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As a translator of Shakespeare's plays, I use every edition I can get my hands, so I was thrilled to see that the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has added a newly edited and glossed collection of all the plays, drawing mostly from the First Folio. As a complete works entry, the RSC version has a lot going for it.
True, the paper is thin and a bit too transparent, but this is also true of the recent The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. If that bothers you, choose the The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Edition, which has less transparent paper. But recognize that the Riverside is about 500 pages shorter and crams the text into two columns, with character names abbreviated and no room for your notes. It tires my eyes quickly. The RSC is very comfortably laid out with lots of white space and a nice font of school-book clarity. The bold-faced sans-serif font for the characters stands out clearly from the serif font for the lines. The extra stage directions help comprehension, and their location in the right margin rather than in brackets in the text removes clutter.
I also enjoyed immensely the General Introduction by Jonathan Bate. Usually, I find myself daydreaming and wanting to skip ahead through these formalities, but I could not put this one down and wished that it were longer. I particularly enjoyed his efficient rebuttal to the Oxfordian authorship claims. In the blogosphere, Oxfordians have convinced each other that Shakespeare was no more than an illiterate grain dealer, but Bates expertly displays why almost all scholars accept Shakespeare as the author. The blogosphere should take note.
The text itself offers a generous number of glosses. I hold that the more help modern readers get the better. So I did a spot check of how many words or phrases were glossed in a famously difficult passage from King Lear (often left out in performances because of its difficulty). Here is the passage:
Sir, I do know you,
And dare, upon the warrant of my note,
Commend a dear thing to you. There is division,
Although as yet the face of it be covered
With mutual cunning, 'twixt Albany and Cornwall;
Who have--as who have not, that their great stars
Throne and set high--servants, who seem no less,
Which are to France the spies and speculations
Intelligent of our state. What hath been seen,
Either in snuffs and packings of the dukes;
Or the hard rein which both of them have borne
Against the old kind king; or something deeper,
Whereof, perchance, these are but furnishings...
The RSC offered 12 glosses while the Norton and Riverside both offered 9. And thankfully, the gloss uses both a line number and a bold-faced repetition of the word or phrase in question to make it easier to reestablish your place in the text.
All in all, the RSC is a friendly, helpful edition. Naturally, at nearly 2500 pages it is difficult to hold in your lap, and the flimsy pages mean durability problems. So for intense study of one play, opt for one of the many paperback versions of individual plays. But as a single source for someone with a spontaneous urge to read a play, the RSC edition fits the bill.