A Sullied, Sallied, Solid Text

The Riverside Shakespeare

edited by G. Blakemore Evans et al
Houghton Mifflin, 1,902 pp., $45.00 (two-volume boxed set)

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

The Riverside Shakespeare is, and seems intended to be, a monument to itself. It declares otherwise; a preface by the publisher begins by putting the needs of prospective customers momentarily foremost: “In the words of the First Folio of 1623, The Riverside Shakespeare is addressed ‘To the great Variety of Readers. From the most able, to him that can but spell.’ In the plainer language of our day, this means that the book has been designed with the general reader, the student, and the scholar equally in mind.” To make the plainer language of our day plainer still, the book has been designed for three purposes: (1) to join Winston Churchill’s multiple memoirs on genuine maple bookshelves; (2) as a textbook for university Shakespeare courses; (3) to be favorably reviewed.

The one-volume Riverside Shakespeare is a big ugly book. The cover is shiny chocolate in color and has a stripe of picture around it. The picture purports to reproduce “a section of a sixteenth-century embroidered valance.” It may be a good reproduction of a very ugly valance. There is also a two-volume edition, recommended for totem purposes by a high price, a Harvard crimson cloth binding, and a cardboard box, which splits if the buyer takes the books out.

What is printed inside the covers of The Riverside Shakespeare is not much more successful. The edition fails because, from its opening pages onward, its concerns are usually different from, inconsistent with, and invidious to the concerns of those who will read it.

The title page presents a hierarchy of near-heraldic complexity. After the title the page says “TEXTUAL EDITOR”; under that is “G. Blakemore Evans Harvard University.” Two spaces lower is “GENERAL INTRODUCTION” and under that “Harry Levin Harvard University.” Two spaces lower come five names and institutional designations. The first four are in alphabetical order (Herschel Baker, Anne Barton, Frank Kermode, Hallett Smith). The fifth entry is “Marie Edel Houghton Mifflin Company.” What should that nonalphabetical position portend? After another two line drop come two lines saying “WITH AN ESSAY ON STAGE HISTORY BY” and “Charles H. Shattuck University of Illinois.”

The title page’s concern with ranking the contributors becomes more explicit on the next leaf in a “Publisher’s Preface,” a sort of grammar school prize day, signed by the president of Houghton Mifflin Company:

The plan of the volume was ambitious from the start. The central spire of its accomplishment is a completely re-edited text, generally modern in spelling and punctuation, yet sensitively reflecting the rhythms and modulations of the Elizabethan voice. This text and its appurtenances, including full textual notes and a history of Shakespeare textual scholarship and editing, is the sole work of G. Blakemore Evans….

Harry Levin’s general introduction then gets a paragraph to itself, one that manages to patronize both Levin and all classes of readers. The next two paragraphs parcel out credit—full…

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