With a sea of editions called The Complete Works of Shakespeare, how does one wade through them all to find the "best" collection? Surely, to the average student, every one of them is a large, intimidating book that puzzles the will to look at from afar let alone actually read its contents. In a nutshell, the ideal edition should strike a balance between making the works accessible for new students as well as old scholars, not scaring the former while not boring the latter. It's a precarious balancing act and Shakespeare scholar, editor, and teacher David Bevington has taken another crack at improving the Complete Works with his sixth edition.
This recently revised edition adds a number of new essays, including "Reading Shakespeare in the 21st Century," a guide how to read the plays in a modern context, and "Shakespeare's Language," a rewrite of the introduction demonstrating the imagery and vocabulary of the rich language. Also added are a film guide, illustrations in the introduction, and a 16-page series of illustrations titled "Shakespeare's World: A Visual Portfolio." But the real improvements to this edition are in the notes and glosses, helping readers understand the text as they read.
The layout takes the usual two-column approach, which is generally preferred and keeps the overall size of the book down. Indented text after each full character name and large, bold scene numbers make the plays easy to scan (even scaling back the names a bit to focus on the lines themselves). The fonts are clear and legible for both texts and glosses, and shared verse lines are properly indented. Bevington has chosen to put the textual notes for each play in the appendix, which may make it more difficult for some readers when referencing. Other editions keep them at the end of each play.
But the real reason for owning this edition is the same as for the previous edition; it's a solid collection of smart scholarship. Being a teacher himself, Bevington understands what helps students best—copious notes and glosses—and thankfully, he's chosen to include them in the footers of each page instead of at the back of the book or in a separate supplement. There is, however, a supplement in the form of VangoNotes, which is nearly 6 hours of audio files for an extra $20. A shame they're not on iTunes and a shame they're not cheaper or free. They weren't provided for this review, but the audio chapter listing looks very similar to the items contained in the book, which may mean redundancy.
Part of making this edition accessible to newcomers is its design. Unfortunately, the new cover design has the appearance of a school textbook, which is a step backwards from the previous cover. In this humble reviewer's opinion, anything that makes the book look like "work" is a psychological drawback for a Bard neophyte.
It's an edition that is coming of age. It's gaining rapid ground on the Arden Complete Works (in the process of undergoing a complete revamp) and the Riverside Complete Works (over a decade old and, though long-in-the-tooth, is still the gold standard). But Bevington's Complete Works still has some headway to make even after six editions.
David Bevington discusses his book The Collected Works of Ben Jonson: