Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
The Editor has asked me to write about being a General Editor of Shakespeare, a function which I have fulfilled – and continue to fulfil – both for Penguin Books and for Oxford University Press and to which I have devoted a significant portion of my life. I could write an entire autobiography centring on the subject, but that would not be welcome here. So let me set down some thoughts relating to the various tasks that the General Editor has to perform, and to the qualities that he (please read ‘or she’ throughout) needs to bring to them. And let me attempt to illustrate these from my experiences over not much less than half a century in which much of my time has been devoted to this practice. I shall confine myself largely to the general editing of a multi-volume edition rather than of the Complete Works, which is a subject in itself. And I shall not concern myself at all with the general editing of a monograph series such as the Oxford Shakespeare Topics, on which I have worked happily with Peter Holland since its inception.
The first and perhaps most important task of a General Editor is to lay down the principles to which he and his publisher wish his edition to conform. The publisher’s wishes are vital. Editions have to be financed, and it is the publisher who provides the financial backing. This does not mean that an edition needs to be driven by commercial considerations alone. Shakespeare can be a status symbol. Publishing houses may feel that their lists are incomplete if they do not include an edition of his works. They – by which one has to mean a number of individuals within the publishing house who are responsible for its policy – may even acknowledge a duty to provide the scholarly community with editions which fulfil their needs but are unlikely to make a profit. This is especially likely to be true of scholarly publishing houses, though I have yet to encounter a publisher who was oblivious to financial considerations.