The Cambridge School Shakespeare series places drama and theatre firmly in the forefront of its approach, while so many school Shakespeares merely claim or pretend to do so.
Attractively produced and printed, these books have a deliberately limited editorial apparatus. They dispense with the usual critical introduction and make explanatory textual notes as few, concise and inconspicuous as possible. Instead, they concentrate on drama-based activities, positioned opposite the text and in a two-page cluster at the end of each act. With good sense and great skill, much linguistic aid and interpretative substance are seamlessly interwoven with the presentation of activities, so that students are simultaneously taught and put in charge of their own work.
The New Longman Shakespeare pays Cambridge the sinceest form of flattery. Much of the format is identical: the running heads of plot synopsis, the dual-purpose facing-page notes, the end-of-act retrospect, the short but helpful final sections on themes, language, and uniquely important features of each play.
The difference lies in Longman's explicit catering for mundane school realities. Its end-of-act spread is called Exam Practice, which would make Cambridge editors shudder. The activities are differentiated to cover SATs to GCSEs, and the closing sections include standard background material, plot summaries and tips on study skills. Dramatic approaches are still prominent and stimulating, but less so than in Cambridge.
The Cambridge series represents the dramatic Enlightenment of Shakespeare teaching. Longman adopts the exemplary model but attunes it to the national curriculum textbook. Both are very good, and free from any dumbing-down. But Longman holds the student's (and the teacher's) hand with detailed systematic guidance, whereas Cambridge sets you free. Both represent a choice of quality products for the top half of the ability range - neither series is appropriate for strugglers.