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Now in Paperback: the RSC/Modern Library Shakespeare

The RSC Shakespeare

Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen, editors

Modern Library paperbacks, 2011

A few years ago, the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company issued a “Complete Works” of the Bard, a mammoth tome fit for coffee table or scriptorium bench but hardly suitable for a crammed excursion on the IRT. That tome purported to be a scrupulous editorial rendition of the Heminges and Condell First Folio of 1623, although it was of course no such thing nor ever intended to be, a point made at length by the Open Letters reviewer at the time.

What was distinctive about that RSC doorstop was the importation of stagecraft directly into the plays. A ‘running scene’ annotation was added, for example, to note when back-to-back scenes could probably be played straight through, or the plentiful addition of action prompts (“Turns to her?” and the like) that in many cases feel like they could have been dashed into a working script by the playwright himself. The result was a Shakespeare not only of the stage but for the stage, an immediate and welcome shortening of the distance that usually separates the reader from this most-assigned of authors.

There were other, less welcome innovations – current academic fads are followed, for instance, with respect to textual emendation and even character names, sometimes with dismaying results. The one thing you must never do with Shakespearean textual scholarship is take it seriously – certainly not seriously enough to trump centuries of popular usage. Anyone who’s ever directed the mayor’s wife in a local production of “Say It, Seymour” knows the grave risk involved in changing her character’s name in mid-production. Imagine then the centuries of wrath invoked when our edtors try to tell us, for example, that there’s a character named “Innogen” in “Cymbelime”! By the time Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Ellen goddam Terry were done with said editors, only bloodied scraps would remain.

A mighty crowd of such actresses and actors parades through the pages of the very handsome new paperbacks Modern Library has calved off the enormous glacier of that original hardcover edition: OLM‘s reviewer suggested that the segments highlighting the RSC’s own long and storied involvement with Shakespeare on stage be expanded – that suggestion has been followed in the production of these paperbacks, with glorious results. These editions come with fascinating histories not only of each play but of each play’s performances by the company through the years. Actors and directors are interviewed, and the reader is treated to dozens of wonderful photos of productions past. Here’s Trevor Nunn’s hysterical 1972 staging of “Coriolanus,” and there’s Peter Brook’s famous 1955 production of “Titus Andronicus,” in which Olivier’s Titus is hopelessly overmatched by Vivien Leigh’s overacting … the whole rich pageantry of one great company’s history is laid before the reader, prompting fond smiles from old hands and – it’s hoped – a stunned appreciation from newcomers.

In a crowded market of Shakespeare paperbacks, these new Modern Library editions truly stand out. Collect them all – and take them everywhere.