Building A Better Shakespeare

Shakespeare is the only writer since the author of the Bible to whom popular tradition has paid its highest compliment--doubting whether he actually existed. There has never been a satisfactory single-volume edition of Shakespeare, and the good criticism on his work is limited to about one illuminating essay per play.

Complete editions of most standard authors are sold on the basis of "extensive notes," or "sumptuous binding," or "frequent illustrations." The selling point for the new Houghton-Mifflin Riverside Shakespeare is the text itself, the most honest one now available. Few editions of Shakespeare give the reader much sense of where the words he reads come from. Some of them, of course, come from Shakespeare; but many are the additions of collaborators, the mistakes of printers and scribes, the faulty recollection of actors, the alterations of bowdlerizers and the guesswork of editors. The Riverside text, prepared by Gwynne B. Evans, professor of English, over the last 13 years is so uncompromising in sticking to the best sources that some of his readings may not be popular: he replaces "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" with "a rose by any other word would smell as sweet." Like modernizations of the King James Bible, things like this sound like blasphemy.

But it is important that the reader be brought as close to Shakespeare as possible. Evans marks editorial revisions with brackets and his textual notes are clear and absorbing. His textual introduction magisterially surveys the history and techniques of Shakespearean editing, condescending not at all to the general ignorance of the subject. The principles of the "choice of the most difficult reading" (restoring unusual words which early editors may have considered mistakes) and "memorial reconstruction" (actors simply writing down their old parts to the best of their remembrance) are two things every reader should know about, and Evans effectively illustrates them from his own text.

The old crack about Shakespeare criticism goes "if we wish to see the force of human genius, we should study Shakespeare; if we wish to see the insignificance of human learning, we may study his commentators" and the Riverside essays do little to change this state of affairs. Anne Barton's introductions to the comedies are fair-minded but not very exciting. Herschel Baker's pieces are eloquent though they concentrate on literary influence rather than discussion of character. The essays by Frank Kermode bear all the marks of a penetrating intelligence hamstrung by external restrictions. This sense of containment is clearest in Lear, where Kermode seems to feel required to beg the whole question of literary interpretation and retreat to the view that since Shakespeare's audience was Christian, we can safely assume the play does not mean what it says. Kermode was not so cautious when he edited his brilliant Signet edition of The Winter's Tale. Perhaps now that he's installed in a plush Cambridge professorship, his old sense of adventure will reappear. Harry Levin's general introduction to the book avoids the reductionism of setting up any simple frameworks of "Shakespeare's development" or "Shakespeare's world-view" and displays his usual vast range of reference and depth of acuity. Hallett Smith's little essays on the romances are the most dissatisfying, with conclusions like "the critical problems of The Winter's Tale disappear if we remember that all the play was intended to be was a diversion." This is the worst kind of trivialization, and it occurs again in the introduction to the sonnets, which lingers over the corpses of those famous red herrings, the identity of the "onlie begetter" and the Dark Lady.

Each age fashions its text of Shakespeare in its own image. The sentimental, humanitarian men of the eighteenth century rewrote King Lear's agonizing, comfortless conclusion; the early Victorians cut out the bawdy and the morally subversive. The turn-of-the-century aesthetes were more sophisticated--they convinced themselves that words, speeches, scenes, and even whole plays were so bad that they could not have been written by Shakespeare. This was more dangerous than any of Samuel Johnson's incredibly insensitive moral judgments, because it made textual criticism the servant of literary taste instead of a neutral point of departure. The present century has made a fetish out of scholarly objectivity, with good reason; let us hope that the achievements of editors like Gwynne Evans in restoring Shakespeare is as real as it looks now, and not the kind of self-delusion we condemn in earlier ages.


The Riverside critics have too often absorbed the bad side of "objectivity" as well as the genuine. Their commitment to a falsely monolithic view of Elizabethan culture is shown implicitly in their reliance on literary influence to explain Shakespeare. Too often, this kind of source-tagging degenerates into a check-list of things to remember for orals--it is probably unnecessary to bring Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes twice into a brief discussion of Cymbeline. I suspect this approach is not the fault of the authors; the essays follow a general pattern closely enough to indicate that the publisher had unity of method in mind. Houghton-Mifflin chose to take the safe, easy approach; and the essays will save many freshmen from silly mistakes. If they do not make the reader stop and wonder, and make that wonder deepen, at least they are free of error and extravagance and demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of a sound, stolid commentary. But it is unfortunate that such a distinguished group of contributors was not given a freer hand; I would much rather have heard what Baker or Kermode had to say for themselves than read the views of the less-distinguished critics they quote in the hope of being even-handed.

None of these complaints diminishes the success the Riverside has scored. The essays do not constitute a major blot on the book, just a failure to reach the level of the text, the general introduction, the notes, and the refreshingly unfamiliar illustrations. Houghton-Mifflin hopes that the Riverside will replace the Pelican as the standard one-volume college Shakespeare. The Riverside's greater bulk (it weights in at 36 oz. to the Pelican's 31 oz.) gives the plays more room and is easier to use and easier on the eyes than the Pelican. The choice of which edition to take to the desert island is solved.