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Handsome Work in the RSC Complete Works Hot

Julian Lopez-Morillas
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Written by Julian Lopez-Morillas     June 15, 2007    
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Handsome Work in the RSC Complete Works
  • Complete Works
  • by Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen
  • Publisher: RSC/Modern Library
  • Published in April 2007
  • 4

The new RSC/Modern Library edition of the Complete Works is a handsome volume. There is a generous section of illustrations including production photographs from Royal Shakespeare productions of the past fifty years, as well as the standard reproductions of the Droeshout engraving, Visscher's London, contemporary woodcuts and so forth. A literate and spirited General Introduction details the known facts of the playwright's life, places it in the context of the flowering of Elizabethan theatre, and takes special pains to recreate the atmosphere of the London playhouse and the professionalism and discipline of its acting company, dealing with rapidly changing public tastes as well as the sometimes prickly demands of affiliation with the powers at Court. Another welcome section describes the diminution of Shakespeare's reputation in the century that followed his death, and the subsequent steady growth of his influence culminating in the 19th and 20th-century "cult of Shakespeare."

This history serves to introduce the editors' ultimate scholarly agenda, which is to reclaim the supremacy of the First Folio as, they insist, the most reliable and accurate index of Shakespeare's truest dramatic intentions. Their brief for the Folio is well-reasoned and mostly quite convincing, although their agenda produces choices that some readers may find rather doctrinaire: passages which appear only in Quarto editions (some quite well-known, as Hamlet's "How all occasions..." speech or Lear's arraignment of his daughters in the hovel scene) are left out of the main body of the text and appear as appendices to the texts of individual plays. Some readers and performers who are more accustomed to the standard conflations of Quarto and Folio texts may be a little taken aback. The penchant for Folio purity is not carried to the level of obsession, however: the full texts of Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen (though not Edward III) are given a section of their own, as are the Sonnets and lyric poems (as well as the presumed manuscript scene from Sir Thomas More), so there is not much lacking that the scholar or actor might need. Another appendix, a 'Conjectural Chronology' of the works, somewhat mitigated my frustration at having the plays printed in the Folio order (beginning, for instance, with The Tempest, and with Troilus and Cressida and Cymbeline, respectively, opening and closing the tragedies section). Another feature I enjoyed, in addition to the standard family tree of the British monarchy, was a pair of detailed timelines of British history (for the histories) and world history (for the tragedies) that helps establish a context for Shakespeare's historical thinking.

The physical edition itself is quite readable, due in large part to the editors' decision to eschew the usual double-column format and instead use the full breadth of the page, which means that each line of verse has all the space it needs. The pages thus avoid the "busy" look that characterizes other editions (like the Riverside edition, for instance) and the type appears to my eyes to be comparable in size and legibility. This does push the page count up, however—nearly 2500, as against the Riverside's 1900—and the publisher compensates by using a thinness of paper that seems a little flimsy. I fear that the volume may not stand up as well to the daily wear and tear of use over time. Speech-prefixes are printed in full, in boldface capitals, which reduces the chances of ambiguity in reading, and textual notes (at the bottom of the page, as I think they should be) also use boldface to make the word or phrase easier to find. Of the introductory essays to the individual plays (such ones as I have been able to read), I can say that they they provide a clear and thoughtful window into the text of the play, without approaching the analytical brilliance of, say, Anne Barton's introductions to the comedies in the Riverside edition.

All in all, a handsome volume, intelligently presented and informative. One more feature of the General Introduction deserves comment: I appreciated a brilliant two-page (pp. xlix-li) dismissal, or I should say demolition, of the whole alleged authorship question, which refutes, with finality and a certain measure of withering scorn, the various claims of other, more highly-born and formally-educated, claimants to the authorship of the plays. Read it and appreciate its arguments; you'll find them of use the next time you are confronted with a wild-eyed Oxfordian.

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