Buying a Shakespeare play, I was reminded recently, is no easy matter, thanks to the wealth of different editions on offer. But as I glanced across the shelves - New Penguin, Everyman, Players', Oxford - my eye could not but be caught by the bold, bright covers of the Arden Shakespeare. These were the editions, I remembered, by no means the cheapest but attractively presented and crammed with notes, that we had coveted as undergraduates.
Now nearing its hundredth birthday, the Arden Shakespeare is just entering its third edition. This month, Routledge publishes the first three - Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Henry V - in a new series expected to reach completion by 2001.
The first Arden Shakespeare was Edward Dowden's edition of Hamlet, published by Methuen in 1899. The second series was launched in the 1950s, beginning with the more popular plays, but took until the early 1980s to complete - by which time the treatment of many of the earlier volumes was already beginning to look somewhat old-fashioned.
"A great deal has happened in textual studies since the 1950s, and the old Arden editions need some serious updating," explains Ann Thompson, Professor of English at the Roehampton Institute in London, and one of the three general editors of the new Arden series.
The Arden Othello was "a very eccentric edition," she says, in its choice of text (quarto rather than folio), its commentary and introduction - not least because its editor, M R Ridley, "was clearly very uneasy about the relationship between Othello and Desdemona and wanted to prove that there was nothing sensual in it." Other plays were given much more overtly political readings than would be acceptable to modern critics; the editor of Julius Caesar, for example, displayed his own impatience with republicanism by treating the murder of Caesar as a sacrilege, damaging to Rome's best interests.
Highly-detailed notes, often taking up a good half or two-thirds of each page, have always been one of the distinguishing features of the Arden editions, making them a favourite with scholars. The new general editors - Professor Richard Proudfoot of King's College, London, Professor David Scott Kastan of Columbia University, New York, and Professor Thompson - have renewed Arden's commitment to being "an edition of record". But there are aspects of the notes, too, which are in need of some modernisation.
"In the Arden Two series, editors did not translate the little bits of Greek - something which does not appeal to school children today," says Ann Thompson. "There was also a great deal of coyness in Arden Two about explaining sexual references - which you need in Shakespeare because innuendo is very much part of his language. Either the editors would try not to put a note at all, or else if they did, would often reveal themselves to be deeply misogynistic."
Misogyny has no place in Arden Three: not only is Ann Thompson the first woman among Arden's general editors, but the editors of the individual plays will this time include ten women - more than in any other Shakespeare series: Arden Two admitted only one. An awareness of, and interest in, gender issues will be a feature of Arden Three's critical approach, shared by male as well as female editors.
The long, scholarly introduction, often beginning with an uninviting dissertation entitled "The Text", has also helped to make Arden famous. This, too, has undergone something of a sea-change in Arden Three, as part of an attempt to make the series more reader-friendly.
"The earlier emphasis tended to be on historical issues, textual issues and a personal reading by the editor," says Richard Proudfoot. "We want the introduction to be wider in scope, to look more at the history of critical responses to the play as well as its effect on other writers, and we want the discussion of stage history to be less inert than in the past. I would hope that we can present these plays as theatrical texts."
This emphasis on Shakespeare's plays as texts for performance is increasingly important in Shakespeare criticism, as well as in the way Shakespeare is taught in schools. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the theatre was not considered a very influential institution, it was more usual for Shakespeare to be discussed as a poet, or even as a kind of novelist, rather than as a dramatist. A popular 19th-century view, for instance, was that while King Lear was without doubt Shakespeare's finest play, it was eminently unstageable.
It is only relatively recently, Ann Thompson says, that we have gone back to thinking of Shakespeare as writing for the stage. But for the student, coming to Shakespeare perhaps for the first time, this approach through performance offers important and attractive ways of gaining access to Shakespeare's complex imaginative and linguistic world. Many schools, for instance, now have Shakespeare on video: getting pupils to compare, say, Mel Gibson's Hamlet with Laurence Olivier's, demonstrates to them that the plays must always be subject to interpretation - that there is no black and white in Shakespeare.
Professor Jonathan Bate, of Liverpool University, in his new Arden edition of Titus Andronicus, devotes an illuminating section of his introduction to just such a comparison. In Peter Brook's 1955 production of the play, the scene where Lavinia enters after her rape, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, was visually stylised, bringing out the play's ritualistic qualities; whereas the thorough-going realism of Deborah Warner's 1987 production was moving in quite another way. Photographs of the two productions - Arden editions are using photographs for the first time - contribute powerfully to the discussion.
Such material could undoubtedly be of interest to pupils studying Shakespeare. But how likely are they to see an Arden edition? At Pounds 5.99 paperback and Pounds 30 hardback, Arden is not cheap, and besides, most schools are obliged to make use of whatever old sets of Shakespeare they can lay their hands on in the stock cupboard. (I well remember the fusty little books with navy covers that used to be brought out at my school, short on notes and with barely a nod in the direction of the twentieth century.) Also, might not pupils feel intimidated, and discouraged, by the sheer mass of notes in an Arden?
The course that many schools adopt, pre-A-level at least, is for the teacher to have an Arden available for reference, and for the class to work from a less scholarly edition. Longman, Oxford and Cambridge all publish school editions of Shakespeare, with ideas for "study programmes" or classroom projects. The Cambridge School Shakespeare, aimed at 14 to 18-year-olds, has proved particularly popular with schools, since its launch in 1992. On the right-hand page it prints the full text - or "script", as the series editor, Rex Gibson, prefers to call it - and on the opposite page, as well as giving a short synopsis of the action and a glossary of unfamiliar words, it suggests activities for pupils to carry out, in pairs or small groups.
On the first page of Hamlet, for example, pupils are asked to work out how they would stage the opening: what will be the first thing the audience sees? how would you show that the night is bitterly cold? identify all the words or phrases that help create the impression of night and darkness, etc.
"Our research project demonstrated that teachers want to teach Shakespeare, " says Rex Gibson, "but the great problem is knowing how to go about it: what do you do with this language? . . . These editions are intended as resource books."
A teacher at a Northamptonshire comprehensive (who preferred to remain anonymous), said she thought teachers who had not taught much Shakespeare "would be daft" not to use the Cambridge School edition. For herself, she keeps Arden by her as "a top up, for some extra ideas", but also encourages pupils to consult it themselves.
"They might want to look up a particular word. but like children and food, you have got to leave the book lying around and let them pick it up themselves. "
Comparing different editions may sound sophisticated for schoolchildren, but increasing numbers of teachers are finding it very worthwhile. In some of Shakespeare's plays, such as King Lear, differences between the folio and quarto versions can alter the play quite dramatically; Ann Thompson believes that for A-level students, this type of study can provide a helpful way into Shakespeare - "a kind of detective work".
In matters of textual comparison, Arden, with its exhaustive notes, will surely continue to be indispensable. But what could help to make these editions more accessible yet is if they were available on CD-Rom. Most secondary schools have a CD-Rom system, but English departments do not always make the connection and exploit the computer's possibilities for language work, says Sally Tweddle, at the National Council for Educational Technology.
"With a CD-Rom, you could look at different texts, save bits, transform one into another, print them out. All the textual analysis which is difficult on paper would become much easier."
Encouragingly, Routledge say they have "active plans" for an Arden CD-Rom. Shakespeare teaching will never look back.
William aged seven, a photograph submitted by Thomas Jones Primary School, Ladbroke Grove, London, to the exhibition. Ann Thompson and Richard Proudfoot are taking part in a one-day conference, Shakespeare, Performance and Pedagogy, at the Roehampton Institute, London, tomorrow. Intended for all teachers of Shakespeare, the conference will include performance-based workshops, sessions on Shakespeare on screen, and editing Shakespeare, and a performance of the National Theatre's current schools touring production of The Tempest. Further information: 0181-392 32303343.
clive barda news team