In Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire , which masquerades as an edition of a poem, the text is annexed by the annotations and its vision eclipsed by the idée fixe of the demented editor. Happily, neither of the latest additions to the third series of the Arden Shakespeare betrays the least trace of derangement. But in other respects, like most scholarly editions of the Bard these days, they share an uncanny resemblance to Nabokov's sublime spoof.
Academic editions of Shakespeare have become a genre unto themselves, observing conventions as strict as those of any Mills and Boon romance. No new edition would cut the mustard if it did not bulge with erudition, bristle with production stills and groan under the weight of its glosses.
The real point of the text, wedged between the gargantuan introduction and the commentary elbowing it off the page, is to furnish a pretext for a daunting display of editorial prowess.
Given the Arden Shakespeare's brief, William Carroll's edition of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Suzanne Gossett's edition of Pericles leave little cause for complaint. They both do what they say on the tin, and they do it as expertly as one would expect. They supply full, judicious notes that explicate the texts line by line and bring into focus the interpretive problems they pose. They discuss the plays' dates of composition and printing history, track their mutations on stage right up to the present and ponder the key issues criticism must confront. That they will supersede all rival editions of Two Gentlemen and Pericles and become the scholar's texts of choice is a cast-iron certainty.
The trouble is that what is designed to appeal to the scholar is not inclined to meet the needs of most readers. Indeed, from the standpoint of anyone except another editor, not only do editions of this kind put the cart before the horse, but they sometimes lose sight of the horse altogether.
Thus Carroll's introduction to Two Gentlemen "begins by placing the play in relation to 16th-century discourses of friendship", devoting the bulk of the next 30 pages to this task. Carroll writes absorbingly about these discourses and their origins in Aristotle and Cicero. But the amount of space expended on them is out of all proportion to their bearing on the vexed friendship of Proteus and Valentine. Nor is it clear why the introduction kicks off with this learned disquisition instead of considering the play itself.
On second thoughts, though, it is all too clear. Carroll's edition is in thrall to the curse of historicism, which decrees that past contexts rather than texts call the shots. The section on the comedy's theatrical and critical fortunes is titled "The afterlife", as if it had died with Shakespeare and survived only as the ghost of itself. Nothing could make plainer the priority historicism gives to the past over the living presence of a play. When Carroll drops the parade of extraneous lore and addresses Two Gentlemen directly, he has acute things to say about the letters with which it is littered and Crab's deadpan performance as a real dog in an imaginary world.
Gossett might seem to have a better excuse for putting the play on the back-burner while she brings a more recondite ragout to the boil. The mangled quarto text of Pericles and deep-seated doubts about its authorship make it an editor's nightmare. Gossett rides the nightmare safely by backing Brian Vickers' view that Acts I and II are the work of George Wilkins, and by wisely assuming, unlike recent rasher editors, that "unsolved issues remain in this text and that a moderate approach, neither reconstructing nor refusing to emend, is best".
Less wise is Gossett's decision to spend the first half of her 163-page introduction on terminally abstruse technical matters that only the next Arden editor of Pericles will find fascinating. Gossett herself is so worried about this that she advises the faint-hearted to skip to page 103, where she finally turns her attention to what really counts, the haunting tale of Pericles' reunion with the wife and the daughter he believes dead.
Gossett's critical account of that tale is at least worth waiting for. The conspectus of modern readings she provides is incisive; her thoughts on gifts and exchange in the play are astute; and her remarks about its resonance with Shakespeare's experience of loss and grief linger in the mind. Had her edition of Pericles begun here, and banished its arcane chores to the appendices, it would be infinitely more inviting. And the horse would be back before the cart, where it belongs.
Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Third edition
Editor - William C. Carroll
Publisher - Thomson Learning
Pages - 306
Price - £40.00 and £8.99
ISBN - 1 903436 94 X and 95 8