To publish a new edition of Shakespeare’s complete plays and poems is a massive and expensive undertaking. A team of general editors must be assembled, together with those who will edit the individual works. Experts in many disciplines will be needed, from textual criticism to theatrical history; musical and visual resources, maps, and other useful information assembled; and the whole apparatus made available in both print and digital formats. The year 2016 brought us new complete editions from Oxford University Press and W. W. Norton, the two great rivals in the lucrative student textbook market.
The complete Shakespeare market is presumably quite large; college and university students studying English have to buy one, and that market is probably very lucrative, hence the regular (every couple of decades) new editions.
In planning one-volume editions, many decisions must be made about the end-product and its format. In 1986 the Oxford Shakespeare appeared in a handsome folio of 1,432 pages, set in double columns, the standard format for most editions of the complete works since the First Folio. (It was subsequently issued as a reduced-size paperback.) In 1997 Norton preferred a smaller page, set in a single column, but now running to 3,420 pages, printed on thin paper, with attendant print-through. The new edition retains this format, but at 3,500 pages including appendices, it is an awkward book to use. If you open it in the middle it resembles two inverted halves of a melon; open at the beginning it curves like a rugby ball; either way it is hard to read or annotate the text in the gutter, as printers call the space between facing pages of an open book. The New Oxford has imitated Norton by choosing a smaller format than the first edition, also set in single column, slightly shorter (only 3,382 pages) but even heavier, weighing in at 5.8 kg, compared to the Norton’s 5.4 kg. We may wonder for whom these editions are intended. The paper in both editions is unsuitable for libraries, easily torn or frayed.
What I find interesting is how every complete Shakespeare edition is a bad book. It’s too big, too heavy, unwieldy, hard to read, and the paper generally sucks. Yet publishers won’t change the one-volume approach because it sells. I would much prefer a three-volume complete Shakespeare: one volume for comedies, one for tragedies, and one for histories (and the “problem plays” or others that don’t fit in those categories could be added to one of the there). It would have all the advantages of completeness, but at roughly 1,000 pages per volume, they would be easier to use. Actually, Norton sells their edition like that; they seem to be the only one. They have a four-volume edition, with comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. And they even sell an “Essential Plays / The Sonnets” edition.
So why don’t publishers make their Shakespeare editions like that? Most likely because their sales would fall. Say you’re doing a Shakespeare course in university, and you happen to only be studying Hamlet and King Lear; well, you don’t need all three or four volumes, you’d just buy the Tragedies volume. Textbook publishing is often about forcing students to pay a lot more than they should for things they don’t need, but have to buy because they are assigned.
While the main work of a Shakespeare edition is the critical and textual element, I doubt that’s what leads teachers to prescribe one edition over the other. Yet this article discusses some very important points about the approach taken in each of these editions. What’s included, and what’s excluded – especially for plays where there are multiple, conflicting versions, such as Hamlet and King Lear – makes a big difference.
I haven’t seen the new Norton edition, but the previous edition was horrible; you could sneeze and tear a page. I have the new Oxford edition, which is much more readable, but its approach, explained in the article, raises questions.
My choice? I buy individual editions of the plays. I still have a couple of complete editions, because they do contain interesting critical texts, but the individual editions are easier to read, and generally contain more notes.