The best Will in the world

November 28, 2003

Jonathan Bate tells Helen Davies why there will always be room for another edition of Shakespeare.

"Editing Shakespeare is rather like painting the Forth Bridge: once you've finished you have to start all over again," says Jonathan Bate, whom The Times has called "the foremost Shakespeare scholar of his generation". Bate, an editor for the Arden Shakespeare and author of The Genius of Shakespeare , is the newly appointed academic adviser on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. This autumn, he moved from the University of Liverpool (where he spent a decade as a professor of English, appointed when he was just 33) to a village outside Stratford-upon-Avon to take up a chair at the University of Warwick.

As soon as a new edition of a Shakespeare play appears in one publisher's series, it makes editions in competing series outdated. There are at least seven recent editions of Hamlet available. How does Bate rate them? He holds to the general consensus that the best series is the Arden, but as for individual plays, he thinks the best edition depends on the particular editor: "The best edition of Macbeth by a long way is the Cambridge - but a good many other plays in that series are weak, and there is no doubt that the Arden or the Oxford are better series."

The reason for such constant editorial activity with Shakespeare is that there are still questions surrounding the plays' original publication and authorship; and scholars must take account of four centuries of commentary and performance. For anyone studying Shakespeare at university, good annotated editions are essential. The first Arden edition of all Shakespeare's work took 25 years to complete, beginning with Edward Dowden's edition of Hamlet in 1899, and was aimed at scholars not undergraduates. But by the 1995 launch of the third Arden series, for which Bate spent five years researching and writing his introduction to Titus Andronicus , the Ardens had become textbooks for students of English literature.

"Editing Shakespeare is very time-consuming," says Bate, who is also general editor of the New Oxford History of English Literature , "because in a good edition, you've got to establish the text, and know all the technical stuff about textual bibliography, transmission of text and early printing. You also need historical linguistic skills in glossing the language. And then for writing the introduction you need to know about theatre history and dramaturgy simply to explain the sources, the historical context of the text and the different approaches to the play."

The idea of an anthology textbook for teaching literature, which Bate first encountered when at the University of California at Los Angeles, is a trend he believes is now inevitable in the UK, given the high cost of books for large numbers of students. "Shakespeare is quite a curious case, because the American tradition has always been a big anthology and a course that, over a semester or a year, covers 12 or 15 plays - whereas the tradition in the UK is to study four or five plays in more detail. This has led to a curious parting of the ways between US and English publishers; the Penguin editions over here are not distributed in the US, for example."

With numerous annotated editions on both sides of the Atlantic, is there any unploughed soil left in Shakespeare publishing? According to Bate: "The problem with what's happened is that for every play, there will be three high-level, highly annotated editions that are really aimed at the most advanced students. Much further down the market you have the Penguin editions, very much aimed at A-level students, and their texts have not been updated in the same way. There is a gap in the middle, and I'm interested in exploring ways of filling it." At this point he becomes coy, choosing his words cautiously. "In a few years' time, there will be a new edition of Shakespeare that I think people will find very exciting. It is still very much under wraps. I shall say no more than that."

A project he is happy to talk about, and which is likely to become a textbook for students of Shakespeare and the Renaissance, is a reworking of the ideas behind a book that excited him as a student, E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture . It was first published in 1944, and it has stayed in print and on student reading lists ever since. "It has the idea that an understanding of the mental world of the Elizabethans would be a good starting point to understand the history plays," he says. "There's been an immense amount of very good new historical, cultural-historical, social-historical, literary-historical research on the 16th century. If one could condense this and apply it to Shakespeare, and redo the Elizabethan picture in Tillyard, acknowledging that it was a much more fractured world picture, this would make a book that students would find useful."

But there is more to Bate than Shakespeare scholarship. In a book he published in 2000, The Song of the Earth , he explored the capacity for literature and culture to help modern society regain a closeness with nature in the face of ever-developing technology. It quickly established him as an important eco-critic, and is required reading for students studying the relationship between mankind and the natural environment - something of an honorary textbook. This autumn he published a well-received biography of the peasant poet John Clare. Both books appeared not from academic presses but from a trade publisher, Picador, and are intended to appeal to an audience beyond the campus.

"First I am a writer," Bate says, "second, a scholar." For someone who has always taught in universities, this may be a surprising statement. But one senses in him an almost evangelical enthusiasm for and dedication to English that compels him to reach out beyond the faculty.

Possibly it is also a reaction to literary theory and its revolutionary impact. While theory may have strengthened other disciplines such as classics and history, it led to anxiety and even paranoia within English faculties. Bate was a student, and later a teacher, at Cambridge University in the 1980s in the period of Christopher Ricks, Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode, at a time when theory was making a name for itself and English teaching was under the scrutiny aroused by French literary theorists such as Jacques Derrida.

"For a book to sell, it has to have a strong story line," he says. "And it's quite hard to do literary theory with a strong story line. The traditional skills of the writer, which involve narrative, plot and character, are precisely the things that are constantly being deconstructed by literary theorists." In other words, the very skills that allowed Shakespeare to embed philosophical debates in traditional story lines told in language that engages and entertains play-goers.

Both in his academic writing and in his books for a wider readership, Bate has a distinctive style and covers a remarkably wide range for a professional scholar. When he is asked "what is your field?" he generally replies: "I prefer to cultivate a farm."

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