Well versed

11th May 2007 at 01:00
William Shakespeare: Complete Works. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. Macmillan in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pounds 30

100 Shakespeare Films. Daniel Rosenthal. bfi Screen Guides, pound;12

What's So Special About Shakespeare? By Michael Rosen. Walker Books, Pounds 4.99, 10-plus

So You Think You Know Shakespeare? By Clive Gifford. Hodder Children's Books, pound;4.99, 10-plus

From a spectacular complete works to a testing quiz, Tom Deveson looks at new tributes to the Bard

At two kilograms and nearly 2,500 pages, the new complete works of Shakespeare is heavy on the forearms but not on the mind. The editors'

weighty scholarship is employed with a light touch. They give a lucid explanation of why they have taken the unusual step of basing the entire volume on the text of the First Folio, the posthumous collection made by Shakespeare's fellow actors.

This version is a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and editorial decisions and amendments are strongly influenced by what seems best for performance rather than for solitary reading. For Hamlet and King Lear, passages that appear only in the earlier quartos are printed as an appendix.

Jonathan Bate is a passionate advocate of Shakespeare and his introductions to individual plays are full of striking and convincing observations. He describes Love's Labour's Lost as "a great feast of linguistic sophistication on the theme of the inadequacy of linguistic sophistication", and goes on to explore the fact that it is simultaneously one of Shakespeare's most elegant plays "and his most filthy".

Falstaff is "always a truer father (to Prince Hal) than the cold and politic Henry IV can ever be". In Troilus and Cressida, Jonathan Bate illustrates how the clotted complexity of the verse matches the lack of social and moral simplicity and how Pandarus "addresses his niece as if she were synonymous with her sexual parts". Any of these remarks might be expanded into a lesson or a lecture or adapted to colour a staged production.

The scholarly apparatus is discreet, elegant and pertinent. For each play, we get a set of "key facts": brief accounts of plots, dates and sources, and useful statistics about the proportions of verse to prose and the length of the major parts. Footnotes are found snugly and legibly at the bottom of each page.

The 41 lines in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, for example, generates three dozen clarifications, elucidating dynastic facts, glossing unfamiliar items of vocabulary, paraphrasing tricky meanings and uncovering bawdy puns. There is a universe to be found in these annotations: the Renaissance world of power and fate, sex and death, language and philosophy. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen have given us an edition full of endless fascination.

More than 300 years after his death, Shakespeare has become the most produced screenwriter in cinema history. Daniel Rosenthal picks a generously wide selection of films to comment on, from a silent Tempest (1907) to Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It (2006).

Some retain much of the plays' original language; others are spoken in Russian, Spanish, Hindi or a Malagasy dialect; yet others turn what we know from the printed page or the stage into a spaghetti western or a teen comedy.

Daniel Rosenthal is a lively and thoughtful guide to the many possibilities of cinematic transformation - the way a voice-over can develop from a soliloquy or how close-ups and sudden cutting alter our sense of the relationship between thought and action. He is also firm and level-headed in his judgments.

The recent BBC contemporary adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, for example, is rightly described as "woefully scripted" and full of "cartoonish performances". He is equally vigorous in his enthusiasms. He writes eloquently about Kurosawa's unforgettable Throne of Blood with Toshiro Mifune as a "wild-eyed samurai Macbeth".

In Kozintsev's Hamlet, the prince's "thoughts are matched by wonderfully fluid camera movement". And those reliable old warhorses, Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight, are shown to be still capable of marvellous motions.

Michael Rosen's enthusiastic little book was first published eight years ago. It's still very helpful as an introductory guide to "a house full of amazing room", although the new illustrations are more facetious than informative. He sets Shakespeare in his "extraordinary and dangerous times", bringing out the importance of religion, the excitement of maritime discovery, the unprecedented evolution of playhouses and the power of "this yellow slave" (gold). He sensibly limits his discussion of the plays to a few well-chosen examples - King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet - with brief plot summaries and spirited accounts of how and why we might laugh or cry, think about our loves and our lives, feel mad or amazed.

Clive Gifford has fashioned more than 1,000 quick-fire questions. Some are easy: the name of Shakespeare's birthplace and his most famous theatre.

Some can be worked out: the number of weddings at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream or the speaker of the last lines in Romeo and Juliet. Others will make even experts pause. Who does Jack Cade pretend to be? Or how many ships does Cleopatra offer Antony for the sea battle? Rather than look up the answers, find them in the complete works

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today