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!

Literary MOOCs: FutureLearn and Hillsdale College

I’ve taken Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) since their early days. I audited online classes back when the videos were grainy classroom lectures, shot from the back of the hall and accompanied by sound that cut out when anyone coughed, dropped a pen, or even rustled loudly.

Things have come a long way since. Over the years I’ve taken dozens of courses for business and pleasure through Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, Shaw Academy, and Hillsdale College. Recently, I found myself simultaneously taking a class on Hamlet and The Tempest from Hillsdale College and a class on Robert Burns from the University of Glasgow on FutureLearn, and was struck by the differences.

FutureLearn courses are divided into weeks, which are subdivided into multiple units, sometimes 20 or more, that you take in order. Units can consist of short videos, readings, activities, or quizzes. Hillsdale College courses are divided into weeks, with each week getting a single lecture of 40-50 minutes and a Q&A video that goes up to an hour or so, plus a quiz.

Of the two, FutureLearn courses are by far more interactive. The FutureLearn platform has a discussion forum attached to each unit, so each small piece has a digital space in which to explore it further. With courses having hundreds or thousands of participants scattered all over the globe, forum activity is constant and there’s a lot of back-and-forth within a diverse community of learners. I find I learn as much from interactions with fellow learners, many of whom have a high level of expertise in the subject, as I do from actual course content. And, course mentors and educators occasionally answer questions or clarify key points. The level of academic discussion is both voluminous and pleasantly high, at the high school to college level.

Hillsdale College has a single forum for the whole course. The activity level, reflecting enrollment, is many orders of magnitude lower than that in FutureLearn. The instructors do not seem to participate in the forum, so questions go unanswered unless a fellow learner replies with an answer. Discussions among learners can happen, but conversations develop slowly, if at all. Hillsdale is a politically right-leaning, Christian-based liberal arts college that attracts a fairly conservative population in its online courses, so the sparsely utilized forum can feel dominated by discussions of Shakespeare’s works in that light. Despite excellent course content, pitched at the high school to college level, I found the academic level of discussion to be relatively basic.

FutureLearn courses are augmented by on-location filming, activity-based modules, peer-assessed writing assignments, and links to resources outside FutureLearn. Production standards are excellent. Video transcripts are available online and as PDF downloads, and most videos have accurate closed captioning available. Video and audio files can be downloaded, as can other course materials.

Hillsdale College’s course is comparatively low-tech: a talking head lecture-style video with few visual aids followed by a filmed Q&A segment and an online quiz. That said, the professors are engaging and easy to listen to for extended periods, and the lectures jam-packed with great insights. Production and audio quality are good to excellent, but subtitles/closed captions are not available on all videos, nor are transcripts available. However, lectures and the Q&A segments can be downloaded as audio files.

The quizzes are similar but different. Hillsdale College lets you retake quizzes, recording only your highest score as you go along. FutureLearn gives you up to three tries to answer every question (usually multiple choice out of four) and if you complete at least 90% of the course, attempt every quiz question, and score an average of 70% on quizzes, you may qualify to buy a Certificate of Achievement (a relatively new offering) instead of a Certificate of Participation.

Although both courses are offered by legitimate, accredited institutions, neither course offers college credit or professional CEUs. Hillsdale College offers no digital badges or certificates for completing its courses. FutureLearn offers certificates only to learners who pay; certificates are delivered digitally (for use on online and social media) and via mail. Some FutureLearn courses, though, do offer academic credit.

FutureLearn recently made a major change, in most cases limiting free access to course content and in some cases requiring fees to take certain tests and receive a certificate. Those who sign up for classes for free get access to the course, course materials, and quizzes for the duration of the course plus two weeks; those who pay a course fee, either upon registration or by upgrading, get access to the course, course materials, quizzes, and tests for the foreseeable future, and in some classes they’ll get an additional final exam that, when passed, results in a certificate. FutureLearn also recently began offering certificate programs and degrees, mostly related to information technology.

In contrast to FutureLearn’s scheduled and time-limited approach, Hillsdale College’s courses offer the flexibility of starting or dropping in at any time. Think of them as streaming lectures, with quizzes attached to check your understanding. The current Hillsdale College online course catalog includes courses on Great Books: Ancient to Medieval, Great Books: Renaissance to Modern, and a new course on Mark Twain (currently running and not yet completed for streaming). At any given time, FutureLearn offers at least a couple literature courses covering different periods and genres. They are available to join any time during the run of the course, but interaction with other learners drops off precipitously if one starts after the first week or falls much more than a week behind.

I thoroughly enjoyed both online course experiences. The Hillsdale College online course was more of a solo spectator venture, like watching an educational program; the FutureLearn course was more of a social experience, with lots of engagement with other learners. Both have their place.

Online learning is the future of education. I look forward to many more years of learning online – and even one day developing a course of my own!

Punk Hamlet

Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go”

– Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, as performed by The Clash.