What’s the best Shakespeare edition to read? You may not know it, but all of Shakespeare’s plays are contained in just one little book that has been printed and re-printed for 400 years. Today you can find thousands of different versions of Shakespeare for your needs as a student, scholar, or just regular Shakespeare fan, and today I’m here to guide you through some of the most popular! Let’s take a look!
A Little Background:
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, he wrote his plays just for his company to perform. The scripts were distributed among the cast as little rolls of paper that had each actor’s part written on it (this is why an actor’s part is sometimes called his “role”). Sometimes the plays were published when the company wanted to make a little extra money, but they weren’t exactly best-sellers. After Shakespeare died, two actors from his company, John Hemmings and Henry Condell, decided to preserve Shakespeare’s work for all time, printing his plays in a beautiful book called Shakespeare’s First Folio in the year 1623. This book helped preserve 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, 17 of which were never printed before, and would have been lost forever if Hemmings and Condell hadn’t preserved them.
Today some purists say that the only way to read Shakespeare is by reading a facsimile of the First Folio, because it preserves Shakespeare’s original spelling, his stage directions, and the natural integrity of the verse form because of the way it’s printed on the page. To be honest, I see the merit in this, but only for actors and scholars who often need every clue in the text to inspire them to construct creative and inventive interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. However, for first time readers I recommend a modern edition, since the Folio has very few stage directions, and no standard spelling or punctuation, making it very hard to understand. Shakespeare is hard enough to read without love being spelled “loove” all the time.
Shakespeare in modern type by Neil Freeman. These editions are the kind i mentioned earlier, the ones for Shakespeare Fundamentalists. These are the people who believe Shakespeare left clues for performance in every line, every punctuation mark, and every change in verse. I don’t dispute this view, but I also can’t fully support it because it encourages actors and directors to become slaves to iambic and to never deviate from the rigid construction of Shakespeare’s verse, even if they have a creative reason not to. Even classical musicians must be allowed some form of improvisation. Actors should have the same liberty to interpret the text as they see fit. You can rent or purchase individual versions of the Freeman Folio texts, or purchase the full version of the First Folio in modern type. For sample pages, click here: https://books.google.com/books?.
The Arden Shakespeare– For over 100 years, this edition has been a favorite of scholars and actors alike. It focuses on the world of Shakespeare to help you understand the characters by detailing the interpretations directors have favored for the last 400 years. The Arden edition has excellent notes and is great for college students and honors high schoolers. http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/academic/academic-subjects/drama-and-performance-studies/the-arden-shakespeare/
The Norton Shakespeare- This version is a more academic version with great notes by the venerated Robert Greenblatt of Harvard University. It focuses on the world of Shakespeare with notes about Elizabethan society, history, poetry, and mythology. I would recommend it for college students and adult readers.
Click here to sample some of this edition: https://books.google.com/books?id=2
The Folger Shakespeare- Edited by the premiere Shakespeare scholarship institution in America: The Folger Shakespeare Libary, this version has very clear and simple explanations for what the characters are saying, and has lots of pictures and notes. This version is excellent for high schoolers and is one of the standards in most school districts. Click here to sample some of their work. Be sure to also check out the Folger’s website! http://www.folger.edu/
The Penguin Shakespeare– this is probably the cheapest version of Shakespeare. It has a glossary and a few notes, but not as many pictures and clever editor’s notes as the Folger. http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=shakespeare+penguin+books&tag=googhydr-
No-Fear Shakespeare- As I’ve said before, this edition is fundamentally flawed, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. It purports itself to be a “translation” of Shakespeare, when in fact it’s just a loose paraphrase. I don’t agree with most of the choices that the editors put in these editions, and I think it dumbs down Shakespeare too much. In addition, I reject the concept that the plays need a translation- they were written in English, and purporting that a student needs a translation of Shakespeare just makes him or her dependent on this edition and still assume that they cannot understand Shakespeare’s text. So once again, I don’t recommend this version, but if you’d like to check it out, here’s a link below: https://books.google.com/books?
The Sourcebook Shakespeare– This is my favorite version of Shakespeare to study. They are probably too expensive to use in a classroom, but they really are worth it for a Shakespeare appreciation class. Not only do they have tons of notes and a really reader-friendly layout, each edition also contains a CD with up to 30 scenes and speeches from Shakespearean productions dating back 100 years! These editions focus specifically on how directors and actors have taken the same plays and interpreted them in new and interesting ways. In my view, this combination of reading and listening is one of the purest ways to demonstrate Shakespeare’s versatility, and why we keep reading him today. The same company is also developing versions for iPad to make the experience even more interactive: http://www.sourcebooks.com/blog/
Filthy Shakespeare- To be honest, this version is really more of a dictionary of naughty topics Shakespeare explored about in his plays, and is really just for entertainment purposes, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. I should of course mention that this version is not for children since it has lots of adult language. Click here for a sample: https://books.google.com/books?id=E523EogqB84C
Thanks for reading this post. If you’d like to learn more about the issues of editing and adapting Shakespeare, check out The Struggle For Shakespeare’s Text by Gabriel Egan. Let me know how you liked this post! I’m also planning on creating a series of audio interpretations of Shakespeare. Stay tuned!