The New Oxford Shakespeare is a monumental production by any measure and on Wednesday an audience of Bard buffs got a glimpse of the painstaking work that has gone into its making when they had the privilege hearing from the four general editors at Oxford's Martin School.
This event started rather seriously and I was worried that it would be a bit heavy-going, but as the editors got into their stride, their passion, enthusiasm and sheer love of their subject burst through.
The session was introduced by Prof. Sir Stanley Wells, editor of the previous edition of the Oxford Complete Works published in 1986. Gary Taylor, one of the current editors, put this edition into context by observing that it had set a "ferocious" research agenda for the following 30 years. The outcome of that scholarship and the opportunity to produce an online edition of the work means that new edition is very different from its predecessor.
Editor Terri Bourus, a drama specialist, discussed the problem of adapting the complete works in the age of Twitter. She explained that the editors have tackled this by prefacing each play with bricolage – a collection of theatrical and critical quotations combined with pictures which act as "sound bites" to draw students into the work and prompt further research. She also spoke about the performance notes – these had to be in the form of a guide rather than be prescriptive and could only include things that would have been possible in Shakespeare's time.
One of the biggest advances in Shakespearean scholarship in recent years is the ability to address questions of attribution – something made possible by computer analysis of works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries: although, as we heard, this is only really possible with the plays and can't be extended to the poetry. The importance of this research is reflected in having an entire volume dedicated solely to exploring questions of attribution. As Sir Stanley was at pains to emphasise, collaboration was the norm in Shakespeare's time and the fact that he collaborated with other dramatists doesn't diminish his skill as a writer.
The first volume, containing the complete works with modern spelling and punctuation, and the online edition were both on show and are each, in their own way, triumphs of design. The book is printed on good quality paper with clear typescript, and beautifully organised – I was particularly struck by the way in which the notes sit next to the text without being intrusive. The online edition is similarly carefully laid out and will eventually allow users to compare different versions of the same play and interact with other supporting material.