On Purchasing a Complete Works

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One of the most common questions that we receive here in the bookshop (in fact, I was asked even as I am typing this paragraph) is what are the differences between all of these complete works? It is a question so often asked that I decided to make a guide entitled Choosing the Complete Works that’s right for you…

This blog is an adaptation of that document which now hangs in the shop.

The Incomplete Works of Shakespeare?

It is remarkable to think that since the publication of the 1623 First Folio, none of the vast number of Complete Works currently in and out of print are identical. That each is unique in terms of its size, shape, and colour is clear, but what may not be as plain are the minor and major textual differences that appear on the pages. The first thing we must consider, then, when choosing a Complete Works is that we are choosing a carefully-planned collection of plays, sonnets, and narrative poems that is consistent with the goals and procedures set out by the editor. Secondly, it is important to realise that many of the plays appear in a number of early editions that have many, often substantial, differences in content. It is the editor’s job to decide which of those texts is most authoritative. Lastly, it is necessary to take into account that there is some debate as to whether or not Shakespeare had a hand in a given play at all. It is often debated whether or not to include King Edward III, for instance. The term complete works, then, is somewhat misleading, and we must take the rather presuming term with a proverbial grain of salt.

A Brief History of the Complete Works

Although he did not claim that his edition was ‘complete,’ Nicholas Rowe was the first to use the term ‘works.’ His 1709, 6-volume edition was “[a]dorn’d with cuts, [. . .] [r]evis’d and corrected”. In this sense, Rowe might be called the first editor of Shakespeare’s plays, although many consider Heminges and Condell, the compilers of the First Folio, to be. After Rowe, the likes of Alexander Pope, Lewis Theobald, Samuel Johnson, and Edmond Malone, among many others, published their own versions of the works of Shakespeare. But, it was not until the 20th century when it became fashionable to use the term ‘Complete Works’. You will find that any given volume in The Shakespeare Bookshop claims that it contains the complete works. It is up to you to decide which has the most legitimate claim. Below is a slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to the editions that we sell here in The Shakespeare Bookshop.

A Guide to Our Stock

The Oxford Shakespeare (Second Edition)
A groundbreaking edition, the Oxford Shakespeare (2nd) is the benchmark for all things textual. Containing plays never before found in a complete works, this edition has redefined the ways in which Shakespeare is edited. There are no notes, but a textual companion to the text can be purchased.

The Riverside Shakespeare
The old-standby. The Riverside is an impressive edition complete with helpful textual notes and a general introduction to Shakespeare. Not only that, it also doubles as a functioning doorstop.

The Arden Shakespeare
This revised edition is clear and easy to read. It contains no textual notes, but is textually sound.

The RSC Complete Works
This, the most recent edition, is solely based on the First Folio of 1623. It contains the narrative poems and sonnets, textual notes, and ample introductions to each of the works. It is not necessarily the most authoritative of texts as it is solely based on the one early edition of plays. Did I mention that it is mustard yellow?

The Norton Shakespeare
The Norton is based on the Oxford Shakespeare. That is a kind way of putting it. If I was to use a pejorative term, I would say that the Norton is a textual rip-off of the Oxford Shakespeare. But, I won’t use a pejorative term. The Norton is quite often used in Universities for teaching purposes because of its ample textual notes and glosses of difficult words. But, I do often wonder how the General Editors sleep at night.

The Alexander Text
If it is a quick-and-dirty, cheap, unannotated edition that you are after, this is the one. The small print will ensure several trips to the optometrist as the years go by. The perfect traveller’s edition.


Matt Kubus

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