Much ado about Shakespeare

30th September 2005 at 01:00
What's in a name? Rachel Kitley assesses new school editions of the Bard's plays

Cambridge School Shakespeare New editions pound;4.95 each www.cambridge.orgukeducation

The Penguin Shakespeare New editions pound;7.99 each

Longman School Shakespeare New editions pound;4.99 each CD-Roms for Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth pound;141 each

Oxford School Shakespeare New editions pound;5.99 each

The Rough Guide to Shakespeare By Andrew Dickson Penguin pound;14.99

With four key publishers all releasing revised Shakespeare editions, there is surely a contest set for the spotlight. The start of the school year seems the apt time to consider which editions can help to keep the Bard's works fresh and dynamic for a new generation of potential Shakespeare lovers.

The Cambridge School Shakespeare revised editions continue to place drama, reader-ownership and enjoyment centre stage. Meanwhile, Penguin re-imagines its series with an attractive, accessible new cover and by adding to each text a general introduction to Shakespearean and Elizabethan theatre, new play introductions and a section exploring the play in performance.

Following its consultation with English teachers, the New Longman School Shakespeare series offers clearly laid out texts, with exam-focused activities and useful textual notes for student support. The Oxford School Shakespeare gives thorough, updated notes in their new editions of key texts, which include more lively and focused teaching activities. And The Rough Guide to Shakespeare offers a complimentary companion to Shakespeare's works, which also deserves attention.

The various editions all present different strengths. Overall though, for English teachers, the Cambridge series still upstages its rivals.

Competitively priced, the emphasis remains on the provision of numerous classroom activities, of which there are now many more lively and thought-provoking additional tasks, which can be tailored to the individual needs of any group, of any ability, right across the key stages.

Colour photos from recent productions tell the key events of the plot and are effective in reminding students that there is no one true reading of a Shakespeare play. Indeed, this remains the philosophy behind the series - independent thought and active learning are carefully supported, encouraged and respected as the underlying driving force behind all aspects of the edition.

Cambridge is ideal for all secondary-aged Shakespeare readers. It offers uncluttered, unthreatening large page layouts (with notes and activities positioned opposite each page of text), as well as a pupil-friendly use of clear, plain language. Although it avoids including sophisticated literary vocabularies, it refuses to reduce or simplify content or ideas, with stimulating sections towards the back of the editions covering key assessment objectives, such as characters, language and performance. The whole approach of this lively, excellent series supports the understanding that Shakespeare's plays are just that - plays, not literary texts.

Cambridge empowers.

While Cambridge purposefully avoids detailed critical introductions and gives briefer textual notes in favour of its activities, the Penguin revised series certainly offers value for money in terms of the sheer amount and depth of critical discussion and information contained in each edition. Macbeth, for instance, is now accompanied with 135 illuminating pages of notes, essays and commentary, alongside the 90 pages of Shakespeare's own dark text.

The brand new facelift aims to make the texts more accessible than previous editions, with Melinsky's bright linocut designs highlighting moments of intensity from the plays and sound-bite quotes splashed across the cover by actors and critics ranging from Baz Luhrmann to Laurence Olivier.

Inside, however, the series leans towards an authoritative, traditional approach to reading Shakespeare, with some commentary and textual notes lying rather cosily beneath the new cover, unaltered from much older past editions.

Penguin aims to suit a broad audience, running from general Shakespeare readers and theatre-goers to actors, as well as from pupils to teachers.

This very different approach may appeal to more able students - particularly those at A-level - as well as teachers.

Fresh, dynamic introductions and up-to-date discussions of the plays in performances offer a mature level of critical discussion and textual exploration in place of school-based activities. And with all textual notes offered at the back of the editions, Shakespeare's words remain free to stand alone without constant interruptions from explanations, photos and activities. Focus, instead, lies with what is truly important - Shakespeare's writing and the pure text.

Ideal for key stage 3 set scenes and GCSE teaching, the Oxford School Shakespeare series provides a clear, authoritative and yet energetic pathway into Shakespeare's works. Keeping the series' useful, concise notes, with explanations placed adjacent to the text for easy reference, the new editions now also offer better, updated sections suggesting a range of approaches in the classroom, which aim to bring texts to life, engendering enjoyment and understanding for pupils along the way.

Text-messaging, improvisation, dance, debates and collages all feature in the activity section for the new edition of Romeo and Juliet, keeping much with the spirit of Baz Luhrmann, while providing solid support for a teacher. This series remains a sound choice for the classroom.

While the New Longman School Shakespeare edition continues to offer an accessible pathway into Shakespeare, it is the launch of three CD-Roms aimed at KS3 pupils (available for Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet) that mark Longman out as being in tune with modern classroom technology, such as interactive whiteboards.

The CD-Roms provide interactive, digital copies of every photo of stage and screen productions found in the Longman School Shakespeare texts. Each set of photos (organised into characters, scenes, productions, sets and theatre) comes with pdfs of activities, planned using a four-part lesson structure. Pupils can add text, annotations and comments to the pictures through text boxes, speech and thought bubbles, which can then be saved and printed.

The contents of the resource may not be revolutionary, or the CD-Rom a bargain at pound;141, but it certainly adds a practical, easy to use and more interactive way of bringing performance and staging to life to enhance understanding and thinking about Shakespeare's plays.

Andrew Dickson displays an extraordinary feat in researching and writing his labour of love The Rough Guide to Shakespeare. Comfortably sitting as both a quick reference and in-depth background guide, it stands out all the more for its ability to be smart, entertaining and thoroughly useful across the 520 pages of up-to-date reviews (including films, audio guides and websites), features, detailed analysis, vivid accounts of Shakespeare's life and theatre and, of course, full coverage of all 38 plays. At all times highly readable, this Rough Guide is energetic and fully comprehensive - the ultimate companion to Shakespeare's life and work, and written with enthusiasm and relish. It's a real treat.

Of his experience in compiling the Rough Guide, Dickson writes that bringing together the unruly and often squabbling different manifestations of Shakespeare was one of his main challenges. For the classroom, 2005 has presented teachers with an equally rich and meaningful bringing together of revised Shakespeare editions. While resonating their own strengths, ultimately though, each series stands as testament to Shakespeare's remarkable range, understanding of humanity and universal power.

Noa-6 Let these be your guide: the various school Shakespeare editions all present different strengths Rachel Kitley is head of English at Kinsbury School in the London borough of Brent

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