Best paperback edition of the complete works of Shakespeare?
August 20, 2016 9:13 PM   Subscribe

I've got several hardcover collections of Shakespeare but what I'm craving is a paperback version that can open/lay flat, with clear and legible text and quality paper -- annotations and footnotes are welcome but introductory essays and extensive commentary aren't required. The Amazon reviews of various editions are unhelpful because, due to some odd algorithm, they don't all correspond to the actual editions on sale. Can anyone recommend an edition that fits my specifications? Thanks in advance!
posted by mylittlepoppet to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I can only speak to the Norton Shakespeare, which is what I have. It opens up & lays flat; the text is on the small side, but the font is quite legible; it's extremely well-annotated, since it's meant for class study; it does include introductory essays for each play. The paper, though, is a little on the thin side (it's never torn on me), so it's not perfect for you -- just thought I'd describe its characteristics, in case you were considering it at some point.
posted by stellarc at 12:23 AM on August 21, 2016

Best answer: The New Oxford Shakespeare is due out in October, though I don't know what it's going to be like in terms of binding and paper quality. Like stellarc, my go-to is the Norton (2016 edition), but if you're going to do that, I'd warn you against getting the student edition, which has a very tight binding and is pretty much impossible to lay flat.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:12 AM on August 21, 2016

Best answer: Sorry -- that link I posted for the Norton Shakespeare to be broken, and Sonny Jim's right, editions tend to vary. To clarify, I'm talking about the grey-cover version of the second edition. Hope that link works.
posted by stellarc at 2:37 AM on August 21, 2016

Best answer: Check out the Arden Shakespeare editions. I've used the individual play editions, but apparently you can also get the complete works. They are authoritative, generous, and easy to handle.
posted by jasper411 at 7:15 AM on August 21, 2016

I like the Arden, but Folger is also good as far as content goes. Can't speak to the lay flat issue.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:06 PM on August 21, 2016

Shakespearean text coaching for actors is something I do professionally. I'm in the UK, so I can only talk about editions that are available here.

DO NOT BUY OXFORD. The Oxford Shakespeare is still suffering from the aftermath of their 1986 edition, which tried to be exciting and different as a selling-point, and ended up just flat-out making shit up textually. It's useless to actors, because those using Oxford end up with wildly different text from everyone else in the rehearsal room. Looks like the new edition will have 2 of the original editorial team involved, so I wouldn't trust it. The Norton Shakespeare is based on Oxford and, though I haven't read it, it should probably be avoided just on that basis.

I love the Arden individual editions (especially the 2nd editions-- awful paintings on the covers, but overall better edited, and easy to find second-hand), but last I looked, their Complete Works doesn't preserve the difference between -ed and -'d endings. (I prefer editions which do preserve that distinction, since it makes it easier to work out scansion.)

Of the widely available editions, I like the Alexander text: edited by Peter Alexander, published by Collins. It's cheap, preserves the -'d/-ed difference, and is generally well-edited. (Some of the choices are a little old-fashioned, but they lack the outright bizarreness of Oxford.) Some of my colleagues speak well of Penguin and Folger, though I haven't read them.

Certain plays are textually difficult, with lots of differences between the Quartos and Folio. You will want to get individual Arden editions of Hamlet and Lear at least.

About "clear and legible text": Complete Works are a trade-off between font size and portability. Will your book be mostly at home, or will you be taking it around to readings or classes? Larger text makes for a huuuuge book, but if you'll mostly be reading at home, that is fine. Editions with larger text also tend to use annoyingly thin paper to reduce bulk. I think you might be better off going to a bookstore and opening up a few.

My old Collins copy has quite small print, but I don't know whether the current edition's is larger. The Arden, as far as I can remember, lies flat and has a decent font size, though it is pretty damn expensive. The RSC edition also lies flat and has a good font size, though it won't be as good an edition as the Arden. I don't know about Penguin or Folger.

I hope some of this is at least slightly helpful. If I can, I'll go to one of the big London bookstores and report back.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:12 PM on August 23, 2016

Obviously your own reading needs are going to determine which edition you'll end up buying. I mentioned the New Oxford Shakespeare because (1) it's due out soon and (2) it will be the biggest deal in Shakespeare editing in the last 30 years. But if you're not interested in current editorial scholarship and commentary, I wouldn't blame you for looking elsewhere. I disagree strongly with Pallas Athena about the value of the 1986 Oxford Shakespeare, but that's because we're coming at it from two different perspectives. I can totally understand why the editorial radicalism of the Oxford team would infuriate actors. Especially actors trying to put on a performance of Pericles. But on the other hand, the "familiar" text established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by generations of editors is no less based on "flat-out making shit up textually" (progressively modernizing spelling and punctuation; emending apparent printing and transmission errors; introducing relineation in order to preserve the blank verse; flagrantly altering words or phrases that didn't appeal; inventing stage directions and scenic locations out of whole cloth; on occasion cutting whole lines and passages out of the text). If we want to get back to what Shakespeare originally wrote (or, as the the Oxford editors aimed to do, how Shakespeare's plays were set out in the original prompt-books), that's going to require some determined editorial intervention. But yes, the result can be to upset familiar readings and introduce unwelcome novelties.

Personally, if it's just a good, solid reading edition you're after (one that lays flat and sits nicely on a desk), I'd go with the 2011 Arden Complete Works (Revised Edition). It's comparatively cheap (£18.99!), it's attractively printed (though the paper's a bit thin), you get all the Arden 3 texts in print up to 2011 (with Arden 2 texts for the rest), and you get Double Falsehood (you may or may not think that latter inclusion is a good thing). Yes, it doesn't systematically distinguish between stressed and unstressed -d endings, because unlike other "Complete Works" it's an assemblage of independently edited single editions, and each editor has arrived at his or her own decisions on how to handle accidentals. But then again, the early editions of Shakespeare weren't systematic in this regard either (the distinction is to a large extent an eighteenth-century editorial intervention), so it's a moot point anyway.
The Oxford Shakespeare is still suffering from the aftermath of their 1986 edition, which tried to be exciting and different as a selling-point ...
Wells and Taylor, et al., weren't interested in sales. They edited the text as they did because they had some pretty definite ideas about the transmission of Shakespeare's texts and the extent of the Shakespeare canon and they wanted to edit the Works in accordance with those. The considerations, in other words, were academic and not commercial. (The OUP imprint would've enabled sales in any case.) And by all accounts OUP were rather nervous about the radicalism of the editorial team and would rather they had been more conservative with the text and more attentive to the needs of the non-academic reader.
The Norton Shakespeare is based on Oxford and, though I haven't read it, it should probably be avoided just on that basis.
The 1997 Norton was essentially a licensed repackaging of the 1986 Oxford edition, yes (though it did impose some important changes on the Oxford text). The 2015 Norton is a fresh edition. But I'd still recommend the Arden on cost and usability grounds.
The RSC edition also lies flat and has a good font size, though it won't be as good an edition as the Arden.
Agreeing with Pallas Athena here about the relative appeal of RSC and Arden. Remember also that the RSC edition purports to edit the Folio only—so if your favourite lines in Hamlet or King Lear appear only in the quarto editions, you're out of luck. I personally hate the typeface of the RSC too. It looks like an economics text book. And the fact that they shoehorn in Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the Sonnets, and the narrative poems (none of which appeared in the First Folio) to my mind rather undermines the point of the whole affair. But that's just me.

TL;DR—Arden 2011 Complete Works (Revised Edition) all the way.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:32 AM on August 24, 2016

Sorry to have apparently gone back on my earlier advice, but this thread has helped me see the virtues of Arden!
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:58 AM on August 24, 2016

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