Some Penguin Classics feel commercially motivated, and of course that speculation applies firmly to something like big, hefty Four Tragedies, collecting the Penguin texts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet,Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. This edition has been reprinted many times over the last thirty years, for one very commercial reason: schools all over the world use it for their Shakespeare courses. At some point in the 20th Century (or earlier? I don’t recall, but it certainly feels to me like a comparatively recent thing), these four tragedies began being lumped together in handy one-volume editions like this one.
This Penguin volume is fantastic; the introductions, the textual analyses, and end notes are all first-rate – I endorse it, make no mistake. I love the clear, almost forensic way Anne Barton conducts her Introduction of Hamlet:
Hamlet never says why it is that he should remain unable to do the obvious: collect his friends about him, confront Claudius, accuse him, and then draw his sword and run him through. It is true that, until Act IV, he lacks real evidence of his uncle’s villainy. This fact matters more than some commentators on the play have allowed. But it cannot be the whole explanation for Hamlet’s delay, if only because Hamlet’s tortured self-accusations make it clear that it is not.
And I’m always happy when any introduction to Othello includes Thomas Rymer’s famous devastating critique of Desdemona’s death:
What instruction can we make out of this catastrophe? Or whither must our reflection lead us? Is not this to envenom and sour our spirits, to make us repine and grumble at Providence, and the government of the world? If this be our end, what boots it to be virtuous?
And the Introduction to King Lear is likewise very wry and very smart:
The modern popularity of the play is closely associated with a movement which uses as its touchstone the ‘meaning’ attributed to Shakespeare’s plays, the spiritual messages they convey to us. Of course the idea that the work of art is a ‘message’ from the author is not new. Hazlitt tells us that ‘King Lear is the best of Shakespeare’s plays, for it is the one in which he was the most earnest.’ But modern critics are usually unable to stop at this point; they want us to ask the next question: ‘What is Shakespeare in earnest about?’ One trouble with asking this question is that it produces answers of unbearable obviousness; it is a long way round about to learn only that Shakespeare felt love to be superior to hate or was strongly against sin.
As a crime-does-not-pay story it is less concerned with the uncovering of the crime to others than with the uncovering of the criminal to himself. The play spreads out from our interest in the hero; and the hero is here a criminal, or rather a man obsessed by his relation to those criminal tendencies that are so universal that we best describe them by speaking of ‘evil.’ The play is a discovery or anatomy of evil. Of all Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth is the one most obsessively concerned with evil.
No, this Penguin is really good, easily more than the simple Shakespeare-primer it needed to be in order to sell like hotcakes to schools. The only thing that bothers me about this and innumerable other ‘big four’ anthologies is that the sheer crowd of them tends to reinforce the idea that these four plays are Shakespeare’s best tragedies. I wish there were a big fat Penguin volume that included Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth - but also Romeo and Juliet, King Henry VIII, and my favorite Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar.
Or, for that matter, why not – at long last – an enormously fat Penguin Classic Complete Shakespeare? I’d buy it!