The Norton Shakespeare:
Based on the Oxford Edition
by William Shakespeare

edited by Stephen Greenblatt,
Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard,
and Katharine Eisaman Maus

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Norton: New York & London, 1997
3420 pages

November 2001

The best Shakespeare?

The Norton Shakespeare is the very best complete Shakespeare edition I have ever seen.

Certainly for single volumes — often titled Complete Works of William Shakespeare — this is the most useful and enjoyable. And not only is this edition handier than the myriad-volume editions of one-play-per-volume, it has more annotation even than most of these. There are university-based editions and cheaply-assembled editions; some in fancy bindings with glooming woodcuts but no footnotes; or printed in mice-type almost too small to read; or on paper that turns a sere yellow if read outdoors in sunshine. Despite having used several fine one-volume Shakespeare collections over the years, I've read more in The Norton Shakespeare simply because the plays are easier to read here, and more enjoyable.

Easier to read? More enjoyable? How could the Norton editors do that? Romeo and Juliet more vivid? After four centuries, is it possible to present Shakespeare's works in a better manner than heretofore?

Layout for poetic appreciation

Well, yes. Let's look first at The Norton Shakespeare page format. The plays and poems are presented here in one-line-across pages like most books, unlike a typical Shakespeare or Bible which are double-column. 3420 pages is thus about twice as many pages as usual in a double-column Shakespeare or Bible, or a single-column War and Peace. The type is sufficiently large, and clear on the page. The only drawback is that these pages virtually are Bible-paper, thin: so turn them with a little extra care.

Here's a sample from Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 4, lines 33 - 41, with the corresponding sidenotes and footnotes. On the Web's flexible and finical page I do not try to reproduce the Norton typography exactly. The wittier a Shakespearean passage, likely the more richly referential and allusive it is. If you've only read older or sparsely annotated editions, you may be surprised at the thickets of sexual allusion in some plays.

Several ladies have been talking of clothes, then of men. Beatrice has a cold:

       Enter Beatrice  
  Hero  Good morrow, coz.  
  Beatrice  Good morrow, sweet Hero.  
Hero  Why, how now? Do you speak in the sick tune?
  Beatrice  I am out of all other tune, methinks.  
  Margaret  Clap's into* 'Light o' love'. That goes without a burden.3 Do you sing it, and I'll dance it.
Strikes up
Beatrice  Ye light o' love with your heels.4 Then if your husband have stables enough, you'll see he shall lack no barns.5  
  Margaret  O illegitimate construction!6 I scorn that with my heels.7  

3. Bass part (for a man's voice), with play on heavy "weight of a man." "Light o' Love" was a popular tune.


6. A multiple pun: forced interpretation; making of bastards; illegal building (of stables and barns).

4. Ye ... heels. Your dancing toys with love ("light-heeled" was slang for "promiscuous").


7. I kick that away (reject it).

5. Punning on "bairns," children.


The sidenote for Clap's into explains that this means she Strikes up a dance. Or perhaps (Let's) Clap us into the dance. The eye travels easily across to pick up the tagged sidenote with minimal disturbance to the flow of reading. The numbered footnotes can be picked up more casually, either when indicated, or several at a time, or later when there's a natural pause in the dialogue.

The editors don't help with all the hard readings, for instance why stables are part of Beatrice's pun; but at leisure we may puzzle out how a wife's kicking up her heels and the husband's responsive stables lead to her producing bairns. There are more sexual allusions in Shakespeare than one can shake a stick at, and no single mind could snatch them all from the fair-spoken air.

Notice the characters' names above. Most editions give us abbreviations which we need to keep decoding as we read along. Saving the appearances at the risk of the sense, the traditional double-column Shakespeare resorts to cryptic truncations to keep their lines short. What if we named common digits that way? We'd have On. and Tw., Thr. and Fo., mixed in with Ni. and Fi. and Se. And the U.S. Post Office seems to think such technocratic abbrevicons as MN, NM, MA, MO, MD, MI and so on are useful in place of state names. In sensible contrast, The Norton Shakespeare's single-column format allows names to be spelled in full. Shakespeare's plays are full of confusions of identity. Even without extreme situations as in The Comedy of Errors where we have the paired twins Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse alongside Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse to keep straight amidst the fun, it's pleasant and easeful to see the full names.

All the Histories

After acquiring the The Norton Shakespeare, I read the plays I hadn't yet read, and re-read others. (I'd long admired my mother having read all of them.) For some time I'd wanted to read all ten "histories" in chronological order of their subject matter, so I did. I numbered the histories in the Contents for convenience; here are the kings in their order, a checkered history of a wayward group:

Norton Shakespeare

  1. King John
  2. Richard II
  3. 1 Henry IV
  4. 2 Henry IV
  5. Henry V
  6. 1 Henry VI
  7. 2 Henry VI
  8. 3 Henry VI
  9. Richard III
  10. Henry VIII

Reading the histories sequentially makes plain how little respect Shakespeare had for kings, as well as for their gaggle of rivals and retainers. It seems to me that only Henry V is portrayed as really worthy of kingship. Of course under Queen Elizabeth one had to be careful; Richard III was beaten at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor, Elizabeth's grandfather, and the Crown rightfully assumed — or counter-usurped. Richard III is written so very darkly that some actors portray him as humorous and ironic, for which there's plenty of support in that play. Elizabeth was not pleased to see the fate of the earlier Richard II played on the stage; Francis Bacon declared in the Earl of Essex's trial that Richard II was revived in 1601 for treasonous purposes, as a model for action. All Is True (Henry VIII) was written after Elizabeth's death.

William Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616. I wonder, reading these histories in sequence, how the play-going audience of that generation and the next absorbed his close-up views of hijinks, blunders, bad wars, and contemptible actions of their past anointed kings. The Petition of Right and the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham came in 1628; the Ship Money case and the trial of Hampden in 1637-1638; the Long Parliament began in 1640; and the English Civil War began in 1642. Approved or not, happy or not, ideas lurk here.

Queen Margaret:
Off with the crown, and with the crown his head,
And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead.
Richard Duke of York (3 Henry VI), 1.4.107-108
Clarity for readers, students, playgoers

After reading in a King James Version of the Bible — where all too often the editors' idea of helpfulness is to hyphenate every name in every instance — many have experienced comparative relief from reading in a Revised Standard Version or even better an English Standard Version, where the millennia-old writings are rendered again smoothly readable. The Norton Shakespeare gives a similar impression. But conflicts over Shakespearean texts can get lifelong devotees almost as riled as ringing in a new translation of the Bible can disconcert and anger its faithful readers.

The Oxford University Press scholarly edition of 1988 on which the Norton edition is based was an immense labor, and the Oxford editors made a number of controversial decisions. The Norton editors have differed from the Oxford ones to serve up a text more amenable to reading and teaching. I'm impressed with the work of both teams. In words of Shakespeare's friend Christopher Marlowe, here are infinite riches in a little room.

All the plays are here; all the poems; and some additional material recently attributed to Shakespeare. The two widely different versions of King Lear are printed on facing pages, followed by a third conflated text. In some other plays, variant passages are inserted in place, italicized. The Two Noble Kinsmen (probably written with John Fletcher) is here. The Norton Shakespeare uses modern spelling except in period documents and quotations.

The overriding goal of the Norton editors has been clarity, and to this end they are thoughtful in design, and helpful with additional material:

  • 76 pages of general introductory matter
  • excellent, substantial introductions to each play
  • stage directions are given in full
  • sidenotes for obsolete or shifted meanings
  • footnotes for historical or playful allusions
  • 43-page collection of period documents
  • 20-page essay on "The Shakespearean Stage" by Andrew Gurr
  • 28-page chronology of the times ("1561... Silver coinage reformed. Tulips brought to Europe. Rebellion in Ireland.")
  • black-and-white period illustrations

Thomas Nashe on 1 Henry VI (1592):

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times), who in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

We already know of Shakespeare's profound grasp of character in history and in cameo; the Norton edition brings a vast number of details into sharper focus, and all flows more smoothly. The playwright's joy in scenic wordplay shines with good humor. At play in the words of the Bard ... If you've ever wished you could move more freely through the vast realm of Shakespeare, try The Norton Shakespeare; it is a wonderful edition. Here Shakespeare is clearer than ever before.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

Shakespeare quotations at Troynovant
are taken essentially from this edition.

R. W. Franson's review of
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How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt

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