Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions: a quick review

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Editions: a brand-new series with a different approach.

I had the incredible good fortune to win a set of all three volumes in this just-released series from Arden Shakespeare! As you can see, they are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), Hamlet (also edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodall), and Romeo and Juliet (edited by Paul Menzer).

Arden Performance Editions are published by Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare. The series general editors are Michael Dobson and Abigail Rokison-Woodall from the Shakespeare Institute, and veteran actor Simon Russell Beale. This team has a unique blend of skills, with Dobson anchoring the academic end, Beale the performance end, and Rokison-Woodall bridging both worlds as an actor turned academic specializing in Shakespearean verse speaking. Together, they’ve created a series that reboots the way Shakespeare’s plays are printed. In addition to these three titles, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Twelfth Night are in preparation.

The books are designed around performance. So, play text and stage directions are on the left, notes are on the right, and there’s lots of white space for annotations – even the line spacing is generous. Act/Scene/Line index numbers in the upper left corners make it easy to flip to the desired part of the play. The concise notes include definitions, pronunciation, syllabic accents and elisions, and selected textual variations.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Edition sample interior spread showing ample white space for notes
Allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s favourite soliloquy from Hamlet. Note the Act/Scene/Line index number in the upper left corner and the scanning guide for line 31.

I quickly came to love having notes at the same eye level as the text to which they relate. It’s significantly quicker and easier to glance to the right to get a meaning, than to constantly look up and down between text and a dense pile of notes on the bottom of the page. With these books, even note-dependent reading can continue virtually uninterrupted, making them ideal for following a recorded performance or reading aloud. This is a great example of design enhancing functionality.

The introductory material includes performance-specific notes on the variant texts and certain key issues, such as, in Hamlet, the placement of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s age.

Although the books in this series were created for actors and directors, their sheer vivacity and user-friendliness makes them ideal for students and teachers too. They add just enough information to bring the language to life without getting bogged down in details. And, the academic material in the introductory sections seems written to stimulate further thought rather than to provide in-volume pedantic minutae; bullet points hit the highlights and serve up examples.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions are large paperbacks
The Ardens are big, well-made paperbacks.

The books themselves are oversized paperbacks, and the ample white space that makes their pages so inviting also adds bulk. Here’s a comparison Hamlet to Hamlet. The Bantam fits into jeans pockets; the Arden takes up much of a laptop case accessory pocket. Aside from most of the text, the two editions have little in common, and I will refer to both extensively. I have to say, though, that of the two, the Arden Performance Edition is by far easier to read, annotate, and use. I think it will be my go-to copy for day-to-day use.

Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions
Arden Performance Edition Shakespeare titles as of December 2017.

A huge thank you to Arden Shakespeare – first, for sending me this wonderful prize package, and second, for producing this fantastic new series!