Thursday, March 19, 2009

Notes Toward A Shakespeare Library

When it comes to a fish as big as Shakespeare, you need help. Simply picking up a copy of one of his plays and reading it will leave you floundering with rhetorical bones stuck in your throat. You need help locating him, landing him, and dissecting him if you're going to end up consuming and enjoying him. You need gear.

You need, in short, a Shakespeare library. Of the roughly 1,000,000 books in English that have been written about the Bard since he died in 1616, about 5,000 are worth reading. Of that 5,000, about 500 are worth re-reading. Of that 500, about 200 are worth studying. And of that 200, about 100 are worth owning and consulting frequently.

Obviously, we can't go through all 100 of those today, but we can make some general notes toward building a Shakespeare library. Let's start by setting up the basics of what you need:

You need an ur-text.

Just as Shakespeare's original editors Heminge and Condell first envisioned a big, elaborately produced and definitive door-stopper of a Shakespeare collection, the so-called First Folio, so too must you have such a collection - although it shouldn't be theirs (it's got no scholarship, it's incomplete, and besides, it can be a bit pricey). Your ur-text will be a massive volume that contains everything Shakespeare wrote, the plays, poems, and sonnets. It will be a book too big to carry around in park and promenade - it will reside on some honored shelf, often consulted, the final word. For this purpose I can't recommend highly enough the brown-covered second edition of The Riverside Shakespeare. Its notes are incredible, its essays are enjoyable in their own right, and its editorial underpinnings have never been equalled. It belongs on the shelves of every person who cares about literature. It's quite simply the greatest Shakespeare edition of them all.

You need a beater text.

Greatest Shakespeare edition of them all, yes, but as noted: you won't be carrying it around anywhere (although I myself have! On many a long trip from Iowa to Boston - one hour's drive from Iowa' City to Cedar Rapids, one hour's puddle-jumping flight from Cedar Rapids to Chicago, three hours' flight from Chicago to Boston, then one hour's drive to Lowell, the whole of a long afternoon - I've lugged The Riverside Shakespeare as my sole companion, simply because of how inexhaustibly fascinating it is). You need a beater-collected, a fat one-volume Shakespeare minus the parade of scholarly essays, minus the swarm of footnotes and endnotes - just all the plays (or better yet, all the plays, poems, and sonnets) in one sturdy book that you can cart with you onto subways and into parks. This isn't pretension: sometimes you need the rest of the works right there at your fingertips, to leaf from play to play or from sonnet to play and back. Your beater Shakespeare becomes your best friend, the one book sure to satisfy when all others fail (a beater Bible and - for me, anyway - a beater Plutarch are equally reliable). For this purpose might I recommend the extremely sturdy leatherbound collected Shakespeare volume currently being sold by your local Barnes & Noble? It's got sewn pages, a sturdy spine, and it's a reprint of a pretty good old Oxford edition. It's got a glossary of the murkier Jacobean terminology in the back and - in a nice touch you don't always find - several blank pages for you to fill up with your favorite lines. And it's a very satisfying weight in the hand.

You need pocket versions.

With Shakespeare, it's of course essential to focus. The only way to incorporate all the best of him is to steep yourself in play after play, poem after poem. And the only way to do that is to carry each of them around with you individually - and for that you need a good set of pocket versions. In the last hundred years, there have been hundreds of such versions, and there are merits scattered among them. Currently, the field is a little narrower: the Ardens are too abstruse, the Folgers are too intrusively explanatory, the Bantams slightly under-annotated. The Penguins (in those thin and surprisingly cheap trade paperbacks) are good, and the Oxfords are too (although the quality of the individual introductions varies wildly), but my recommendation would be the Signet mass market paperbacks. They have attractive editions of everything, with extremely handy footnotes, and each work is accompanied by a collection of essays about that work, culled from the scholarship of the last four centuries - indeed, the essays are always an education in themselves.

You need a guide.

And my, my, you've got no shortage of candidates for the job! Almost as long as there's been a Shakespeare, there's been an industry of people explaining Shakespeare, and the choices can be bewildering. I suggest three to start things off: from 1957, Margaret Webster's chatty, cheerful Shakespeare Without Tears, from 1990, the great Sam Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: His Life, His Language, His Theater, and from 2004 The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, which is packed with great archival photos of stage-performances from the past (although a handful of attributions are wrong - always double-check before leaning too heavily on them). All three of these books will thoroughly ground you in the facts and details of Shakespeare's life, time, and works - and all three do a wonderful job of making those works less intimidating to beginners.

You need some teachers.

In this you'll be luckiest if there's an actual flesh-and-blood person you can consult, but lacking that, books will do nicely! And the teaching here will always be temporary - you need the push and pull of somebody's specific gravity in order to develop leg-muscles and balance, but once you've got those things, you'll go leaping off in your own direction soon enough. But while you're still wobbly, it helps immensely to work with some opinionated expert, helps to read their opinions and test them out against your own readings, and against your own viewings (since, we should remember, the only way to really know Shakespeare is to see Shakespeare ... whether it's high school performances, free rehearsals, community theater - however you do it, you should do whatever you can to see every performance of every Shakespeare play you can, as often as you can). A great many fantastic Shakespeare teachers have published good books on their subject; might I recommend among the throng both A.C. Bradley's venerable, oft-mocked, but still stunningly absorbing Shakespearean Tragedy from 1904 and Marjorie Garber's almost equally-good 2005 volume Shakespeare After All? And of course what may very well be the single shrewdest teacher-book ever written on the Bard, Anthony Burgess' Shakespeare (also available as a cheap hardcover from your local Barnes & Noble).

You need a union card.

This one may not seem as intuitive as the rest, but another thing you really need in your Shakespeare library are a few volumes on the man's day job, on the actual mechanics of what it meant to be a working playwright in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. There've been many very good, very lively volumes published on this subject (with lots of invigorating scholarship keeping everybody on their toes even as we speak), but to my mind, one of the best is still G. B. Harrison's Shakespeare at Work: 1592-1603 (originally published in 1933 under the hilarious and quickly-discarded title Shakespeare Under Elizabeth)(although I have no doubt that is, indeed, how it happened). Volumes like this give you an invaluable conception of what theater was like in that very different age, the conditions and restrictions every playwright had to contend with, and the varyingly effective ways those obstacles were overcome. Trust me: after reading a couple of these books, you'll see Shakespeare in a wholly different light, quite independently of how you interpret his works.

And lastly for now, you need a little fantasy.

Since Shakespeare did so much to enlarge the world of fiction, it's not surprising that he himself has appeared in a gazillion novels, short stories, plays, movies, and TV productions. There are large swaths of the Bard's life that remain opaque to scholarly inquiry, and as maddening as that might be to historians, it's mother's milk to novelists, who are free to fill in those blanks however they like. I think something very valuable is added to any Shakespeare library by including a dozen or so of these fantasies. Of course Anthony Burgess must get mentioned again, for his brilliant novel Nothing Like the Sun, but as I've mentioned here before, my own personal favorite is Will Shakespeare, the 1977 novel John Mortimer (of Rumpole of the Bailey fame) wrote to accompany the quite-good BBC production that starred a hairy young Tim Curry as Shakespeare and a hairy young Ian McShane as Marlowe.

These are merely sketches, notes toward a full Shakespeare library - each of these categories deserves a long, long essay of its own, and there are more categories besides (the history of Shakespeare studies, for instance, which would include Schoenbaum's towering Shakespeare's Lives, or the study of Shakespeare's source materials, or the whole vexed question of "Shakespearean authorship"), but we have to start somewhere! In due time we'll return to the subject and keep building your Shakespeare library.

And in the meantime, you could just pick up a copy of one of his plays and start reading. Plenty of Shakespeare fans started just like that.


Lee Dembart said...

There's a small typo: Shakespeare died in 1616, not 1516.

steve said...

Many thanks, stranger! hope the
REST of the post was useful to you!

Anonymous said...

Superb post, as always. Do enough of us readers thank you?

Thank you.

steve said...

THANK me? Hell no! I wouldn't even now what 'gratitude' was unless I Googled it! So thank YOU, anonymous, for noticing the work!

Lee Dembart said...

Yes, the post was wonderful and very helpful. Thanks a million for the wise suggestions.

Kenneth Griggs said...

This is a great post. I will be sure to revisit your blog. Who says people don't read anymore?