Musings on the Complete Works


Arden Shakespeare Complete Works 3rd seriesWhen the Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works arrived this week (an early birthday gift from my wife who might have wanted to hide it until the actual date… oops… I saw the postie arrive…), I thought it might be time to put together a spreadsheet identifying some of the key differences between the various versions of the “complete works” in my library, and among those other editions I don’t own (but may in the future). This is meant to help me select which version I might want to read from at any time. In fact, it’s my goal to read ALL of the First Folio plays in a calendar year, starting on my birthday, but that’s for another post.

I have eight different “complete” editions:

  • Arden 3rd Series (2021)
  • Collins/HarperCollins (1994)
  • Collins Cleartype (1923)
  • Globe (1986, reprint of 1860’s edition)
  • Norton (1997)
  • Royal Shakespeare Company  (RSC: 2007)
  • Pelican (2002)
  • QPB (6 vols, 1980)

I am contemplating (or merely drooling over):

  • Riverside 2nd edn (1996)
  • Oxford (2005)
  • Bevington 7th (2012)

However, the cost of the Riverside and Bevington are somewhat excessive for my limited budget, so they are likely not going to join the library any time in the near future (barring a major lottery win…). The Oxford edition, however, is in my sights (don’t tell Susan…) and shares the same text with the Norton, but entirely different notes and introductions. But they all have reputations for great glosses, commentaries, and notes: for me, these are essential to appreciating the Bard.

(I also have several books of individual plays, which usually have richer and more comprehensive notes, but this post is about the “complete” works editions).

Complete is a malleable word, depending on the views of the editors as what should be included. Some are strictly tied to the First Folio for the list of plays and then add the Sonnets and major poems. Others expand their collections to include works that lie outside the folios or authorized poems, but are generally well-accepted today (e.g. The Two Noble Kinsmen). More audacious editors are willing to throw in dubious or controversial works, both plays (e.g. Edward III) and poems (e.g, A Funeral Elegy).

I am personally interested in the arguments for and against adding the apocryphal material, but the inclusion of same is not a deal-breaker for me, since I am not an academic, merely an aficionado. However, I do consider The Two Noble Kinsmen an essential play in the canon (finally accepted as a Shakespearean collaboration in the past 40-50 years after much academic chest-thumping and hair-pulling). I am mildly disappointed none of the editors considers Edward Ironside worthy of consideration. But that may yet happen.

The Arden is the latest book in my collection (despite my drive to downsize), but it is weak in its contextual notes. I bought it because it is the only one I own that includes the texts of the apocryphal plays Edward III and Double Falsehood. It’s a bit disappointing because the individual Arden plays (I own a few) are often rated the best for their rich notes and commentaries. This version has introductions and a glossary, but no explanatory footnotes. Overall the scholarship in it is thinner than I had hoped. Reading the texts without the supporting notes sometimes feels like a tightrope walker moving along the wire without a net. Exhilarating, but scary at times when it gets a bit foggy.

For notes, I prefer the Norton, followed by the RSC and Pelican editions. The QPB edition (edited by David Bevington) has good notes but they are somewhat dated by today’s standards (1980). As an aside, I got these QPB volumes when I was a member of the Quality Paperback Book Club, in the 1980s; pre-Amazon, and pre-internet. I dropped out of the subscription club when I moved here, in 1990. 

The easiest to read are those printed in one-column formats. I realize that publishers choose the two-column format to reduce the sheer bulk of such a book (most are 1,400-2,000 pages or more), but in narrow volumes, this also causes some unwanted line breaks and formatting effects, and makes the page rather busy. It works well enough in the wider books like the RSC and Arden editions, but Collins feels cramped. Keep in mind: the Folios were printed in two-column pages, so the precedent was set.

I prefer a single column for reading. In my collection that format includes the Norton, RSC and QPB versions. However, the RSC edition is big and unwieldy for reading on my lap or in bed; the Norton is easier to hold but has thinner pages that not only bleed through, but threaten to tear more easily. I like the QPB editions for their compact size, single-column display, and ease of handling. Were they more recent, they would be my first choice for reading.

I tend to discount the Collins Cleartype (1923) for reading because it has no notes in context and, being the smallest of the collection, is the most cramped (I purchased it decades ago simply because I liked the look and feel, with its gilt edges and soft leather cover). The hefty Globe edition (from a yard sale, I believe) is, despite some worthy (albeit dated) commentary from Howard Staunton and entertaining engravings, far too massive for anything but weightlifting exercises. The Collins (HarperCollins) paperback is a good size for travel, but also bereft of the notes and commentaries I enjoy (and is printed in two columns per page). It is also based on the Alexander text, first published in 1951, which is rather dated by today’s standards.

The Pelican edition rather oddly puts all the footnotes at the bottom of the rightmost column of the page, rather than spreading them across the page as most other editions do.  I find this requires the reader’s eyes to jump across columns too much. But the wider editions (RSC) with the footnotes spread across the width of the page are also a bit difficult because they are wider than optimal for reading and require the eye to scan longer lines to find the notes (the optimal line width for efficient reading is roughly the width of a line in a paperback book, or about the width of an adult’s hand). Norton solves this by being both a narrower book, and running the footnotes in two columns at the bottom (while the plays are printed in single column, above).

I have an editor’s interest in how some of the plays have been edited, and conflated from Folio and Quarto texts, as I’ve written about in the past.  As such, I want to read the various versions of some of the plays so I can try to understand both The Bard’s intent and the editor’s. The two plays most in contention (for me) are King Lear and Hamlet, both of which appeared in print in quarto editions (two for Hamlet) before the First Folio, and have major differences in these published versions.

But I am hesitant (or maybe just lazy) to read them in both formats, and prefer to have the missing or additional sections inserted into a conflated text with some way for me to identify them as I read. One method to do this is to append the quarto texts to the end of the Folio texts with markers to indicate that reader should look to the end (the RSC version does this). Another method is to separate the quarto material within the Folio text by indentation or a different typeface (the Norton does this). I prefer the latter because I don’t have to page back and forth. I respect the RSC’s editors’ decisions to defer to the First Folio, but for a casual reader like myself, their layout isn’t as friendly as the Norton’s.

Norton also prints the Quarto and Folio versions of Lear on facing pages (followed by the conflated text), which makes it easier to compare the differences.

Most editions, however, are conflations or amended versions in which editors have made decisions as to , what words to change,  and which material should stay or go when there is content in a quarto that doesn’t match the Folio version. I always want to know WHY they decided, and seldom am rewarded with an explanation.

The RSC takes the approach that the Folio version is, with some corrections to spelling, punctuation, and obvious typos, the foundation text to which other versions must defer. Others give the Quarto versions primacy as being closer to the performance versions. Some editors assume that plays were in flux and changing according to when and where they were performed, so sections were added or removed to suit the moment, but that there was no definitive edition of any of them, so all versions should be considered (hence conflated or edited texts accordingly).

Even some single words are famously contentious and the editorial choices matter considerably to the meaning of the line or speech. The soliloquy in Hamlet (act one, scene two, line 129:) where he says (emphasis added),

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

The two Quartos say “sallied” flesh, while the Folio has “solid,” and some editors have suggested the proper word is “sullied.” All three words offer different interpretations. Sallied means assailed, or assaulted, but might also mean salty, or tear-soaked. Sullied suggests defilement: dark, dirty, and sinful (relating to the contaminated flesh in the speech: “things rank and gross in nature”). Arden’s and Pelican’s editors go with sullied, Norton’s and the RSC’s with solid (the Arden Complete has both Q2 and Folio texts but no conflated version; the single-volume 2nd series edition of the play has sullied). Both Collins editions and the Globe use “solid.” Folger uses “sullied.”* Oxford uses “solid.” And contrary to the rest, the Norton Critical Edition of the play (second edition, 1992) uses “sallied” noting it is “a legitimate sixteenth-century form of “sully”. 

I tend to side with the “solid” choice because it works better with melt and thaw, but I’m not a scholar, merely a guy who likes to read The Bard and ponder his words (neither Asimov nor Bloom discuss this word choice in their guides to Shakespeare).

You can see some of the variations in the Hamlet Quartos and Folio editions here:

Hamlet variations

In my spreadsheet, I have made some notations that ought to be explained. First, “columns” indicate how the plays are printed (one or two columns to a page). N or Y indicates whether that item is printed in the edition. A question mark indicates I don’t know (if you can enlighten me, I would appreciate a comment to this post with the information). Contextual content is a personal appraisal (A to E) of the notes, footnotes, glossaries, introductions, etc. presented with the text (NA means not applicable or insignificant content).

For the Riverside, Oxford, and Bevington editions, I depended on online descriptions, tables of content, and images where I could find them.

I would rate the QPB versions higher (as a B) but for their age (and lack of the Two Noble Kinsmen play). They have served me well as reading copies for the past  40 or so years. This is why I would like Bevington’s latest edition, to avail myself of his latest commentaries. But if you can find the QPB editions, I highly recommend them, age notwithstanding.

My preferred edition among my library for scholarly content is the Norton, but for reading in bed or on the deck with a glass of wine (or cup of tea) I still fall back on the QPB volumes for size and comfort. The RSC and Pelican editions are next, with a slight edge to the RSC for the one-column format, followed at some distance by the Arden (lacking explanatory footnotes, I struggle more to appreciate its texts). 


* You can download all the Folger texts from their site, for free, but if you want any of the notes, essays, etc. you have to buy the printed texts. You can read these online, however.

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One comment

  1. As Harold Bloom wrote in his Elegy for the Western Canon:

    NOTHING that we could say about Shakespeare now is nearly as important as Emerson’s realization. Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are. We owe to Shakespeare not only our representation of cognition but much of our capacity for cognition. The difference between Shakespeare and his nearest rivals is one of both kind and degree, and that double difference defines the reality and necessity of the Canon. Without the Canon, we cease to think. You may idealize endlessly about replacing aesthetic standards with ethnocentric and gender considerations, and your social aims may indeed be admirable. Yet only strength can join itself to strength, as Nietzsche perpetually testified.

    From The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom, 1994. Here is a list of the books in Bloom’s canon. And here is another list with links to online sources of those books. Bloom classifies all of Shakespeare’s work as a single title in his list.

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