To read or not to read?

Bill Greenwell helps you choose the best editions for key stage 4 Shakespeare

Which edition of Shakespeare you select for the classroom will depend on whether you want to work with the text - plain and simple - or prefer the activities to be printed alongside it. If you feel confident working with the words alone, then you have the Royal Shakespeare Company-kite-marked New Penguin edition and, of course, there are cheaper editions, which have not been reviewed because they have a distressing tendency to fall apart at the seams. Most of the other editions have a superstructure of notes, contexts, background and "translations", which is why I've included the rather different Shakespeare Made Easy.

To test the different editions I sampled four popular plays for key stage 4: Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V and Macbeth. The main issue is the quality of help on offer. I looked for accessible editions - preferably with an awareness of the play in performance. These are the questions to think about when making your own choice:

1 Support

What kind of background information is provided? Is there accessible material about stage history and contemporary theatre? How extensive is the support? Does it do enough work or too much?

2 Layout, design and language

Is the edition attractive? Are there illustrations, and, if so, do they complement the text, or intrude on it? Is the text clearly presented or is it obscured by notes and activities? Does the language help a 14 to 16-year-old reader?

3 Tasks and activities

Where are they placed? How many arethere? Are they helpful? Are they aimed at improving the memory for examination purposes or do they help the students come to know the play - to own the play? And do they help teachers?

Bill Greenwell is former head of Performing Arts, Languages and English at Exeter College, Devon

TITLE

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Cambridge School Shakespeare (1992). Edited by Rex Gibson et al. Price: pound;4.50-pound;7.50. Tel: 01223 312 393. http:uk.cambridge.org

CONTENT

There is no introduction, which avoids some distraction. The tasks are given as readers proceed, and at the end of each act. There is a lengthy section at the end of the play called "Looking Back", which has activities, interpretations and prompts for different methods of acting. It also includes quick notes on themes and imagery, history, language and staging (the format varies according to the play).

DESIGN

The covers are bland, but inside there are good photographs, woodcuts and other illustrations. These editions are the most clearly laid out. The left-hand page gives a brief summary, suggested tasks, and brief notes on meaning, while the right-hand page carries the play's text. The language is clear and to the point. It is never patronising and makes sensible demands of the reader.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

The tasks here are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Most are presented as open questions to encourage a wide range of interpretations. They sometimes also set the play in a modern context by asking, for instance, how the readers feel about foretelling the future, or by giving examples of modern propaganda or tyranny. Nearly all the activities suggest the need for discussion, and encourage broader understanding.

VERDICT

This is the best series if you want clear text, and helpful and inventive tasks. None of the other editions comes close to these in terms of references to productions and background. The language is friendly and the tasks are stimulating, but carefully blended with extremely useful information about meaning, context and awareness of stage history.

TITLE

PENGUIN. The New Penguin Shakespeare (revised in 1995). Various editors. Price: pound;3.99-pound;6.99. Tel: 020 7010 3000. www.penguin.co.uk

CONTENT

A lengthy introduction discusses origins, context, ideas about decor, critical history, stage history, and further reading. The notes are at the end of the play, not alongside the text.

DESIGN

These are unadorned texts, in a handy form, without illustrations. The notes are less expansive than in other editions and sometimes concerned with textual variants.

TASKS AND ACTIVITES

No tasks.

VERDICT

These are reasonably cheap, no-frills editions, recommended for those who want the text, without the distraction (or support) of "things to do".

NELSON THORNES. The Illustrated Shakespeare (1989). Edited by Neil King. Price: pound;8. Tel: 01242 267100. www.nelsonthornes.com

CONTENT

A brief introduction to studying Shakespeare is followed by the text. The commentary is given at the start of each scene. Notes in the margin contain prompts and ideas for discussion, and there are further suggestions at the foot of each page. The 60 activities at the end of the play gradually become more exam-focused.

DESIGN

These are large-format books, but the size of the print is small. The cover - a collage of relevant images - is unappealing. Inside, there are photographs from a variety of recent productions and some poor-quality illustrations. The text is designed to look like "a book within a book", with marginal notes on either side. The explanations of words and phrases (in even smaller print) are clear, but it's confusing to include questions at this point.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

The activities range from the vague ("Produce a speech, an episode, a scene, an act or the whole play") to the bizarre ("If there is a castle near you, visit it and imagine the events of Macbeth taking place there") and the philosophical ("Discuss what you mean by tragedy"). In Twelfth Night you are invited to sit in a circle, passing the text on at each punctuation mark, to "explore what sense this gives of the structure".

VERDICT

These are cluttered and confusing editions with such mundane or peculiar tasks that I could not recommend the series.

TITLE

LONGMAN. New Longman Shakespeare (1999). Edited by John O'Connor. Price: pound;4.50. Tel: 0800 579 579. www.longman.co.uk

CONTENT

Brief introductions address the teacher and student separately. There are headings and summaries at the top of each page and activities suggested throughout text. After each act, the exam practice section reviews character, plot and actors' interpretations. Each play concludes with activities, character studies, comments on language, themes, background, publishing, verse, plot summary, essay technique, history, and an index.

DESIGN

The text is given on the right-hand page, with activities and explanatory notes on the left-hand page. The cover designs are strong, but only a few illustrations and photographs are used with the text. The size of the print is large and the pages are uncluttered. The notes are helpful and unpatronising.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

There is a strong sense of the play as it is performed, with very helpful references to different productions.The activities are mostly useful and thorough, and only occasionally lose their way, for example: "create a collage or paint a picture" to represent Macbeth's nightmares about blood.

VERDICT

These are impressive, well-presented plays and the only serious alternative to the Cambridge School Shakespeare.

TITLE

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. Oxford School Shakespeare. Edited by Roma Gill. Price: pound;4.99. Tel: 01536 741727. www.oup.co.uk

CONTENT

A lengthy introduction includes notes on leading characters, a synopsis and long scene-by-scene commentary, notes on verse, and sources. The plays conclude with critical opinions, and a classwork and examinations section containing character studies, activities, a quiz, and essay titles, as well as background information about Shakespeare's life.

DESIGN

These large-format books have arresting covers with photographs of stage productions, but only a few, not very illuminating, illustrations inside. The text is clearly set out in wide columns with marginal notes. The language is less accessible than in some of the other editions and is pitched at more able students.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

The classwork tasks are formal, detailed and precise, but there are fewer of them than in the other editions.

VERDICT

These are well-presented editions with a strong editorial voice that some may find too dominant. There is no reference to stage history in the introduction, other than the suggestion that students research famous actors and actresses.

TITLE

HEINEMANN. Heinemann Shakespeare (1994). Various editors. Price: pound;5.99. Tel: 01865 888084. www.heinemann.co.uk

CONTENT

Useful background to contemporary theatre, belief systems and the play's context in history. There are substantial plot summaries at the head of each page and start of each scene. The appendix has a complete plot summary, "character log", handy quotations, notes on language, how to write essays, example questions, sources and a glossary.

DESIGN

Durable hardbacks with striking covers, but only line drawings inside, including a poor group portrait of the main characters. The left-hand page has a summary and notes to help understanding; the text is on the right. A system of grading the text as very important, important, and not so important reduces the plays, very starkly, to exam fodder. However, the language does not patronise the reader, and the translations are helpful.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

There are activities between the acts, as well as at the end of the play. Many of these are memory tests and include quizzes. Some of the more desperate suggestions include: imagine you are Macbeth's press officer, and "seeing if you can feel and project the power" of Lady Macbeth's first speech. For Twelfth Night, try writing a story in which you've been persuaded "the most gorgeous girl or boy in the school is madly in love with you - describe how you feel".

VERDICT

These editions strive to be helpful and don't clutter the pages with suggestions. However, so many summaries may discourage students to do their own thinking. There is no real reference to stage interpretations and there is a tendency to reduce the plays to fragmented elements. The suggestion that you can afford to skip parts of the text is not very productive.

TITLE

NELSON THORNES. Shakespeare Made Easy. Edited by Alan Durband, 1984-1990 Price: pound;7.75. Tel: 01242 267100. www.nelsonthornes.com

CONTENT

The introduction gives brief notes on the life of Shakespeare, contemporary theatre, language, dates and sources. It adds a list of questions about characters at the end, followed by exam questions, and one-word quizzes.

DESIGN

These are handy-sized editions with simple cover designs. The text is given on the left-hand page, with an impressive modern prose translation on the right. There are additional stage directions and interpretations. The tasks are very exam-focused.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

The tasks are all based on reading, rather than performing the plays, and are suitable for individual or group work. They concentrate on knowing, rather than on imagining, the play.

VERDICT

These editions have limited classroom value, although the translations are reasonably fluent and do attempt to make the plays accessible.

TITLE

ARDEN. Arden Shakespeare (new series from 1995; next series due out in 2003; Macbeth, 1951). Various editors. Price: pound;7.99. Tel: 020 7067 2500. www.ardenshakespeare.com

CONTENT

A scholarly introduction includes sections on critical opinions and a history of the play's performance, in new editions. The appendices now include some facsimiles - all of the First Quarto, in the case of Henry V.

DESIGN

The cover design is good and there are now some illustrations. The density of the notes is part of the brief in the case of Arden, but the language is less tortuous in the new editions. The textual variations are now relegated to the bottom of the page.

TASKS AND ACTIVITIES

No tasks.

VERDICT

Arden editions have considerable authority but are not aimed at GCSE students. The new editions are more accessible and informative. Teachers may well find them useful, especially for post-GCSE courses.

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