Computers & Texts No. 15
Table of Contents
August 1997

Review: The Arden Shakespeare

Texts and Sources for Shakespeare Studies on CD-ROM

Jean Chothia
University of Cambridge

Edward Dowden's Hamlet launched the first series of The Arden Shakespeare in 1899. In the course of the next 25 years the rest of the canon followed. As with the Forth Bridge, whose painters notoriously, having reached one end, begin again at the other, so, as Shakespeare scholarship evolved, Arden 1 began to seem outdated, and a second series was launched in the period immediately after World War II. As other editions have been launched, notably from OUP and CUP, which take account of more recent Shakespeare scholarship, Arden 2 has in its turn come to seem outdated and and not at all 'the definitive modern edition' its publishers have claimed it to be and, in 1995, the first three volumes of Arden 3 were published. As the new General Editors explain in their preface:

While building upon the rich history of scholarly and theatrical activity that has long shaped our understanding of the texts of Shakespeare's plays, this third series of the Arden Shakespeare is made necessary and possible by a new generation's encounter with Shakespeare, engaging with the plays and their complex relation to the culture in which they were - and continue to be - produced


This project of putting on CD-ROM a complete Shakespeare, inclusive of the introductions, notes, textual variants, and bibliographies which we have come to expect of modern scholarly editions, potentially offers a wonderful tool for teaching and private study. This is especially the case when is added, as here, at the click of the mouse on a clear and simply-laid-out button bar, the capacity to conduct speedy and various word searches, to summon up cross references, to juxtapose on screen beside the base text source material and the earliest published versions. But the project, in this instance, is deeply flawed by the decision to use as the base text Arden 2, the outdated second series. I am at a loss to guess what the publishers can have been thinking of. It surely cannot have been as cynical as answering the question, 'What do we do with the faded old edition now being superseded?' with, 'Put it on a CD-ROM and sell it as the latest thing'. Perhaps it was an attempt to establish a footing in a new market ahead of the competition? Whatever the reasons, I'm appalled to think of the disappointment of those who may be deceived by the modern technology, the Arden name, the use of the phrase 'definitive modern edition' in the advertising material, and, indeed, the presence as 'Consultant Editor' of the editor of the much praised Titus Andronicus in Arden 3, into thinking that they have bought an up-to-the-minute work.

The second series of the Arden Shakespeare, launched in 1951 but including the 1931 Sonnets, seems to have been scanned in with no revisions. Not only the texts but the introductions, the notes and, perhaps most astonishing of all, the bibliographies for the individual plays from Arden 2 are all here. So we find not Jonathan Bate's 1995 Titus but J. C. Maxwell's from 1953. The most recent work in the recommended further reading section that accompanies the Julius Caesar, for example, dates from 1954 and, indeed, some fifteen of the volumes included here were first published in the 1950s. The inclusion of David Bevington's Shakespeare Bibliography advances this a little, but only into the 1970s. And even the most recent volumes, which appeared in the early 1980s, were conceived before stage-centred scholarship had come to have much importance in Shakespeare studies. So students will find here little in the way of attention to Elizabethan staging conditions, to subsequent adaptation and stage history, to a possible theatrical basis for changes between Quarto and Folio or to potential for performance today, which are so much a feature of the Oxford and New Cambridge Shakespeares and are evident in those volumes of Arden 3 that have already been published. Such matters are not available to users of this CD-ROM.

The missed opportunity is felt the more sharply because of the good things that are included, among them, the text of Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare and facsimiles of the First Folio and of significant Quarto texts. Chief among the various potential delights offered is the capacity to read one or more of these on-screen, adjacent to the modern-spelling Arden text and to make direct comparison between Folio and Quarto versions of a speech or scene. What is more, although the Arden text itself cannot be printed off, extracts from the accompanying material can be. The easy printing off of sequences of Folio and Quarto texts in facsimile would be a boon for teaching or private study. A more mixed blessing is the highlighting in the source material of specific passages which seem to the editors to relate very directly to passages of text. Quick and convenient as this would seem to be, the reduction of pressure on the student to make his or her own discoveries and judgements about specific reworkings is not necessarily a gain. A proviso is included in the accompanying notes to the effect that such assigning 'is inevitably to some extent subjective' and should be regarded as a starting point but I suspect it would be an unusual student who acted on this advice.


A feature which promises more interactive usage is the capacity to create one's own notes and flag them in the text for future reference. With a better base text and one so priced that individuals could afford to buy copies for themselves, this might become a valued private notebook in which one's own observations and annotations on the works might accumulate. Whatever the quality of the base text, the cost at £2,500 must rule out such continuing and cumulative individual use for most scholars.

Among the ingenious extras, which include the capacity for word searches not only globally but limited to the songs, to the stage directions or, more oddly, to the speeches of just the male or just the female characters, a pleasing one is the capacity to print off a Part Book with the individual role and cue prompts for each speaker in a scene. Setting this up is great fun, if perhaps of limited actual use once the idea has been registered, although I could imagine the set of parts for a particular scene providing the basis of a lively practical session on cue scripts in the Elizabethan theatre. The alertness to contemporary performance conditions suggested by such a facility, however, like the facility to limit a word search to 'the original stage directions' serves further to emphasize the absurdity of the retention of the unmodified Arden 2 text with its extensive editorial stage directions and locations for each scene. These last, the product of thinking proscenium-arch rather than open-stage theatre, have misled generations of students, careless of the square brackets in which they are enclosed, to think them in some way authorial. In Arden 3, by comparison, we learn that 'editorial indications of location of the action have been removed to the textual notes or commentary'.

arden screenshot

Fig. 1. Displaying the First Folio in the Arden Shakespeare

[More screen-shots]


Here, then, we have the latest technology and some pleasing features offered to us with an outdated core. The effect is of a project gone off at half-cock. If it were cheap, then one might be willing to make the best of the text and overlook the tired editorial material for the sake of the quick and easy access offered to comparative work on the sources and the Folio and Quarto texts, and to buy it as an interim measure or even as a historical record of Arden 2 as it goes out of print. But, since its current price would take a hefty slice out of any departmental or academic librarian's budget, the conclusion must be caveat emptor - think how many books, including recent scholarly editions and facsimiles of the First Folio and Quartos, one could buy for that £2,500. It surely cannot be long before a CD-ROM becomes available with comparable features but based on a more recent editorial project - the Oxford, the New Cambridge or even, perhaps, Arden 3. My advice must be to wait for that happy day.

[Response to Dr Chothia's Review of the Arden Shakespeare CD-ROM]

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 15 (1997), p. 17 Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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