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! Ive 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 Shakespeare.)
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 The Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, and Sir Thomas More, which Im sure bear Shakespeares hand but which arent usually included in complete volumes of his works. And lots of duplicates too.
So when a new edition of Shakespeare comes out, Im not the man to pass it up. And I was delighted with my friends 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. Its done every day. Ive done it myself several times.)
But setting these points aside, the more I read, the clearer it became that Bates 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. Hes 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.
Ive never learned so much about Shakespeare in one night. Id 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 Id started out wanting to cut down to size.
I felt I could afford to throw away several hundred books Ive been hoarding for decades. Oh, Ill keep them, but mostly out of habit; I no longer really need them. But if you want just one Shakespeare, Bates is the one to get, a bargain at $65. Its format is also handsome and readable.
What about that lousy review of my book? I cant 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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