Reading Shakespeare, Comparing Footnotes

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The New York Sun

T.S. Eliot once claimed that Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, and “there is no third.” Whether or not this is true – I would have added Virgil and Cervantes, Goethe and Proust, and perhaps a few others – these two authors certainly divide the world’s bookshelves. Editions, commentaries, glosses, dictionaries and encyclopedias, not to mention historical and linguistic and biographical studies – from the looniest to the loftiest – crowd the stacks in college libraries and intimidate the clueless reader. In the case of Shakespeare, publishers as well as scholars compete fiercely to produce editions of the plays for classroom use; he is not only a voluminous, but a lucrative, author. How is the poor student, let alone the simple lover of Shakespeare, to navigate these “multitudinous seas” of rival texts?

One-volume editions offer a quick solution but have a drawback: They are heavy enough to require a lectern for support and not one of them will fit cosily in a pocket. There are authors whose works beg for the intimacy of a pocket, and Shakespeare – in this, again, like Dante – is one such. On stalled subway rides or long bus trips, in noisy coffee shops or on sunny park benches, it’s good to know that Cleopatra or Falstaff, Hamlet or Desdemona, are clasped in a pocket, waiting to spring back to life at the touch of your hand.And so the elegant little books that contain such destinies take on the power of talismans.

In assessing the merits of six current editions of individual plays, and partly in the forlorn hope of lightening my own groaning shelves, I consider several criteria.These are the text,the notes, the layout, and the supplementary materials (such as introductions, bibliographies, illustrations, etc.). For the sake of simplicity I’ll deal only with “Macbeth,” though my comments apply to other titles in each series, all of which follow a consistent format. The six series are the Everyman, the Folger, the Norton, the Oxford, the Pelican, and the Yale.

Unlike “Hamlet” or “King Lear,” both of which exist in different versions, the text of “Macbeth” is relatively straightforward. Probably written around 1606, when Shakespeare was 42, the play wasn’t published until it appeared in the First Folio in 1623, some seven years after the author’s death. In the Folger edition (Washington Square Press; 223 pages; $4.99), Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine correct “typos” and render such Latin stage directions as “exeunt” into English; and in the Pelican text (Penguin; 98 pages; $3.95), Stephen Orgel offers a list of variants, as does Robert S. Miola in the Norton (W.W. Norton; 384 pages; $10). All six editions modernize the spelling – a practice I find problematic – but all are textually sound and quite trustworthy.

The crucial differences occur in the notes. Though all the editors dutifully gloss archaic words or Elizabethan usages, two are superior, though for utterly different reasons. In the Yale edition of “Macbeth” (Yale University Press; 210 pages; $6.95), the polymathic scholar and translator Burton Raffel not only elucidates baffling terms but offers guidance on the prosody and declamation of Shakespeare’s lines, often to subtle effect, which will be useful to actors as well as readers. Perhaps the deftest comments, however, come from Nicholas Brooke’s edition of the play (Oxford World’s Classics; 249 pages; $7.95). Mr. Brooke provides succinct, highly specific annotations but he also knows when not to comment, a form of tact all too rare among scholars. Thus, when Macbeth delivers the great soliloquy beginning “She should have died hereafter,” and comes to the lines

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.

Mr. Brooke notes that “pace” denotes not only gait but “a narrow passage, pass” (thus explaining why Macbeth says “creeps in”instead of “creeps at”); but even better, in glossing the third line, he remarks “A line too complex in its resonances for commentary to be anything but reductive.” Bravo!

With regard to layout, the lines of verse, as well as the stage directions, should be clear,spacious and unencumbered; the explanatory material, by contrast, should be full but unobtrusive. In this regard, the otherwise useful Everyman Shakespeare (Everyman; 211 pages; $5.95), edited by John Andrews, presents a version overshadowed by facing pages of densely printed notes; the Folger edition adopts this distracting format too, creating a cluttered effect. Mr. Raffel’s Yale text, though handsomely printed, is so sprigged with footnote numbers that after a scene or two the verse seems festooned with barbed wire. By contrast, both the Pelican and the Oxford editions are laid out with impressive elegance and lucidity.

Though all six contain detailed and sometimes superb introductory essays, along with reading lists, plot summaries, chronologies, keys to “famous lines,” and illustrations of varying relevance, the Norton Critical Edition of “Macbeth” is in a category of its own. With excerpts and essays by everyone from Martin Luther to Derek Jacobi, this indispensable compendium hems the malign Macbeth in more densely than Birnam Wood.

If I had to rank these six I’d give first place to the Oxford Shakespeare for its splendid annotation and superb readability of text; but the Yale edition, with its original insights, wouldn’t be far behind. Of the three richest in sheer factual information – and most obviously intended for students – the svelte little Folger is the most pocketable, the Norton the bulkiest (and the fullest), and the Everyman the densest. But for the sheer pleasure of “Macbeth,” the lightly annotated (but wonderfully introduced) Pelican edition, which gives pride of place to the text itself, couldn’t be bettered.

In comparing these editions I began to feel a bit like Hamlet; the editors “word me” and the cumulative effect “puzzles the will.” Of course, that is their job. In tracking their varied explanations for such familiar phrases as “the weird sisters,” I felt at once exhilarated and oppressed. One traces it to a Scottish word,another to Old English, still another notes that it was once printed as “wayward,” though all agree that it connotes fate and that the cackling witches are diviners rather than mere evil presences. This is good to know; and yet, over the centuries, Shakespeare’s words have outgrown their original meanings. Since 1623, that fateful trio, still fresh from “killing swine,” have not only grown weirder themselves but have given new dimensions to weirdness itself.

The New York Sun

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