Ask the readers: What edition of the complete works of Shakespeare should I get?

Dear Grumpy Nation:

DC1 hasn’t been getting enough Shakespeare.  I would like to ameliorate that.  I, myself, had a lovely hardback version of the complete works of Shakespeare that was beautifully annotated so that I could easily figure out what was going on while still seeing the natural beauty of the words themselves.  I would read it on days I was home sick from school and had nothing else to do (also how I read Ivanhoe and several other classics my mother placed strategically in the small bookcase next to my bed).  Sadly, all I remember about it is that it had a navy blue hard cover– it appears to have disappeared from my parents’ house in the 20 years I have been away from it.

I have gone to Amazon to seek a new anthology and I am overwhelmed by the options.  I do not want a kindle version– I want something nicely edited and easy to read the annotations/explanations along-side the original words.  Hardback would be nice, but that’s not a deal-breaker.

There are so many choices and so many different price points I don’t even know where to start.  I’m willing to pay for the $75 Norton edition if it is, indeed, the best for our purposes.  But if the $30 Oxford Works is better, by all means I’ll go with that!

I know we have experts on this topic in our readership, so help a lay-person out!  What would you recommend?

Thanks in advance!

20 Responses to “Ask the readers: What edition of the complete works of Shakespeare should I get?”

  1. Alice Says:

    Hm. My 1990s undergrad Shakespeare class used the 4th edition of The David Bevington’s Complete Works of Shakespeare. It’s a hardcover with a photo of a statue on the front, so not the one you’re remembering. There were a number of books from college that I kept, and it was one of them. Haven’t reread anything from it lately, but every so often I refer to it to reinforce snippets of things I remember.

    It looks like it’s now up to a 7th edition, and the 7th edition is pretty expensive on Amazon. Maybe look for a used copy of one of the earlier editions? (Or a used copy of an earlier edition of whatever you pick?)

  2. Alison Says:

    No advice on specific editions, sorry. But when I was a kid the family had one edition where they abbreviated the names and one where they didn’t, and it made a huge difference— much more so than annotations did. So something to check for.

  3. becca Says:

    I don’t know which ones you *should* have.
    I do know I grew up with the Yale Shakespeare set (https://www.amazon.com/Yale-Shakespeare-40-Set/dp/B004AZA182/ref=sr_1_5?crid=3C20VR3EAYRQ1&dchild=1&keywords=complete+works+of+shakespeare+multi+volume+set&qid=1608305794&sprefix=complete+works+of+sha%2Caps%2C181&sr=8-5).

    You see, my Mom’s first semester off at college her parents had given her a budget for clothes and non-meal plan food and everything. She spent all of it on those books and made due.

    They were in as good shape as any books from their house (my parents were smokers, and we’d had a fire, so virtually all the old books were ultra smoke damaged and got pitched when they died. It is hard to throw books out). So if I were going to buy a set, it would definitely be this one, but that’s probably 70% sentimentality and only 30% durability.

  4. delagar Says:

    I had a hard time reading Shakespeare when I was a kid — the Folger Library editions were the ones that finally made them accessible to me. I don’t think they have a complete works, which means you have to buy them play by play, but they have the text on one page, and then notes and explanations on the other.

    https://www.folger.edu/folger-shakespeare-library-editions

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I definitely want a complete works and not separate plays. Separate plays for the good ones and the ones zie has to read for class.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        (We have As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and blech, Romeo and Juliet in those white covered paperback editions that schools use. The two former I forced on DC1 in middle school during “pick your own book” projects and Romeo and Juliet was the Freshman Shakespeare. They don’t provide books to all students, only students who ask because it is a hardship. And then they have to annotate them, but if they’re borrowing the books they can only use post-it notes to annotate.)

  5. Allyson Says:

    My theatre course in early 2000s undergrad used Riverside Shakespeare. Looks like that may be the one you were thinking of (apparently 2nd edition is blue with gold title). I don’t remember it having excellent annotations, but I definitely still have my copy (2nd edition with Shakespeare’s face on it).
    Here’s a link to the blue one: https://www.amazon.com/Riverside-Shakespeare-William/dp/0395858224/ref=pd_sbs_5?pd_rd_w=p7VTe&pf_rd_p=ed1e2146-ecfe-435e-b3b5-d79fa072fd58&pf_rd_r=W4P5BE3T8KKPC6MMJQZ1&pd_rd_r=cb28b130-8413-4358-b1d7-8feb8e845bfa&pd_rd_wg=pklYH&pd_rd_i=0395858224&psc=1

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If the first edition was the same, then maybe! (The second edition came out later, according to that website.) I think the annotations were at the bottom like one of the commenters is complaining too. (Also I think we had two volumes, though I’m not sure if the other volume was the other half of a same thing or a different publisher, I just vaguely remember brownish yellow/cloth binding instead of smooth, thicker pages, and not liking it as much, but I don’t remember that as well at all, so it could have been something completely different).

      (I am old, I am old, I shall wear my trousers rolled…, to quote a later poet)

  6. Bardiac Says:

    I think you should look at some single play editions, maybe? I don’t know how old DC1 is, but there are excellent student editions from Oxford and Cambridge UPs, their “Schools” editions, which are edited for UK schools, and really beautiful editions for student readers.

    If you really want an anthology: The Oxford is the quirkiest, including *Cardenio* stuff, *Thomas More,* and *All is True.* It organizes the plays chronologically. Gary Taylor is a brilliant editor, but quirky. I’d get Taylor’s work for someone who’s really into editorial theory and already knows the plays well, except then, you’d get the companion instead, and … Oxford gives three texts for Lear, but not for Hamlet.

    The Bevington, Norton, and Pelican are more traditional anthologies, organizing the works by genre. The editorial teams for all are solid, but less editorially quirky than the Oxford. I can’t easily access the Bevington or Norton Table of Contents on line, but the Pelican gives two versions of Lear (including a conflated version), but only one version of Hamlet. (It would make sense to treat these both the same way). But it also gives information about who edited which work in the ToC, and the editor of Hamlet is really smart at editing.

    The printing history of Hamlet, Lear, H5, especially, are complicated, with quite different texts being printed in the early modern period. Traditionally, most editions conflated the texts, choosing the “best” parts to make a whole. So that’s what’s familiar to most readers and theatergoers. But scholars and folks who really like seeing different versions in action love seeing different versions. (Hamlet, Lear, and H5 all have one or more early quarto printings [a quarto is a smaller format single play text] and then the Folio printing [the familiar collected plays printed in 1623] and those are different in fairly substantive ways, with scenes or big speeches added or changed or missing.) (Taylor’s Oxford single play edition of H5 didn’t do a conflated edition, but I don’t know about the anthology.

    I’m guessing the Bevington and Norton are the most traditional, but if you can look at the Table of Contents, and see what they do with Lear and Hamlet, you can tell. If they give one version of each, then they’re conflating them and the plays will feel more familiar.

    The Pelican seems more in between but seems to have fewer helpful notes, and the Oxford is probably the least traditional.

    IF you can wander into a real bookstore and look at each, choose the one whose pages you can’t see through, and which has the best margin for taking notes and the most useful glossing.

    IF I were getting an anthology for a high schooler, and REALLY wanted an anthology, I’d go with the Norton or Bevington, probably.

    That’s probably a lot more than you wanted…

  7. Bardiac Says:

    I think you should look at some single play editions, maybe? I don’t know how old DC1 is, but there are excellent student editions from Oxford and Cambridge UPs, their “Schools” editions, which are edited for UK schools, and really beautiful editions for student readers.

    If you really want an anthology: The Oxford is the quirkiest, including *Cardenio* stuff, *Thomas More,* and *All is True.* It organizes the plays chronologically. Gary Taylor is a brilliant editor, but quirky. I’d get Taylor’s work for someone who’s really into editorial theory and already knows the plays well, except then, you’d get the companion instead, and … Oxford gives three texts for Lear, but not for Hamlet.

    The Bevington, Norton, and Pelican are more traditional anthologies, organizing the works by genre. The editorial teams for all are solid, but less editorially quirky than the Oxford. I can’t easily access the Bevington or Norton Table of Contents on line, but the Pelican gives two versions of Lear (including a conflated version), but only one version of Hamlet. (It would make sense to treat these both the same way). But it also gives information about who edited which work in the ToC, and the editor of Hamlet is really smart at editing.

    The printing history of Hamlet, Lear, H5, especially, are complicated, with quite different texts being printed in the early modern period. Traditionally, most editions conflated the texts, choosing the “best” parts to make a whole. So that’s what’s familiar to most readers and theatergoers. But scholars and folks who really like seeing different versions in action love seeing different versions. (Hamlet, Lear, and H5 all have one or more early quarto printings [a quarto is a smaller format single play text] and then the Folio printing [the familiar collected plays printed in 1623] and those are different in fairly substantive ways, with scenes or big speeches added or changed or missing.) (Taylor’s Oxford single play edition of H5 didn’t do a conflated edition, but I don’t know about the anthology.

    I’m guessing the Bevington and Norton are the most traditional, but if you can look at the Table of Contents, and see what they do with Lear and Hamlet, you can tell. If they give one version of each, then they’re conflating them and the plays will feel more familiar.

    The Pelican seems more in between but seems to have fewer helpful notes, and the Oxford is probably the least traditional.

    IF you can wander into a real bookstore and look at each, choose the one whose pages you can’t see through, and which has the best margin for taking notes and the most useful glossing.

    IF I were getting an anthology for a high schooler, and REALLY wanted an anthology, I’d go with the Norton or Bevington, probably.

    That’s probably a lot more than you wanted…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I really do want an anthology! We have scattered individual plays already (but only Romeo and Juliet has been taught to DC2, and that not well last April– the teacher just talked and talked and talked, mostly just summarizing the play), but I am not going to buy the mediocre ones separately. I think I’m not all that worried about conflating different editions vs. not– this is really a, if DC1 is bored here’s something to add some culture.

      I cannot wander through a real bookstore :(. I could see through the pages in the Blue volume I grew up with! That’s the other thing I remember! DC1 only writes in books for studying and cooking, so this wouldn’t need note-taking, since it’s for amusement rather than assignment.

      Thanks for the tips! I keep reading online about Riverside/Wadsworth… do you know anything about those?


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