The RSC Shakespeare: William Shakespeare Complete Works

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The RSC Shakespeare:

William Shakespeare

Complete Works

Edited by Jonathan Bate and

Eric Rasmussen

Macmillan, 2007, 30 [pounds sterling],

ISBN 0-230-00350-8

This imposing yellow tome is a bold enterprise. Carrying as it does the logo and imprimatur of the Royal Shakespeare Company, this is a product squarely aimed at a popular, theatre-going audience. The tone and register of its prefatory and explanatory material make it clear that this is a collected works for the modern general reader, an impression powerfully reinforced by the book's design and layout, not to mention the price. But there is nothing cautious or middle-of-the-road in the book's content. Bate and Rasmussen are presenting to the public a complete works unlike any other generally available before. This is, they boast, 'the First Folio restored'.

'All existing Shakespeare editions are deeply flawed', they argue, because they have not sought simply to edit and modernise that collection of Shakespeare's works which his friends and fellow actors Hemings and Condell put together and published in 1623, known as the First Folio. Bate and Rasmussen are certain that the Folio is the text which Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, authorized for performance, based either on the original promptbooks in the case of some of the plays, or on the already published Quarto texts of others 'marked up with reference to the theatre'. Past editors have tried to reconstruct what they thought Shakespeare must originally have written, based both on the Folio and on the Quarto texts--Quartos, roughly speaking, are the unauthorised contemporary paperback versions of some plays, usually produced in response to their popularity on stage. Some Quartos diverge enormously from the Folio text, others are closer to it.

To take the most egregious example, when I teach Hamlet at A Level I use the Oxford School Shakespeare text, a version which scandalously corresponds to none of the three editions of the play (two Quartos and the Folio) published in the early seventeenth century. Instead it is a 'conflation' of the three, working on the assumption that there was a 'single', original Hamlet which the three texts render in some garbled form. In fact modern scholars have now almost all turned against conflation. Bate and Rasmussen, like Hibbard's Oxford Shakespeare edition (1987), take the Folio Hamlet as the text and print the variations from the Second Quarto as addenda. Thomson and Taylor's Third Series Arden Hamlet (2006), on the other hand, prints the Second Quarto as their main version but publish the First Quarto and Folio texts together in a separate, much more expensive volume. What is distinctive is that in this book we have an complete edition of the plays and poems claiming both authenticity and modernity.

Not all critics agree that the Folio does represent the plays as revised for the theatre, and there has recently been a reaction against the growing orthodoxy that Shakespeare wrote plays only with audiences in mind, not readers (see, for example, the work of Lukas Erne). Nevertheless there is a logic and consistency in Bate and Rasmussen's approach, and an admirable decisiveness. But what difference will the non-specialist notice?

The answer is not much, really. Some eighteen of the thirty-six plays published together in 1623 only ever survived in the Folio text anyway. …