Much ado

May 3, 1996

Jonathan Bates fears for the future of the Arden Shakespeare Prologue

Editing Shakespeare is like painting the Forth Rail Bridge: no sooner have you finished than new knowledge and new approaches mean that you have to start all over again. During the half century from the 1890s until the second world war, the Arden Shakespeare established itself as the foremost scholarly edition of the national poet. In the next 40 years, the second series raised the standard still higher. But by the end of the 1980s, even such great editions as Frank Kermode's The Tempest were growing long in the tooth. It became clear that in order to retain its place at the top of the premier division, the Arden would have to undergo another full-scale overhaul. A new team of editors was assembled.

Act One

Scene: Spring 1995, foyer of the National Theatre, tricked out in the semblance of the Forest of Arden. Academics and theatre people are well met for the launch of "Arden 3". Brand new editions of three plays have rolled off the press. The director of the National comes not to bury the Arden but to praise it. Routledge, the publishers, are acclaimed for maintaining the high scholarly standard of the edition, while simultaneously bringing it up-to-date and making it more accessible. The launch is a tremendous success. The slogan on the publicity material seems perfect: All's Well that's Arden.

Act Two

Scene: Spring 1996, an office at International Thomson, a multinational media conglomerate, owners of Routledge. The Routledge list is cluttered with academic monographs. In the race for tenure and research rankings, too many books are being published. University and college libraries, let alone students, cannot afford to buy. The possibility of selling the company is discussed. But wait, someone says, this thing called the Arden Shakespeare is a tidy little earner. Each play sells in thousands, not the hundreds in which monographs are traded. And they stay in print year after year. The solution is obvious: keep the Arden, sell the rest. Find a new home for the series elsewhere in the Thomson family. It's a kind of textbook, isn't it? Give it to Nelson, which has achieved great success in the school book market.

Act Three

Scene: April, downtown Los Angeles, the Biltmore Hotel, gold-encrusted ceilings, atmosphere redolent of 1920s Hollywood. The World Shakespeare Congress is in session. Once every five years 1,000 scholars from over 40 countries meet for a Bardathon. Most of the Arden 3 editors are here. One of Routledge's best moves for fostering a team spirit among the editors has been to hold an annual meeting at which problems can be aired and guidelines hammered out. Academics are easy to please: an annual lunch in London or breakfast in Los Angeles seems ample compensation for several years' slavery over the minutiae of a textual apparatus. We pile our plates with fruit and muffins, then sit down to hear reports on the progress of the new edition and related projects. But here is an unfamiliar face; a representative from Nelson has been flown in to announce the takeover. The Routledge people are dazed. Not until they reached Los Angeles did they hear that the jewel was being stripped from their crown.

The jet-lagged Nelsonite does her best to assure the editors that standards will be maintained. She explains that the company has an exemplary record in reaching readers aged between five and 18. But the Arden is aimed at students and general readers aged between 17 and 90. Shakespeare's knowledge of human nature is proved once more: angry, bewildered editors tear into the poor lowly messenger in the exact style of Cleopatra.

Act Four

Scene: the following days, in the bar of the Biltmore. It is the only talking point of the conference. At a stroke, International Thomson has succeeded in alienating the entire world community of Shakespeareans. Like the conspirators in Julius Caesar, Arden editors meet by night. There is talk of mass resignation. But would this be possible? A clause tucked away in each editor's agreement says that the contract may be "assigned" by the publisher. Resignation could lead to lawsuits for breach of contract. What academic attends to small print of this kind? Accustomed to the gentler ways of university presses, no one had foreseen that, like Corin in As You Like It, we are "shepherd to another man". We can be sold along with our flock of footnotes.

Act Five (unfinished)

In Shakespeare's Arden Rosalind steps in, buys the farm and gives it to Corin. The Arden edition is still waiting for its princess in lovely boy's attire.

Jonathan Bate is professor of English at Liverpool University and editor of the Arden Titus Andronicus.

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