Professor Stanley Wells, General Editor of The Oxford Shakespeare and co-editor of The Oxford Shakspeare: The Complete Works, reveals how the innovations in these volumes have changed the face of Shakespeare studies, and looks ahead to the final volumes in the Oxford Shakespeare series.
In my youth, as an undergraduate in London, I used to search the shelves of Foyle's and other bookshops for out-of-print and second-hand volumes of World's Classics. Before the paperback explosion these neat, well-bound little books in their cloth bindings offered the only texts available to impecunious students of many standard works - Paradise Lost, Bacon's Essays, Pope's translation of the Iliad - and of then-rare novels by Trollope (The Claverings and The Belton Estate are still on my shelves), and Henry James. And as a passionate theatre-goer, queuing to see Laurence Olivier as Richard III at the New Theatre, or Edith Evans in James Bridie's Daphne Laureola at Wyndham's, or at Covent Garden to see Sylvia Fisher as the Countess and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, I might well have been poring over a special favourite, A. C. Ward's Specimens of English Dramatic Criticism - an anthology that has still not been superseded, though it formed the inspiration for my collection Shakespeare in the Theatre, published in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series.
In those days, as Valentine Cunningham wrote in his brilliant article ‘Allow me to introduce ...’, many of the volumes came with little or no scholarly apparatus. Now, the series offers far more to the dedicated student, even to the established scholar, and is able to incorporate the Oxford Shakespeare series, principal rival to the Arden Shakespeare, complete and (bar corrections) unaltered from its original hardback publication.
It may be worth stressing that the texts in this series - which began to appear in 1982 - are independent of those published in The Oxford Complete Works of 1986, revised with the inclusion of complete texts of Sir Thomas More and Edward III, in 2005. While I was working on The Complete Works, which I edited in conjunction with Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery I found that people often reacted to the news that I was doing so with a slight curl of the lip followed by the words 'O yes. Will it be different from any other edition?'. This, of course, acted as a challenge. When The Complete Works eventually appeared it was so different from earlier editions as to cause a good deal of surprise, even consternation, among the conservatively minded. Two texts of King Lear, Hamlet based on the Folio with quarto-only passages printed as 'Additional Passages', Falstaff named Oldcastle in Henry IV, Part One, Macbeth printed with the full text of songs represented in every previous edition only by their opening words, and the play attributed to Shakespeare and Middleton - what was the world coming to?
These were only some of the most obvious innovations. More fundamental and pervasive, if less eye-catching, were rigorous attempts to examine afresh the principles on which spelling and punctuation - previously largely regarded as the province of printers rather than scholars -were modernized, and a concern to rethink the plays' stage directions in terms of the theatres for which they were written. In the years since the edition appeared, it can fairly be claimed, I think, that these features, whether succeeding editors have accepted or rejected them, have changed the face of Shakespeare studies.
In commissioning contributors to the multi-volume edition I tried, of course, to select scholars who would be in general sympathy with my editorial principles. I drew up a set of Editorial Procedures which was, I believe, the most thorough such document offered as a working tool, and emphasized my hope that the edition, while maintaining the highest (and avoiding the worst) traditions of Oxford scholarship, would be accessible and inviting to the reader. I was influenced in this - and in much else - by my experience as Associate Editor of the New Penguin Shakespeare, which consciously tried to appeal to a general readership. I hoped that scholarship could be made interesting, even exciting, that introductions and notes could convey and stimulate enthusiasm, and above all that the texts would be presented as works that achieve full realization only in the theatre. I wanted to avoid the cryptic and the arcane, and to that end I put an embargo on notes such as: 'the Pleiades. Cf. 1H4, 1. ii. 16. See Amos, v. 8 and Job, xxxviii. 31, marginal note in A.V. to Pleiades: "Cimah or the seven stars". Cf. note to 111. iv. 152.' (That is a quotation from - well, let's say another edition.)
I have found it relatively easy to persuade editors to adopt the editorial conventions that I favour, but where more substantive scholarly decisions are required I have held back from imposing my own views, and have at times found myself having to accept readings which I don't agree with. Try as I might, I could not, for instance, persuade the editor of As You Like It that the pastoral scenes are set in the Forest of Ardenne, not Arden.
I have, however, along with Oxford's excellent copy-editing team, done my best to exercise rigorous control over scholarly standards while reading drafts, final scripts, and proofs, and it has been gratifying to find that reviewers in the scholarly journals find little to complain of on this account. But nobody’s perfect, and republication from the original hardbacks enables us to make minor corrections — which is an advantage for purchasers of Oxford World’s Classics.
We are making a push to bring the series to completion within the near future. Michael Neill, whose fascinating book Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford 1997, and 1998 in paperback) has been greeted with great critical acclaim, has edited Othello, due to appear shortly. This just leaves The Two Gentleman of Verona, Richard III, and - a late addition - Edward III, to be edited by William Montgomery and Gary Taylor, who between them prepared the text for the second edition of The Complete Works.
Publication of the Oxford Shakespeare in Oxford World's Classics makes these editions readily available to sixth-formers and undergraduates today. I hope they find the series as valuable as I did when I was their age.
Stanley Wells, February 2006
Dr. Paul Edmondson, Head of Education, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, talks about the unique qualities of the Oxford Complete Works, and why we should consider it the Shakespeare for our time.
The Oxford Complete Works is a truly ground-breaking edition, offering the most radical rethinking of Shakespeare's texts ever published. Nothing is taken for granted, and it is thoroughly up-to-date.
The texts printed here bring us as close as we shall ever get to the plays as they were acted by Shakespeare's company. Its editors know that Shakespeare, himself a man of the theatre, reworked some of his plays after they were first performed, and for this reason they give us, for example, two different texts of King Lear.
Throughout, they have rethought the stage directions to bring us to a closer understanding of how the plays were originally performed. And this is a supremely reader-friendly edition, applying newly considered principles of spelling, punctuation and other matters of presentation to make a painless and pleasurable reading experience.
The newly published second edition is updated by adding Edward III, which is increasingly accepted as part of the Shakespeare canon, along with a complete text of Sir Thomas More, to which Shakespeare contributed a scene; it also includes an excellent new essay, by David Crystal, on Shakespeare's language, along with an invaluable guide to further reading. Graced by informative and thoughtful introductions that are models of compression, this edition must supplant all its predecessors as the Shakespeare for our time.
Dr. Paul Edmondson, March 2006