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 shares, half shares, and honorable mentions: Baker provided introductions and explanatory footnotes for the history plays, Kermode for the tragedies, and Smith for the romances and poems. Anne Barton wrote introductions for the comedies but not notes; the notes for the comedies were begun by Lloyd E. Berry of the University of Missouri (who did not make the title page), and completed by Evans and Edel. Evans “also supplied a fully edited version—the first to be included in a one-volume Shakespeare—of those additions to [the multi-authored play called Sir Thomas More]…which are thought by many to be Shakespeare’s and partly written in his hand.” Evans prepared two appendixes, “Annals, 1552-1616” and “Records, Documents, and Allusions.” Evans and Baker get fractional extra credit for choosing the illustrations.

Any reader will see from the scorecard that Evans wins and wins big. This is G. Blakemore Evans’s edition (a fact admitted only in the Library of Congress catalogue card: “Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616./The Riverside Shakespeare./…Evans, Gwynne Blakemore, ed.”). Evans undertook and completed an awesome task. One can work up a considerable scholarly reputation by mastering the textual details and problems for any single Shakespeare play; Evans has done so for thirty-eight plays (The Two Noble Kinsmen is included), the Sir Thomas More fragment, and the poems. Why didn’t he admit his accomplishments openly? Had he written the preface, instead of the publisher, it would have been in English prose.

I am spending all this space on the preface because it is an emblem of the whole. Evans’s text, the chief selling point of the edition, is skewed by an inappropriate sense of its relation to its audiences. The text is presented as if its purpose were to be tested by textual scholars, who do not need it and cannot use it, but this edition will be bought and used by undergraduates, who will be more intimidated by it than informed. Evans’s textual apparatus is not, should not be, and does not pretend to be, exhaustive; the edition cannot be used as a reliable short cut in scholarly research. On the other hand, its appeal is exclusively for scholarly approval. The edition seems to care more about not being wrong than about being right; it seems always to be looking over its shoulder for people trying to catch it in failures of scholarly decorum.


Evans’s editorial procedure is essentially sensible and could have resulted in a text as useful as it is scrupulous. Where there is more than one authoritative Shakespearian text—say one or more quartos printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime and the 1623 folio—Evans chooses one as his copy text, modernizes it to the extent he thinks necessary, lists his significant departures from it, and records significant variations in the other authoritative texts. (The decisions on what is significant are necessarily Evans’s own; they are erratic, but they generally lean toward recording too much rather than too little.)

However, Evans’s text and apparatus are confusingly complicated. He is ostentatiously scrupulous about the nature and sources of his text—the particular edited text he has prepared for this book. The pedigrees of its particulars are printed in awe-inspiring detail, and the bulk of detail is such that a student can think that he knows more about Shakespearian texts than he wants to know, when in fact he only knows more about this hybrid than he wants to know.

Consider, for example, the textual notes on 2 Henry IV, six pages of small type set three columns to a page. This is a typical entry, that for line 34 of Act II, scene iv: “34 s.d. Exit Francis.] Capell (subs.).” That means that this exit, suggested by the preceding dialogue but like many such exits not indicated by a stage direction in the quarto or folio texts, was first inserted by Edward Capell in his ten-volume Shakespeare of 1768, and that Capell said something other than, but substantially the same as, “Exit Francis” (Capell said “Exit Drawer”). I don’t know whether this information is worth its weight in a one-volume Shakespeare (Capell doesn’t need the credit and no one could think ill of Evans for silently appropriating and revising another man’s stage direction), but I would not mind its inclusion if it and thousands like it did not take up space that could be better used to record emendations and additions that are traditional, inviting, and wrongheaded.

For instance, neither the quarto, nor the folio, nor Evans specifies a speaker for the epilogue to 2 Henry IV. Alexander Pope did, and most modern editors have followed him in tagging the epilogue as spoken by a dancer. Pope’s addition is justified (some of the verbal wit of the epilogue derives from the fact that its speaker has just danced or is about to do so) and also misleading (it suggests that the speaker is a specialist, a dancer, rather than one of the actors who joins the rest of the cast in the dance that seems to have been a customary lagniappe for Elizabethan theatergoers). Evans also spends page upon page crediting earlier editors for introducing particular commas and modernizing particular spellings; he could have better used a line of type to mention the stage direction and mark it as an eighteenth-century interpolation, thus clearing up the confusion of readers who remember schoolmasters telling them, as one told me, that “Epilogue: spoken by a dancer” testified to Shakespeare’s democratic opposition to the star system and to his sympathy with chorus boys.

Since this edition makes such a show of textual punctiliousness, omissions in the textual notes amount to misrepresentations. For instance Evans’s text of the 2 Henry IV epilogue begins “First my fear, then my cur’sy, last my speech.” “Cur’sy” is the quarto reading and probably approximates the usual Renaissance pronunciation of “curtsy” in any spelling. Evans’s textual notes are silent on “cur’sy” and thus suggest that the quarto spelling is somewhat clearer evidence of pronunciation than it is; the folio gives “Curtsie.” My objection about “cur’sy” is trivial, but appropriately so. However, my quibble is also illegitimate—and that brings me to some new complaints. If before consulting the textual notes to. 2 Henry IV (pp. 923-929), one has acquired a lawyer’s command of the editor’s contractual obligations as densely set forth on pages forty and forty-one, and if one has then searched through the small print of the general note on the text of 2 Henry IV and found the sentence that says “Q was almost certainly printed from Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ and here serves as copy-text, except for some 156 lines found only in Fl,” then one will know that The Riverside Shakespeare is furnishing not an edited text of 2 Henry IV but an edited text of the 1600 quarto of 2 Henry IV and that Evans is not obliged to mention any particular deviations from that text except those that he chooses to adopt in his own version.


Therefore I have no legal appeal against the textual notes, except perhaps under the doctrine of attractive nuisance—a doctrine generally applicable to this edition. In being so insistently authoritative, The Riverside Shakespeare automatically incurs an obligation to be scrupulous about everything. An edition that calls attention to the liberty it takes in listing some servants as “strewers” when the folio calls them “groomes” cannot afford a footnote that simply dismisses the last four lines of the folio text of Titus Andronicus as “non-Shakespearean.”

Some of the nuisance is not attractive at all. Evans’s policy is to interrupt the text on the page by brackets to indicate even minor deviations from whichever text he has chosen, but not to indicate major (or famous) differences between quarto and folio readings. Thus, since he follows the 1604 quarto for Hamlet, Evans gives the fifth line of the first soliloquy as “How [weary], stale, flat, and unprofitable,” thus acknowledging (and incidentally exaggerating the significance of) the quarto spelling, “wary,” which he duly records in the textual notes along with the fact that the folio has “weary.” In the first line of the same speech Evans prints “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt”; a footnote explains that “sallied” is another spelling of “sullied,” and a textual note records the folio reading, “solid.” If one is going to hobble one’s text with brackets, surely sense should supersede system to the extent of letting “weary” pass smoothly and reserving one’s typographical fuss for “sallied.”

Evans’s modernized text is also disabled by sporadic and potentially distorting retention of archaic spellings. He gives Hamlet, I.iv.1 as “The air bites shrowdly, it is very cold.” A footnote glosses “shrowdly” as “shrewdly,” and the textual notes explain that, unlike the quarto, the folio gives “shrewdly.” Evans’s choice is gratuitously pious; it invites ingenious misconceptions of the line as cleverly enriched with funeral overtones, exaggerates the significance of Renaissance orthography, and increases the distance between the play and the reader.

The Riverside Shakespeare is generally secretive. It is hard to find things in it. The book lacks a topical index to the commentary, something Houghton Mifflin could have done well. So if a student consulting the textual notes to 2 Henry IV comes upon Evans’s acknowledgment that “M. A. Shaaber argues vigorously that Fl was set from a transcript (possibly by Ralph Crane) of the official prompt-book…,” he may well think that Ralph Crane (a seventeenth-century scrivener whose name serves as a password by which thirty-two degree Shakespearians identify themselves to one another) is known to everyone in the world except him. Unless he searches even more thoroughly than I did, he will never find out why we know or care about Ralph Crane. Something similar will happen to a student who hears the word “Vice” mentioned in various introductions; “Vice” is defined—twice—in footnotes, one in the middle of 1 Henry IV and one near the end of Twelfth Night.

The table of contents is not much help either: it is a maze of typographical displays and inefficient systems. Appendix B, “Records, Documents, and Allusions,” contains thirty-two items, numbered consecutively but divided into four separately titled subgroups that do not correspond to those in the tripartite title. The next-to-last item in the table of contents says that a “Selected Bibliography” begins on page 1,894; it excludes works so frequently cited that they are indicated by their authors’ last names; a two-and-a-half page key to those names appears near the front of the book as an unlisted subheading to “Abbreviations.” Neither list includes textual studies of particular plays; they are appended to the appropriate textual notes. Some works casually mentioned in introductions are not identified at all. (E.g., the introduction to Henry V says that “Warren D. Smith has argued that the prologues…were probably written by another hand.” Who is Warren D. Smith? Is his argument in print?)

Houghton Mifflin has papered the house of intellect with free copies of this book. Dazzled by Evans’s industry, reverent of the apparatus, and persuaded by the bond between the Riverside text and Spevack’s concordances (advertised two separate times in the prefaces and again in Evans’s essay on the text), teachers are asked to require their students to buy it. But The Riverside Shakespeare is likely to cause iatrogenic malnutrition in students and is too heavy for students to carry to class in any case. I will stick with The Pelican Shakespeare, which was published in paperback, a play at a time, between 1956 and 1967; its general editor, Alfred Harbage, edited several plays himself and, in a miracle of modern merchandising, distributed the rest of the editing to other distinguished scholars geographically so that anyone in North America with Shakespeare texts to assign was likely to be either a colleague or a former student of one of the Pelican editors. In 1969, the various editors revised the volumes, which were then reissued, both separately and together in a one-volume Shakespeare.

The one-volume Pelican weighs five-and-a-quarter pounds and costs $12.95. The Riverside weighs six-and-three-eights pounds and costs $14.95. A greater difference is that the Pelican seems always concerned with its readers’ convenience and with adjusting twentieth-century readers’ assumptions and expectations to approximate those of a Renaissance audience; Riverside keeps its readers at a respectful distance from Shakespeare and his text; it introduces a student into the mysteries of Shakespeare scholarship as an outsider who deserves to remain so.

The difference between the two books is physically apparent. Compare the opening pages of The Merchant of Venice. Both editions use double columns, both provide glossarial footnotes and a bracketed list of dramatis personae. The first two pages of The Merchant of Venice in Riverside cover the first 123 lines of the play, twenty-three fewer than Pelican. The Riverside page is roughly ten inches by eight; the Pelican page is nine-and-three-quarters by seven. Riverside pages look crowded and forbidding, partly because there is a disturbing variety of type faces and partly because the basic type, being larger than Pelican’s, is too large for the double-column format. As a result verse lines have to be divided much more often in Riverside than in Pelican.

Riverside’s speech prefixes are in the traditional format: indented, italicized abbreviations preceding (and requiring further indentation in) the first line of each speech; thus the first column of the text of Riverside’s Merchant is unbroken except that lines one, eight, and fifteen are indented and begin Ant., Sal., and Sol. Pelican prints each speaker’s name in full, in small capitals and on a separate line so that one does not have to memorize names like Salerio and Solanio or distinguish between them any more than one does in the theater, and so that the pages of text are reasonable spatial representations of stage dialogue. Moreover, although the Pelican gets more text on smaller pages, its page is far less crowded and, since its light and delicate type is stringently plain, easier to read.

Everything about the Pelican format makes reading it an ordinary process. Compare the experiences of reading the two versions of line 27 of Merchant. Salerio has been speculating on his horrible imaginings if he were in Antonio’s place and had ships and cargo at sea; he has said he would think constantly “of shallows and of flats”; he continues, and the Pelican text says: “And see my wealthy Andrew docked in sand.” Riverside prints line 27 thus: “And see my wealthy Andrew [dock’d] in sand.” The brackets mean that “dock’d” is an editorial emendation and send the reader to the textual notes, which say that the early texts print “docks.” The misprint is pretty obvious, and Pelican records it in an unobtrusive note preceding the play. In choosing to replace “docks” with “dock’d” instead of “docked,” Riverside manufactures an archaism: Renaissance readers considered syllabification of final –ed as normal, and indicated exceptions with ‘d (compare modern “does not” and “doesn’t”). We take monosyllabic pronunciation of “docked” as the norm and dissyllabic pronunciation as the variation. Therefore Pelican prints “docked.”

In maintaining—and in this case imitating—Renaissance printing practice, Riverside distractingly gives a modern reader help he does not need. (On the other hand, Riverside solemnly follows original spelling even where rhythm indicates syllabification and where an accent mark can save a modern reader from stumbling. Riverside prints line 142 of Merchant as “The self-same way with more advised watch.” Pelican is quietly helpful: “The selfsame way, with more advised watch.”) Using “dock’d” and putting it in brackets makes a kind of hiccup in even a silent reading.

Riverside’s note on “Andrew” can actually distort a reader’s thinking: “This was the name of one of two very large Spanish galleons captured by the English in the Cadiz expedition of 1596; news of the exploit created great excitement in England, and it is doubtless alluded to here.” That “doubtless” will no doubt assure scholars that the Riverside editors are aware of a letter to the editor of TLS in 1928. The contents of the letter are not irrelevant to The Merchant of Venice; the capture of the Andrew and the Matthew might help date the play, and it is useful to know that the name “Andrew” might have suggested a ship both grand and vulnerable. However, Riverside’s note does not usefully harness the information and, in saying “alluded to,” distorts it; at best the note vouches for the editors’ credentials; at worst it invites students to unnecessary speculation on possible naval and political meanings in The Merchant of Venice. Pelican also has a note on “Andrew”; it says, “name of a ship.”

Pelican’s note is also easier to find. Everyone who has been a sophomore in a Shakespeare course remembers the irritation of chasing to the foot of a page to look for clarification that isn’t there or to check for necessary clarifications he doesn’t know he needs. The revised Pelican texts introduced a splendid innovation; where most student editions, Riverside included, systematically number every fifth line, Pelican numbers the lines that have footnotes and does not number those that have none; the marginal numbering thus does double service. Riverside, always eager to credit its predecessors, should have imitated Pelican’s way of indicating the presence or absence of explanatory notes.

Riverside suffers from the apparent lack of a general and generally responsible editor. For example, both Riverside and Pelican follow the usual modern practice of adding a fourth category, “romances,” to the folio’s “comedies, histories, and tragedies.” A student using The Riverside Shakespeare can think that the term is more than a modern critical convenience. In the one-volume Pelican, Harbage provides a brief general introduction to the group; its first sentence is this: “Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest are separately grouped, not because they belong to a distinct category generally recognized in their day, but because they share certain characteristics which the grouping helps to emphasize.” A general editor could also have seen to it that the edition seemed less of a conspiracy to allude to things without identifying them.

He might also have proofread the whole volume and/or encouraged the Houghton Mifflin staff to do so. Considering that the main text is so scrupulous, the shoddy production of the introductions and nontextual apparatus is surprising. For example, the visual clutter of the pages is enhanced by cute ornamental capitals at the beginning of each introduction; the introduction to Pericles begins with the wrong ornamental letter and says “In the twentieth of May….” The last item in the table of contents says that the map on page 591 is on page 592. On page 15 the Globe Theater is “apparently polygonal”; on page 1,893 it is declared to be cylindrical. In the General Introduction, a discussion of Macbeth moves gracefully and logically into general comments on Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists; but what we think will be a new general paragraph on tragic protagonists turns out to be specific, a continuation of the Macbeth discussion. The error is obviously minor, but it is also obvious: a copy editor should have added “In Macbeth” to the new paragraph.

That editorial accident in Levin’s General Introduction provides the one visible seam in an otherwise seamless essay, an essay amazing in its mastery of the most hectic of literary topics and in the clarity, simplicity, and calm generosity of Levin’s presentation. The essay is so perfectly non-narcissistic that readers may take its achievement for granted: “Sure that’s how you sum up Shakespeare’s life, lifetime, and works in 20,000 words.” The virtues of the Levin essay are exactly those that the edition generally lacks. Levin explains his terms and references so that each of his sentences is clear at the instant of reading, and he does it without ever patronizing a novice or delaying a specialist. His essay reads as if it were the product of its reader’s mind rather than of its author’s. Levin makes any reader temporarily as learned as himself. Although I cannot recommend that teachers saddle their students with this edition, I recommend that they read Levin’s essay. It shows one just what one wants to achieve in introductory Shakespeare lectures and never does—a broad, clear, precise view in which each particular consideration and each particular detail has exactly its proper weight.

Assessing the individual introductory essays to the individual works is not so easy. Writing such essays is a thankless task; there is no space for more than a run at the sources, a survey of critical responses, and a garnish of quotes from Dr. Johnson. I would guess that the hardest plays to write introductions for are the comedies, and Anne [Righter] Barton, who takes them on for Riverside, is probably the least successful of the four writers. Most students read introductions in search of what they are supposed to think. It is hard to find anything satisfying to say about Shakespeare’s plays, and nearly impossible for the comedies. Anne Barton is very good at compressing and clarifying background material (see, for example, her opening paragraphs on Merchant), but she is too much inclined toward puff-pastry criticisms so invitingly neat that they will be served up stale in student essays for years to come (for example, “Belmont is really the better self of Venice” and “The Merchant of Venice is a play about contrasted attitudes towards wealth and the life-styles dictated by each”).

I would also guess that writing mini-essays on the histories would be the easiest assignment, and in general Herschel Baker’s essays are appropriately better than the rest; he has the added unfair advantage of being able to write his introductions in Herschel Baker’s prose. On the tragedies, Frank Kermode, whose genius is not for carving heads on cherry stones, does his job responsibly and also manages to sound like a live, particular man—informed and sensitive but not official, unassailable, or the guardian of a frozen and quasi-sacred scholarly consensus. Hallett Smith on the romances—and particularly on the poems—exercises his special talent for clearing away scholarly debris, getting to the point, and getting out. Charles Shattuck’s appendix on stage history is an elaborate gesture of completeness. It progresses by alluding to facts instead of giving them (e.g., William Macready’s feud with Edwin Forrest “exploded into the frightful Astor Place Riots”). The essay is too much restricted to readers who are reminded by it rather than informed. I don’t say I could do better, but I suspect that Shattuck could, and I wish he had. That last sentence, suitably adjusted, could sum up my response to The Riverside Shakespeare.

The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare announces itself as “the first complete and reliable one-volume concordance to all the plays and poems of Shakespeare,” a guide to “every word and phrase in Shakespeare.” It is in fact an incomplete concordance to G. B. Evans. Do not buy it without reading the preface first. This concordance is an abbreviation of volumes IV-VI of Marvin Spevack’s genuinely complete concordance to Evans’s text (Hildesheim, 1968-70; volumes I-III contain separate concordances to the individual plays and poems and are irrelevant to this discussion). For reasons of economy the forty-three commonest words (“the,” “and,” “I,” “to,” “of,” “a,” etc.) are omitted in the Harvard version. I suppose not many people want to have those words printed out with their contexts, but I do. Prepositions and conjunctions are the essential words in all practical language, and Shakespeare’s way with them is essential to his genius.

Reading the preface was like reading the small print in the instruction booklets of Erector Sets; you never could make the motor-driven Ferris wheel with the particular set you had. After explaining the omission of the forty-three words which I gave up my copy of the old and incomplete Bartlett concordance in order to get, the preface says: “Stage directions and indications of speakers, as well as significant variations, will be treated in supplementary volumes.” Supplementary volumes! Until and unless those volumes are published this concordance will seem to say that the name Claudius, which appears only once in Hamlet and in a stage direction, isn’t in the play at all. Moreover, since the Spevack concordance is a concordance to Evans, one can look up “sullied,” be directed to “sallied,” find “too too sallied flesh,” but never hear that any authoritative text ever printed “solid”; there are three entries under “solid,” none from Hamlet, and no parenthetical directions to check out “sallied.”

Even after the optional accessories are available, I suspect that Spevack’s concordances will still list four Shakespearian examples of “catalogue,” one example of “cate-log,” and no cross reference between the two. The Harvard Concordance is an expensive toy.

This Issue

December 12, 1974