Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Collector’s Library reprints a canon of the world’s classic books and plays in hard back editions, the Austens, Brontes, Dickenses, Stevensons and Swifts amongst many others, the kind of item you might offer as a gift. Shakespeare is represented by Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet and the Sonnets. These are not academic editions but volumes created for a general readership.
The text is illustrated by the line drawings of Sir John Gilbert (1817–1897) originally prepared for the Longfellow edition of poetical works of the late 1850s. For the cover, Collector’s Library have selected the gravedigger scene. Long term readers will remember exactly the same image was employed on the Dover Thrift Study Edition, albeit not as beautifully painted in pastel shades as it is here by Barbara Frith.
Introductions to general editions of Shakespeare’s play must be an interesting challenge so I entered this with an open mind and indeed Robert Mighall (an expert on gothic horror novels) manages to cover much ground in its eight pages. From usefully explaining the period in Shakespeare’s life that Hamlet was written, to underscoring its reputation (“it is the Mona Lisa of literature” he says), to offering a synopsis that includes an argument that Hamlet’s inaction is his downfall and two long paragraphs on its critical and then cinema screen history.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with Mighall’s approach to the play – in choosing to voice an opinion he gives the reader something more interesting than a basic synopsis and offering a reader that is perhaps new to the play a window into the critical corpus in relation to Hamlet’s dithering and while I might not necessarily agree with it (see this previous review), the writer backs his argument with enough justification for it not to seem as though he’s being pointlessly provocative.
No, he leaves that until the final page where, in the midst of the production history he offers a bizarre ten line critique of Branagh’s film which is both mean spirited and just plain wrong. After punching up the 1948 Olivier (listing its many Oscars) and saying some nice things about Mel Gibson’s performance in the 1990 Zeffirelli, he descends into a diatribe about Branagh’s “hubristic homage to Olivier” (no it isn’t) which ends with the statement “out-Heroding Herod in some of his deliveries, Kenny’s Dane put the ham squarely into Hamlet”. Oh for goodness sake.
This edition fails to mention the source for the text, but it's identical to the Dover Edition which indicates it was originally published in Volume VII of the second edition of The Works of William Shakespeare, Macmillan and Co. London from 1892, a conflation of Q1 and F1. So the reader is being confronted with a text which was edited over a century ago which might have given me reservations within an academic context, but seems to fit the Collector’s Library’s intention of producing an edition that’s both contemporary and antiquated.
An alphabetical listing of tricky words and phrases which also includes references to other plays when more than one meaning is involved. Tthese aren’t the excellent notes which appear in the Dover edition however and includes many omissions and words which aren’t even in Hamlet. An online concordance indicates “basilisco-like" only appears once in Shakespeare, in King John. So this must be a general glossary and not one created specifically for the play.
A short, tasteful selected list that includes AC Bradley, G Wilson Night, J Dover Wilson and Jonathan Bate (The Soul of the Age oddly, not The Genius of Shakespeare, preferring Bill Bryson’s biography instead). The inclusion of the Howard Felperin’s academically challenging Shakespearean Representation: Memesis and Modernity in Elizabethen Tragedy is the only real oddity considering this is supposed to be for a general audience though it’s possible this bibliography is also supposed to represent Mighall’s research for the introduction.
How is it, my lord?
Aesthetically, the Collector’s Library edition of Hamlet is a beautiful thing, a sturdy edition of the play which fits into the palm of the hand and in that sense would work well as a gift. But I do have serious reservations about the overall tone of the introduction which doesn’t seem to have been written with much love for the play and a glossary that doesn’t match the text with which it has been included. So although I’m with Joanna Trollope when she says that it’s “delicious to see guilt edges again” I just wish I’d enjoyed the content more.
Hamlet (Collector's Library) is published by CRW Publishing Limited. £7.99. ISBN: 978 1 905716 80 7. Review copy supplied.