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Thread: Reading the complete plays of Shakespeare

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    Reading the complete plays of Shakespeare

    This has been my intention for some time. What's the best way to do this? Is there a good complete works complete with notes available anywhere? Better off on kindle or with paper?

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    There are many good editions in paper that contain wonderful notes and supporting essays (if you just want to read all that much more). Oxford is decent: Arden is good if you are interested in the acting side of things (not sure if there is a complete set though or if you have to get them individually). My personal favourite is Norton's - I love the essays and the notes are very useful.

    Of course, you can always get a digital copy much cheaper (free?) but with few notes. PlayShakespeare has an app out if you have an android or apple device. I use their complete Shakespeare when I am on the go and don't want to lug my Norton's around. The text is very clean, and comes with a glossary of many difficult words.

    Good luck. I decided that in 2012 I would reread/read all of his plays. Took me seven months (on and off).
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    I read through all of Shakespeare (in rough chronological order) about 5 years ago. It's definitely a time investment, but equally definitely worth it. There are lots of good versions out there depending on what you want. As for single-volume editions, the major ones are:

    Riverside aka Wadsworth Shakespeare
    Bevington Shakespeare
    Pelican Shakespeare
    Norton Shakespeare

    Of these, I own the Oxford and the Pelican. When I read through Shakespeare initially I bought the Oxford, primarily because it was the cheapest (at the time) as well as the longest (it's over 1400 pages longer than the next longest competitor, the Riverside!). It definitely has extremely thorough introductions and notes to help a first-time reader through certain difficulties in Shakespeare, perhaps more than an average reader would need. I bought the Pelican to read along with the Arkangel Shakespeare recordings as they used that as their text, and it presents a cleaner, more streamlined approach (more reader friendly, less student friendly--it should be at 1600 less pages!).

    Since then, I have had a chance to look through the Bevington and Riverside at book stores, and they seem to take a more in-between approach, ie, the middle ground between the "reader friendly" Pelican and the "textual/critical/footnoted overload" of the Norton. When this issue comes up, I seem to hear more general recommendations for the Riverside, but I also know there are several people and professors that swear by the Bevington. For whatever reason, I rarely hear the Norton mentioned, but it's probably the volume I'd recommend, if only because I'm most familiar with it and didn't recall having any qualms with it (well, except maybe the sheer heft; make sure you have a place to lay the book down to read it!).

    As for individual volumes, The Arden is usually considered THE standard. I do have several volumes and they are extremely helpful with their abundance of essays and notes, but each edition goes for between $11-$14, so you're probably better off only investing in them for your favorite plays (all 40 volumes, including sonnets, other poems, and the "disputed" plays, would cost between $500-$600!). Other individual editions worth considering are the Oxfords (excellent from what I've seen), and the Norton Critical Editions (though they only have select plays). I tend to swear by Norton Critical Editions for authors/books, in general, but I don't yet own any of their Shakespeare editions.

    As for Kindle, I read through Shakespeare long before I'd bought a Kindle. Since getting an iPad (with Kindle app) I have yet to get any electronic editions. Based on what I've seen from the reviews, no edition has really "got there" yet. Digitizing Shakespeare requires more than getting just the words on the page; but even that is quite a task. Whenever a major version comes out (ie, one from Norton, Riverside, Arden, etc.) I suspect it will be priced as high as the print editions. I wouldn't even bother with any cheap/free editions.

    Hope that helps.
    Last edited by MorpheusSandman; 07-20-2013 at 05:46 AM.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Thanks guys, excellent info!

    Would you recommend they be read in chronological order?

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Yulehesays View Post
    Thanks guys, excellent info!

    Would you recommend they be read in chronological order?
    I would. You get an excellent sense of Shakespeare's development from a promising dramatist in his earliest plays, to the best writer of his time in his middle plays, to arguably the greatest writer of all time in his late tragedies and romances. The thing about chronology, though, is that it's somewhat of an educated guess; there are some dates for which the dating is unknown and very imprecise, and it's impossible to know the exact order. I tend to group them like this:

    Early (1589-1595) (Light Comedies, First Tragedy, First History Tetralogy)
    Two Gentlemen of Verona
    Taming of the Shrew
    I Henry VI
    II Henry VI
    III Henry VI
    Richard III
    Titus Andronicus
    Comedy of Errors
    Love’s Labour’s Lost

    Early-Middle (1595-1599) (Tragedies, Comedies, Second History Tetralogy)
    Romeo and Juliet
    Midsummer Nights’ Dream
    Merchant of Venice
    King John
    Richard II
    I Henry IV
    II Henry IV
    Merry Wives of Windsor
    Much Ado About Nothing
    Henry V

    Middle-Late (1599-1607) (Great Tragedies, Early Problem Plays)
    Julius Caesar
    As You Like It
    Hamlet
    Twelfth Night
    Troilus and Cressida
    Measure for Measure
    Othello
    King Lear
    Macbeth
    Antony and Cleopatra

    Late (1607-1613) (Romances, Late Problem Plays, Last Tragedy)
    Timon of Athens
    All’s Well That Ends Well
    Coriolanus
    Pericles
    Winter’s Tale
    Cymbeline
    Tempest
    Henry VIII
    Two Noble Kinsmen

    I think as long as you read those, eg, in the first category before those in the second you'll get a good feel for that progression. There is certainly debate to be had over certain plays (whether they belong in one or another), but this is a good approximation and it's what I use. Once you hit the second category, it's mostly masterpiece after masterpiece from then on (with only a few, occasional duds; most towards the very end).
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    I agree with the above. reading Shakespeare in order really gives you a sense of the development, and you will begin to notice more interesting patterns as the work develops. You can also break up the genres, so you have a nice balance of history/comedy/tragedy.

    On a side note: Morpheus, I have never seen Love's Labour's Lost lumped in with the early comedies. I know the dates are often vague and the categories a convenience rather than meaningful, but I often think that LLL has more in common with Merry Wives and Much Ado as far as tropes and style goes.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    Morpheus, I have never seen Love's Labour's Lost lumped in with the early comedies. I know the dates are often vague and the categories a convenience rather than meaningful, but I often think that LLL has more in common with Merry Wives and Much Ado as far as tropes and style goes.
    IIRC, LLL is thought to be contemporary with AMND and R&J, while MAAN dates from a few years later and MWW was performed about the same time as MAAN. One could put it either at the end of his first/early period or the beginning of his early-middle period, but I'd definitely put it before MAAN and MWW. FWIW, I still think LLL has more in common with his lighter, earlier comedies. MWW is somewhat atypical in that it was written by request, but MAAN is certainly a play with a certain amount of darkness/drama in it similar to Merchant of Venice and some of the later problem plays.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    I have found the RSC edition of the Complete Works to be very readable - plenty of accessible notes but these are not intrusive and can be ignored if you prefer to read the text straight through without breaking the momentum of the reading.

    I tried to get an Arden version of The Scottish Play to use in my theatre group a few months back and found I could get only second-hand copies as Arden are apparently revising the series and as yet only a few revised titles are available.

    My ambition is to see the Complete Works on the stage. I have five titles left that I have not yet seen, Love's Labour's Lost, Cymbeline, King John, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Timon of Athens. Seeing the works staged is the culmination of any amount of study, my own and all those scholars that have dedicated a lifetime's work, imo.

    As for reading the plays in order, I'm in two minds about this. The OP did not say how much of the Works he has already read. If he/she has already read/seen most of the favourite plays and wants to read with the thought of making a complete overview, an academic study, then I'd agree with previous posters and say read in chronological order, bearing in mind the order is something of a dispute. If however he is coming to them as a first reading, may I suggest that the 'favourites' are more accessible - they are not the favourites for nothing. I think I'd find Two Gentlemen of Verona quite a difficult reading as a starter if I were not already attuned to Shakespeare's 'voice'.

    With the Histories, I'd recommend reading them in their historical chronology as a first approach - Richard II, Henry IV i and ii, Henry V, Henry VI i, ii, iii, Richard III - the relationships and the story line would be so much clearer. I saw them performed in this way at Stratford a few years ago, eight plays over four days, an intense but unforgettable theatrical experience. The Company went on to present them in the order the plays were written the next week - I would happily have sat through all eight again for an equal but totally different experience but time and money were running out....
    Last edited by kasie; 07-21-2013 at 05:13 AM.

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    You left out King John (first chronologically) and Henry VIII (last) in your list of histories.

    Reading the histories in chronological order is interesting, and what I did in my latest read through. However, you get a much better sense of Shakespeare's development if you start with the York plays. The difference between 1 Henry VI, and Henry V for example is huge, and you really see how Shakespeare evolved over 9 years.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    You left out King John (first chronologically) and Henry VIII (last) in your list of histories.

    Reading the histories in chronological order is interesting, and what I did in my latest read through. However, you get a much better sense of Shakespeare's development if you start with the York plays. The difference between 1 Henry VI, and Henry V for example is huge, and you really see how Shakespeare evolved over 9 years.
    this is, however, illusory, because the corpus history has labelled 'Shakespeare' was most likely contributed to by many minor playwrights. in fact, evidence suggests the man from Stratford-upon-Avon never penned a single work.

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    Registered User Calidore's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MorpheusSandman View Post
    Of these, I own the Oxford and the Pelican. When I read through Shakespeare initially I bought the Oxford, primarily because it was the cheapest (at the time) as well as the longest (it's over 1400 pages longer than the next longest competitor, the Riverside!). It definitely has extremely thorough introductions and notes to help a first-time reader through certain difficulties in Shakespeare, perhaps more than an average reader would need. I bought the Pelican to read along with the Arkangel Shakespeare recordings as they used that as their text, and it presents a cleaner, more streamlined approach (more reader friendly, less student friendly--it should be at 1600 less pages!).

    Since then, I have had a chance to look through the Bevington and Riverside at book stores, and they seem to take a more in-between approach, ie, the middle ground between the "reader friendly" Pelican and the "textual/critical/footnoted overload" of the Norton. When this issue comes up, I seem to hear more general recommendations for the Riverside, but I also know there are several people and professors that swear by the Bevington. For whatever reason, I rarely hear the Norton mentioned, but it's probably the volume I'd recommend, if only because I'm most familiar with it and didn't recall having any qualms with it (well, except maybe the sheer heft; make sure you have a place to lay the book down to read it!).
    OP: The links Morpheus posted are worth following just to check the reviews. Lots of comparisons there.

    Agreed about Riverside and Bevington being a good middle ground. I ended up choosing Bevington, but you can't go wrong either way.

    How are the Arkangel plays anyway?
    You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -- Mahatma Gandhi

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Minnesänger View Post
    this is, however, illusory, because the corpus history has labelled 'Shakespeare' was most likely contributed to by many minor playwrights. in fact, evidence suggests the man from Stratford-upon-Avon never penned a single work.
    What an interesting theory? I'm sure you have good evidence to back it up? No? Oh.

    I'm sorry, I cannot tolerate the Baconian conspiracy theories (or the Marlowe, Elizabeth, Oxford &c.) conspiracy theories. Yes, some works were done in collaboration: collaborating was a big thing at the time. There is strong textual evidence to support the notion that Fletcher was a collaborator on Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, and Pericles may only be 3/5 Shakespeare, but to say he didn't pen a single word is absurd.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

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    I read most of them piecemeal. Although I did the English kings in order. I would like to go back chronologically, though.

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Calidore View Post
    How are the Arkangel plays anyway?
    Consistently excellent. I borrowed them from my local library and ripped them all (~100 discs!) to my PC and listened to one every day/every other day over the period of a few months. Personally, I prefer them quite a bit to the BBC Complete Shakespeare (which I also own/have watched). I think the Arkangel boasts consistently better, more engaging performances, and without the visual production aspect it puts the emphasis more on the language, which is where one's attention belongs with Shakespeare.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles Darnay View Post
    You left out King John (first chronologically) and Henry VIII (last) in your list o histories......
    Well, no, not really, that was deliberate - they are 'stand alone' plays, huge gaps between the end of 'King John' and the beginning of 'Richard II' and a lesser but significant gap between the end of Richard III and the action in Henry VIII. The themes are different too.

    I suggested reading the two tetralogies in historically chronological order for a beginner as the history is so confusing unless you are well informed about that period of English History - I was very vague about it (school was a long time ago and we passed rather quickly over the Wars of the Roses) and found it easier to grasp what was going on that way.

    I agree that reading them in the order they were written is very relevant to an appreciation of the development of Shakespeare as dramatist. It struck me forcibly while watching Henry V how parallel in style it is to Hamlet - the Self Questioner moving forward to Action as opposed to the Self Questioner frozen in Inaction.

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