The RSC Shakespeare is the first freshly edited Complete Works since the Oxford Shakespeare of 1986. It is in many ways a substantial achievement: the outcome of many years' work, a significantly different edition from its rivals, and a handsomely solid artifact. However, for reasons that will be explained, it has been edited according to principles that, though beguiling at first glance, do not withstand scrutiny.
Questions of design and apparatus content have been carefully reconsidered at every level. The book, unusually for a Complete Works, presents most texts in a single column. The layout is therefore unusually spacious, and there is scope for stronger differentiation between verse and prose than is customary. The text is presented in an attractive and readable typeface. A distinct advantage over the Oxford Shakespeare in its current format is that the RSC edition supplies commentaries at the foot of the page. A panel of ‘key facts’ is printed after the introduction to each work. These usefully include a plot summary, a list of major parts with a statistical analysis of the length of each role, an analysis of the percentage of verse and prose, a discussion of date, a summary of sources, and a note on the text. Skeleton textual notes are printed after each text. There are black and white illustrations, mostly depicting scenes from RSC productions.
The editors make a strong and convincing team. Jonathan Bate is one of our finest Shakespeare critics and Eric Rasmussen amongst the most experienced and rigorous of Shakespearian textual scholars. Within the scope of their remit, they have done an excellent job. Rasmussen ensures that the text is reliable as regards both accuracy and consistency of presentation. The objections to the procedure I register below do not detract from the rigour and determination with which it has been implemented. The commentaries, supervised and partly written by Héloïse Sénéchal, offer apt and well-judged but unofficious help. Pre-publication publicity made much of the attention to sexual innuendo in the notes. For the most part this is in fact not overdone, though at Romeo and Juliet 2.3.106, where ‘too much for a score’ is glossed ‘not worth having sex with’, the note seems to impose a modern sense of ‘score’, and the information that Giulio Romano was ‘infamous for erotic works’, if true, seems determinedly beside the point.