Reading William Shakespeare in high school is a memory most of us share and one that some of us may not want to remember. Public school systems teach Shakespeare because one, for many people he exemplifies the very essence of creative writing, and for two, some knowledge of Shakespeare, no matter how superficial, is an expected asset of any educated person. But many people’s exposure to Shakespeare ends during high school, or perhaps college, depending on one’s courses. However, Shakespeare can be expertly studied on one’s own, given the right resources. New editions of Shakespeare's plays seem to be published every day; finding the right one(s) can be tiresome, especially for someone just looking to break into the bard’s antiquated world. Here we’ll look at my favorite editions and ancillary texts that can give a casual reader a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
As far as the texts of the plays themselves go, one can choose between an all-inclusive single volume text such as The Norton Shakespeare or the Oxford Shakespeare, or single play editions such as the Folger Shakespeare Library Series or the Norton Critical Editions. For the beginner, a single play edition might be more practical and less intimidating. A reader can read the play and if they decide to continue their Shakespeare studies pick up another one. However, the single volume works editions have the advantage of typically being cheaper (than buying all the individual plays) and of containing introductions, play summaries and contexts, and excellent footnotes. The disadvantage is hefting a giant multi-thousand page book around! For those serious about studying Shakespeare, a combination of the two is recommended.
The Norton Shakespeare has always been my favorite all-in-one edition. It has excellent annotations and introductions and is very legible (actually a rather large problem in many Shakespeare complete works editions, be sure to actually see the book you are thinking about getting in person to make sure the text isn’t too small or awkwardly divided into multiple columns per page.) The downside of the Norton is that the book is very large and the pages are very thin. Weighing in at almost 3,500 pages, the Norton Shakespeare is no small matter to carry around and can sometimes be awkward to hold. However, its academic cred is very esteemed. For instance, it contains multiple versions of King Lear (which was alternately a tragedy and a history) that the reader can compare and contrast. The Norton edition also focuses heavily on the source from which the text of the play is drawn. Getting into folios, prints, and so forth can be tedious, but it is interesting to know the history of the text and just how accurate modern editions are to the original.
Carrying around the Norton Shakespeare could cause one some major aches and pains, which is one reason why also having single play editions can be useful. The hands down winners for me are the Norton Critical Editions. These books, in addition to a very sharp text of the play with copious annotations, contain some hundreds of pages of contexts, sources, influences, and criticism. Norton still has a way to go before all of Shakespeare’s plays are available in these editions, Antony and Cleopatra is next on the slate, due to be released in mid-January.
The ancillary materials here are key in obtaining a serious knowledge not only of Shakespeare, but of how he fits into our modern world. Each Norton Critical Edition offers an introduction to the type of literary criticism and psychological influence that each play has generated since its publication. In addition, each volume provides a comprehensive bibliography for those readers interested in delving even deeper into any specific play. For instance, in Norton’s Hamlet one can find essays by A.C. Bradley, whose Shakespearean Tragedy is a seminal critical text, and G. Wilson Knight, whose Wheel of Fire served as one of the foundations of modern Shakespearean criticism. Just getting a taste of these books can drive the reader further down the path of Shakespeare studies and lead to exploring other works of Shakespeare criticism, such as Victor Kiernan’s excellent Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare which explores the plays from a Marxist perspective, or George Bernard Shaw’s Shaw on Shakespeare, where Shaw simultaneously praises and viciously criticizes Shakespeare and his modern acclaim.
The crucial difference between the Norton Critical Editions and other single play Shakespeare texts is that almost all of the other editions are marketed towards high school students and therefore do not offer the depth of serious insight that an older, motivated reader might require. Shakespeare’s language can be a little difficult to get into (though once one finds the rhythm, it becomes as natural as modern texts) and these editions may clarify obsolete words and point out the many instances of Shakespeare’s clever wordplay, but rarely will they scratch beneath the surface.
The clarity with which Shakespeare explores the human mind, passions, and soul is the reason his work and his name remain so popular even today. Critically analyzing the plays and exactly what they are saying or asking about the human condition is the task of any careful reader. Finding the edition that gives the reader the most and best resources with which to perform this task is the first step down that road. A solid understanding of Shakespeare’s plays, coupled with one’s individual critical thought about the themes therein not only makes one an erudite party-goer, but improves one as a human being, because to study Shakespeare is to study the essence of humanity and therefore one’s self.
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