could winnow out some of the dozen or so biographies of the Bard, and retain merely one or two for reference. Are there any I haven’t read? Unlikely. Are there any I might re-read? Perhaps… but which? The more recent ones are the likeliest since they have historical data the earlier ones lack.

I recently re-read the Michael Wood biography simply titled Shakespeare (Basic Books, New York, 2003, written to accompany the BBC series, In Search of Shakespeare), and I doubt I’ll read it thrice even though it is among the better biographies. I’ve also read all of, as well as re-read part of Jack Lynch’s entertaining Becoming Shakespeare, subtitled How a dead poet became the world’s foremost literary genius (Constable & Robinson, UK, 2007). What about that Anthony Burgess bio of Shakespeare? (Knopf, New York, 1970)? As much as I respect Burgess as an author, the bio is rather dated (1970 is the year the Beatles broke up, and I’ve probably had my copy since then or not long after). And as witty as Bill Bryson’s little bio of the Bard is, will I crack it open again in the next decade?

These are the sorts of things I contemplate as I stare at my bookshelves. I try to be ruthless. I take a book out with every intention of adding it to the downsize pile, but then I open it, and get drawn it. Susan finds me sitting at the top of the steps, reading. Books migrate from the shelves to my beside so I can continue reading them at night. Others accompany me downstairs for those afternoons when Susan and I sit in the living room reading. Some days I have to go around the house, rounding up the scattered books as if they were wilful children playing hide and seek.

I have quite a few single-play editions, with some duplicates. I could let go of a few, although I find them easier to carry and read in bed than the “collected works” editions. They are more likely to accompany me to the dentist’s office or the barber’s shop than some unwieldy giant of collected works. And often these single-play editions have more extensive editorial notes than the latter collected works. Of course, each publisher has different textual material, so which might be the most authoritative and comprehensive? 

I suppose I could part with a couple of my editions of the Sonnets, and keep just one (likely the Arden hardcover) since I don’t read the poems as often as the plays (and, of course, they’re reprinted in the ‘complete works” editions).  I realize Shakespeare was first and more widely recognized as a poet in his day than a playwright, but I personally find the language in his poetry feels more archaic than in his plays.

I have at least a dozen books about the plays, from Harold Bloom and John Berryman’s scholarly explorations to Joseph Rosenblum’s solid Reader’s Guide, to lighter Shakespeare for Dummies, Norrie Epstein’s Friendly Shakespeare, and Shakespeare for Beginners. Maybe I can part with a few of them. Not the Bloom: I turned to his commentary as recently as last week, when looking up Henry VIII. Nor the Rosenblum: he’s too good in his synopses. But maybe Berryman and some of the lighter works can be put aside, even though I refer to many of them rather often.

And I also refer to my several books of quotations from Shakespeare when I want something pithy for a blog post. Which is relatively often.  Arranged by subject matter, they’re easy to use. I can almost always find what I need to underscore a point.

David and Ben Crystal’s book, Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion (Penguin Books, UK, 2004) is, however, indispensable. It is a truly remarkable achievement: 14,000 words explained and glossed with examples, and sources, as well as panels with relevant information about a range of topics. I keep it beside me when I read a play. I will also keep Eric Partridge’s old but still delightful Shakespeare’s Bawdy; an examination of the sexual puns and references in the plays. And Scott Kaiser’s Shakespeare’s Wordcraft? Yes, of course: it always helps me appreciate the tremendous power Shakespeare had in his language.

One book I definitely won’t be keeping is Charles Beauclerk’s Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdoms. It’s one of those conspiracy tomes that skillfully and cunningly misinterpret history, art, and language, weaving them with innuendo, wild speculation, and unfounded assertions to tell readers that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write Shakespeare’s works. They were written, the conspiracists say, by Someone Else. The dark horse-du-jour is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford who may have been Queen Elizabeth’s secret love child (born when she was a mere 14-year-old princess). But then, we’re told Elizabeth’s mother was also Henry VIII’s daughter as well as his wife. And de Vere died in 1604, which is inconvenient for explaining all those plays written after that date (at least 10!). The Oxford-as-Shakespeare house of cards collapses easily, and it becomes a slog to even pretend to credit this claptrap after not very many chapters. 

Previously authorship was claimed for Christopher Marlow, Francis Bacon, and a few unlikely others. It’s all piffle, of course. Entertaining at times, like reading about alien abductions and bigfoot. I’ve read a few of these author-conspiracy books and don’t find any more substance in them than in claims for aliens building the pyramids (Egyptian,  Mayan, or both). Methinks this one (bought from the $2 sale table at the nearby Chapters store some years back) is for downsizing.

What about the “collected works” editions? That’s tough. Much tougher to downsize. And I have several.

I have the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company, which uses a modernized version of the First Folio), the Norton, and Pelican editions, plus the 6-vol set produced by Bantam in the late ’80s edited by David Bevington (but lacking Two Noble Kinsmen and the Funeral Elegy). And I have two versions of the Collins edition, too (one a small hardcover from around 1910-20, the other the more recent and larger paperback). The Norton is my favourite, but the paper is the thinnest of the lot; so much so that I can see text and illustrations through the paper. I worry about tearing it when I read it in bed.

ST:NG Shakespeare

I even have one of those massive Globe Illustrated Complete Works coffee-table-sized volumes, this one reprinted in the mid-1980s from a popular 19th-century edition (ed. by Howard Staunton the chess master after whom the best chess sets are named today), but I keep it more for the illustrations by John Gilbert. Yes, it’s THAT edition, the one from Star Trek: The Next Generation… just a slightly different cover on mine (white where Picard’s is red). Picked it up at a yard sale, I think. I suppose I can do without it; even though Staunton’s commentaries are still very readable today, I prefer Asimov’s and Bloom’s.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve lugged one of these hefty volumes from the shelf to sit at a table and go through the notes and footnotes for a play, as I read the play itself. They are comfortingly authoritative for their very size. You can feel a world contained in their weight, unconstrained by the niceties of paperback size and shape. They have gravitas.

I still dream of owning the Arden and Folger editions, the Riverside, and maybe even Bevington’s 7th edition. Is it unreasonable to still want more versions of the complete works when I have several? I tell myself no, because each one differs in notes, introductions, explanatory essays, layout, and vocabularies. It’s about learning more, understanding more, appreciating more in the Bard. Can one ever learn too much or study too much where Shakespeare is concerned? Methinks not.

There’s also the question of editorial decisions made to correct or reshape some of the questionable or even contradictory lines and words that appear in the folios and quartos. Editors make decisions on what to print, how a line should scan, spellings, or how to correct typos, and different editors may make choices others don’t follow. So there are differences in the texts, although laypeople like myself probably won’t ever spot them. You find out about those decisions in the notes and introductions to the plays. 

That being said, I don’t read these collected editions concurrently as I might, say, translations of Horace or Machiavelli, to compare what the editors said or selected in each. I simply don’t often have the space to spread them out. And with price tags of $80-$100, I’m not about to invest in another such book right now. Besides, Susan would frown on me bringing more books into the house when I’m trying to reduce their number.

So not many books from the Shakespearean shelves are being trimmed from the collection. Others will be sacrificed so the Bard still has a place of pride here.


* Susan’s brother worked at the National Archives and arranged for the private viewing when we visited him in 2012. It was, for me, one of the most memorable highlights of the visit, The will was in a protective sleeve so I could see the writing but not touch the actual paper.

** Related in her essay, Enamoured With Shakespeare, reprinted in Shakespeare & Me, ed. Susannah Carson, Oneworld Publications, UK, 2014. Carson collects essays and articles by 38 scholars, actors, and writers on how or why Shakespeare matters to them.

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    Just one of many such posts online that compare various editions of the complete works and comment on which is preferred by the post’s author. However, some salient remarks here made me reconsider my options. Arden edition drops lower in my wishlist, for example, and Bevington moves up a notch. Some similar posts:

    Which Shakespeare Edition Would You Recommend? | Shakespeare Geek, The Original Shakespeare Blog

    Recommended Shakespeare Editions: Arden, Oxford, and Cambridge – Waggish

  2. Pingback: Musing on the Authorship Question Again – Scripturient

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