Our book today is the Running Press Unabridged William Shakespeare, a fat, friendly complete edition of the Bard’s plays, poems, and sonnets. It was published in 1989 as an edition, although its text was the revised Globe edition of 1911, and its dense textual notes were originally done by Israel Golancz for the Temple Shakespeare. Even the one-page introduction isn’t new – it’s from the Globe edition. In the Running Press edition itself, there is nothing new or original.
That’s what’s so nice about it. There’s no tacked-on fourteen pages of windy “enduring glory” “mirror to mankind” blah-blah-blah jobbed out of some quasi-known professional intellectual, first published in The New York Review of Books and now pasted on mutatus mutandis to an overpriced and unwieldy hardcover. There’s no Larchmont must-have-it wonder of the season about it. The Running Press Shakespeare is, as far as any collected Shakespeare ever can be, a humble thing. It’s meant to give you Shakespeare, with as little interference as possible.
Collected Shakespeares have appeared in vast, bristling legions ever since 1623, when John Heminges and Henry Condell brought out what we call the First Folio – complete with a blah-blah-blah introduction warning readers that any other collected Shakespeare they may encounter is to be scorned. The idea of a collected Shakespeare seems so natural – he wrote enough to make a hefty volume of close-printed pages, but not so much that such a volume is impossible. There’s no such thing possible as a Running Press Unabridged George Bernard Shaw, for instance, and the Running Press Unabridged Aeschylus wouldn’t be that big a book.
Shakespeare is so essential a piece of intellectual furniture – one of that small handful of authors every intelligent person must not only know but strive to know well – that it’s both a duty and a joy to be constantly re-reading him, and everybody has their own favorite way of doing that. I think the best set-up is threefold: first, you need to have the great second edition of the Riverside Shakespeare (the brown one, not the weird black one with its fourteen variations of “Hamlet” and its twenty-three variations of “King Lear”), because its blah-blah-blah material is actually splendid and eternally relevant. Second, you need all the plays in good convenient individual paperbacks, for separate study – probably the best candidates are the Signet Classic paperbacks, since a) their notes are excellent and b) they have the ingenious addition of including Shakespeare’s original sources for that particular play, plus a usually good selection of criticism on that play.
But in addition to those two things, you also need a good knockabout complete Shakespeare. The Riverside is too big and, it must be said, too dignified – you can’t grab it off the shelf and race out the door for the park or the subway or jury duty. You need all its scholarly apparatus for those times when you’re delving deep into some textual question or other, but sometimes you just want as much Shakespeare as you can comfortably hold in your hand (note: Beepy – and the Earl of Southampton – just started paying attention).
For such a volume, the paper of the pages must of course be thin but not too thin; the print must be small but not too small; the lines must be double-columned (and maybe the part-names abbreviated, as irritating as that is) but not triple-columned. There won’t be room for footnotes, and really, when you start reading Shakespeare, really reading him, you can largely dispense with footnotes without harming your understanding of what you’re reading. What you want is something reassuringly solid but not carpally painful.
For me, that’s the Running Press volume, which is currently not in print (is Running Press even in existence anymore? Ah well … even if it’s not, its text is, and who knows where it’ll crop up again). In it, you get everything Shakespeare wrote in one handful about the size of child’s shoebox. The cover design is simple and artful, the binding is durable, and inside it you get Shakespeare without distraction.
There’s a list of character names, a list of sonnet first lines, and about fifty pages of small-printed endnotes delineating where and how the lines of the various plays differ from one version of Shakespeare to another. There’s a massive amount of learning in those fifty pages. Here’s an example from “Twelfth Night”:
Act II, scene v, line 44: “the lady of the Strachy“; this is one of the unsettled problems in Shakespeare. Hunter ingeniously suggested that Shakespeare ridicules, in the scene between the Clown, Sir Topas, and Malvolio (IV. ii.), the exorcisms by Puritan ministers, in the case of a family named Starchy (1596-99), and the difficult Strachy was a hint to the audience to expect subsequent allusion to the Starchy affair. Others suggest ‘Strozzi,’ ‘Stracci,’ ‘Stratarch.’ Halliwell refers to a Russian word meaning lawyer or judge. The incident of a lady of high rank marrying her steward is the subject of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
That’s a lot of detail, hard-studied and pithily put, but none of it clutters up the pages of “Twelfth Night” itself; if you’re reading the play and find yourself impassibly confused by that “lady of the Strachy” mention, you can jog back to the last fifty pages and find the above excellent elucidation. But if you’re reading the play and want to skip over it (believe it or not, the general sense of it is quite obvious in the scene), the Running Press volume won’t get in your way. That’s exactly how scholarly appendages to great writers should work.
So if you’re scouting around used book stalls for a one-volume Shakespeare (to supplement your Riverside, not replace it, mind you), you could do a lot worse than to opt for the Running Press edition. And while you’re at it, you might like their volumes of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and especially Jack London. Big fat volumes, full of treasure.