Monday, 7 July 2014

Shakespeare Series: New Penguin Shakespeare

The New Penguin Shakespeare series was presumably designed to supersede the one edited by G. B. Harrison and first published between 1937 and 1959. The new volumes contained newly edited texts, more extensive introductions and commentary by different editors. They have been reprinted countless times through the years, sometimes with different covers, sometimes with updated “Further Reading”, sometimes with new introductions by different scholars, and sometimes even collected in omnibus editions. The purpose of this post, besides having fun with the covers, is to provide some useful information about this wonderfully valuable but terribly disorganised series.

Information about the series online is scarce and seldom reliable. Even the most comprehensive source is woefully incomplete. It lists volumes from "NS1" to "NS41", but there are several unexplained gaps (33, 39-40). Were these ever published? Despite the massive size of the series, at least 38 volumes in the course of 20 years (1967-87), Shakespeare's complete works are not covered. Venus and Adonis, Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline are nowhere to be found; the last two seem to have appeared only in 2001 and 2005, respectively, in the current “Penguin Shakespeare” series, although at least for Titus an older version of the cover also exists. Worst of all, nowhere is it made clear that these texts of the plays, together with the commentaries but without the introductions, are still in print. More of that anon.

The situation with the covers is perplexing in the extreme. It is next to impossible to determine which came first and how extensively used was certain design. I have searched the Web as hard as I could, and this is what I have found. At least five different series of covers have been used through the years; four of them are relatively complete, which means it’s possible to collect at least Shakespeare’s major works with them; the last one is quite incomplete and something of an anomaly. I do not claim that the following collections of covers are complete. They merely are as complete I have been able to make them. If you can add a new cover or if you have better scans of some of the blurred ones (included here for the sake of completeness), please share. Any other corrections or additions are also welcome.

NB. The following covers have been collected from numerous places on the Internet. If you find some of your own, and if this offends your personal sense of property or legal copyright, let me know and I will remove them as soon as possible. These covers are collected here neither for profit nor for research purposes but entirely for fun.

1st series. Illustrated by David Gentleman.
These seem to have been the original illustrations for the first 31 volumes. The last first edition to be illustrated by Mr Gentleman was, presumably, Antony and Cleopatra in 1977. Most of his illustrations are crude and would not look out of place in a series like “Shakespeare for Children”, but they have naïve charm that is not altogether repulsive.

2nd series. Illustrated by Pierre Clayette.
Unfortunately, these beautifully surreal masterpieces are the anomalous series. I have found only six of them. They seem to have appeared simultaneously with the originals and were even used on the dust jackets of the so-called Penguin Library Editions, high-quality hardbacks specially designed for library use. Then something happened and from Othello (NS7) onwards Mr Gentleman was alone again.

3rd series. Illustrated by Paul Hogarth.
These imaginatively ugly illustrations apparently graced the reprints from the 1980s. Their purpose is to introduce Shakespeare to the inmates of any kindergarten. 38 covers found.

4th series. Illustrated by Louisa Hare.
This is the simplest but most effective design. Most of the front cover consists of plain text on yellow or bluish background, but the top is occupied by a charming drawing in Elizabethan style, not unlike medieval engravings. The back cover, or sometimes even the front one, contains a well-known phrase from the play in a facsimile reproduction from the First Folio. Except for the updated “Further Reading”, these volumes reprint the full text of the original editions. Apparently used through the 1980s and, more prominently, the 1990s. 30 covers found.

5th series. Illustrated by Clare Melinsky.
These stunning examples of garish mediocrity grace the covers of the last “Penguin Shakespeare” series, first published in 2004-2005. With the exception of Titus Andronicus (newly edited) and Measure for Measure (revised), the plays and the commentaries are exact reprints of the originals in the New Penguin Shakespeare. The introductions are brand new and intend to supply the “most up-to-date critical interpretations”. The few I have read supply nothing of the kind. Other new contributions, such as “The Play in Performance” and “Further Reading”, are more worth reading. The new General Introduction by Stanley Wells that appears in the beginning of every volume is a magnificent example of accessible scholarship and concise writing. 37 covers found.

Omnibus editions.
Four of these, altogether collecting 15 plays grouped by genre, were published in 1994-95 under the Penguin Classics label. The texts and the critical apparatus are identical with the originals – but with one important structural difference. The texts are reset and the commentaries, originally under the form of endnotes, now appear as footnotes. Which you prefer is a matter of taste, but as a matter of fact both have pros and cons. Endnotes compel you to constant flipping of many pages to consult them, but you may read the play handsomely printed on full pages. Footnotes are incomparably easier to consult, but they usually took at least half of the page. The covers are illustrated with reproductions of stained-glass panels from the Betley Window in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The only exception is the 2005 reprint of Four Histories. I have not discovered any recent reprints of the other three books.