The Reactionary Utopian
                      May 22, 2007

by Joe Sobran

     Last week a friend dropped by with a big gift: the 
opulent new Modern Library edition of the works of 
Shakespeare, more than 2,000 pages long, produced in 
conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose 
excellent CORIOLANUS my friend, his father, and I had 
just seen at the Kennedy Center two weeks earlier.

     As if I needed another Shakespeare book! I've 
collected editions of Shakespeare since high school, and 
I already owned dozens, dating back over generations: 
Yale, Riverside, Pelican I and II, Oxford I and II, 
Arden, Cambridge, Norton, and on and on. Editors include 
G.B. Harrison, Hardin Craig, G.L. Kittredge, John Dover 
Wilson, Stephen Greenblatt, David Bevington, and the team 
of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. (If you know all the 
plays almost by heart, you too may be qualified to edit 

     These are just some of the single-volume editions in 
my personal Shakespeare library (roughly 3,000 books); I 
also have the Signet, Penguin, Washington Square Press 
(I and II), and other series in individual paperbacks. 
Plus collections of such marginal and apocryphal plays as 
which I'm sure bear Shakespeare's hand but which aren't 
usually included in "complete" volumes of his works. And 
lots of duplicates too.

     So when a new edition of Shakespeare comes out, I'm 
not the man to pass it up. And I was delighted with my 
friend's splendid gift.

     I understand there are some literate people who have 
only one edition of Shakespeare and are content with 
that. I regard them with the sort of mystified pity a 
Saudi sheik might feel for a poor Idaho monogamist. How 
can these folks bear to live in such deprivation?

     But the editor of this hefty new volume is a man I 
thought I had a score to settle with, Jonathan Bate of 
Warwick University. Ten years ago, Bate gave my own book, 
ALIAS SHAKESPEARE, a blistering and, I thought, unfair 
review. He scornfully rejected the very possibility that 
"Shakespeare" was a pen name for the real author. Now was 
my chance to get even.

     In that spirit, I spent a long evening studying his 
edition, at first in the hope of catching his errors. And 
I did find a few; Bate is still a little shaky on the 
Sonnets and of course the whole authorship question. He 
still calls alternative authorship views "conspiracy 
theories," which is silly, especially for a man as 
intelligent as he is. (Using a pen name requires very 
little conspiring. It's done every day. I've done it 
myself several times.)

     But setting these points aside, the more I read, the 
clearer it became that Bate's edition is incomparably 
superior to all the rest. His knowledge of textual 
problems and previous commentary seems to me prodigious 
in its detail and thoroughness; see, for example, what he 
says about successive early texts of RICHARD III. And his 
comments on individual plays are unfailingly perceptive. 
He's about equally fine as scholar and critic; few excel 
in both roles, with their very different requirements. 
Bate is like an all-star shortstop who can also serve as 
an outstanding relief pitcher.

     I've never learned so much about Shakespeare in one 
night. I'd read hundreds of books about him, one of which 
Bate himself wrote some years back, and I figured I 
pretty much knew all there was to know, except for the 
most arcane lore, of interest only to pedants.

     No other edition has ever impressed me so much. Its 
virtues far outweigh its flaws; I think those flaws are 
serious enough to mention, but by the time I went to bed 
they hardly seemed to matter. I wanted to thank the man 
I'd started out wanting to cut down to size.

     I felt I could afford to throw away several hundred 
books I've been hoarding for decades. Oh, I'll keep them, 
but mostly out of habit; I no longer really need them. 
But if you want just one Shakespeare, Bate's is the one 
to get, a bargain at $65. Its format is also handsome and 

     What about that lousy review of my book? I can't let 
that pass. But if Hamlet could delay his revenge, I guess 
I can let mine wait a while.

     Just watch your back, Professor Bate.


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