In the forest of Arden

Frank Kermode introduces the third edition of "the most useful Shakespeare texts" in history

This is third time round for the Arden Shakespeare. The first set was ground out between 1899 and 1944, and the second between 1946 and 1982 - slow going. The present new edition starts off briskly with Titus Andronicus, King Henry V and Antony and Cleopatra (Routledge, £30 each in hardback or £5.99 in paperback), but the pace may slow, for there are tougher problems ahead than any encountered in these inaugural volumes. Still, the new series will, like the old ones, be worth waiting for. Despite inevitable variations in quality, these editions have been for the best part of a century about the most useful Shakespeare texts you could hope to find.

Their history has not been uniformly glorious. The editors enlisted at the outset of the second series, including myself, were told to revise the old versions rather than edit from scratch. The publishers warned us that they were merely doing a service to the scholarly public, that there was no money in the project; they couldn't afford to reset text and commentary and would have to go on using the ancient stereotypes. This meant that if we changed anything - and in the nature of the case there was plenty that needed changing - we had to replace it with exactly the same number of characters as we had deleted. One had visions of printers close to mutiny, chiselling away at the plates and laboriously soldering on the substituted letters.

My own Edwardian predecessor, under no such constraints, had enjoyed an occasional autobiographical flourish - there were notes that began "I well remember when I was a boy in Warwickshire. . ." Obviously these had to go, but I would have to replace them with language probably only marginally less irrelevant, and of exactly the same length. After a year or so of hopeless struggle, it became as clear to the publisher as it always was to the editors that this method could not succeed, so we were set free and encouraged to begin all over again. I admit that there are mildly redundant notes in my volume which somehow survived the change of plan.

Another notion had to be abandoned: the assumption that the series was of interest to very few people. Around 1950, nobody foresaw the age of the academic paperback, but when it arrived the Arden Shakespeare took the form in which most of the world now knows it, and sold in hundreds of thousands, to the great and deserved benefit of the publishers, though not of the unlucky editors, their contracts being harder to alter than stereotypes, and their mess of pottage long since consumed.

Meanwhile, as more plays came out, and the early titles were updated, the editorial material tended to grow more recondite. Shakespearian bibliography was becoming ever more sophisticated; for instance, it was possible to know which individual compositor set which parts of the original texts, and to study his peculiar working habits. Although this knowledge had little effect on the texts themselves, it filled the introductions with all manner of information that would formerly have been thought irrelevant to the "general reader"; but he or she seemed not to mind. And of course critics, as they must, found new ways of talking about the plays.

The later volumes of the postwar series - Philip Brockbank's Coriolanus, for instance - are a rather different proposition from the earliest, but the obsolescence of Shakespeare editions is a fact of life, and the publishers are probably right to have started all over again. Brockbank's volume will doubtless be ripe for replacement by about 2040.

Of the first three volumes of this present series, the liveliest and most ambitious is Jonathan Bates's Titus Andronicus. Having drawn one of the less favoured plays, he clearly decided he could prove it is far better than his benighted predecessors had believed, indeed that it is a masterpiece in its own right. One sceptical forerunner was the 1953 editor of the Arden Titus, J C Maxwell: Bate assures us that he is "taking a completely different approach". To the generation of second-series editors, Maxwell was a formidable figure, an icily brilliant scholar, famous for the terse post-cards in which he informed his contemporaries of their laughable errors. Had he survived, Bate might have had to brace himself for some bleak communications.

However, it is true that he has done it all vigorously and very differently: he is far more interested in performance than Maxwell (who was admittedly working before the famous Peter Brook production of 1955), and he has expended a lot of time and ingenuity on working out the staging. Indeed he invents stage directions as liberally as Dover Wilson did in the old days. But there is nothing in the least old-fashioned about Bate, and altogether his is a brisk, opinionated piece of work, virtuously modern in its technical aspects and in its attention to theatrical possibility, though a shade strident in its critical claims.

John Wilders, the editor of the new Antony and Cleopatra, is a rather older hand, but he too pays much attention to staging, a topic on which he is well informed. Remembering Evans and Tearle, though, and Ashcroft and Redgrave, I was surprised to read that the play "has seldom been performed satisfactorily on the stage". Now that directors have seen that an unadorned stage is required, rather than the Pharos in one scene and the Colosseum in the next, all it needs is some very good actors, and in that respect at least we are reasonably well off.

Antony and Cleopatra, which survives only in the version of the 1623 Folio, is textually fairly straightforward, and Wilders deals conservatively with such problems as there are, T W Craik faces a rather more complex set of them in his edition of King Henry V, for there is an unreliable Quarto as well as a Folio (the Quarto is reproduced in photographic facsimile, a useful innovation). Craik startled me at the outset by going on about when he was a boy in Warrington, but he proceeds to deal genially with the real issues, gently dissenting from the recent Oxford and Cambridge versions, and following what are obviously the instructions of the current General Editors, to attend more closely than before to the history and problems of performance. This is understandable and right; the first Ardens tended to treat the plays as closet dramas, and so did some of the second batch.

The real test of those new editions will be the day-to-day use of their annotations, still fortunately on the same page as the text. Their value can't be judged on a hasty sampling; but on a first inspection they all look sound, sober and useful, which, since they may have to last for 50 years, is just as well.

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo are teaming up for a Hurricane Katrina drama

film
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore