Resources & further reading

Print editions of Shakespeare plays

The best complete works of Shakespeare, in my opinion, is the Norton Shakespeare. I say this despite the fact that I don’t feel it contains the best editing decisions (I have, elsewhere in my blog, commented on the modern editor’s over-willingness to ‘correct’ the original texts).

The reason I recommend this edition is because it makes the plays exceptionally readable.

Firstly, it has nice big pages.

Secondly, they limit the amount of notes to what is necessary for comprehension.

Thirdly, when it is a short note that simply translates a word or phrase, the note is included on the same line, saving you from having to constantly break off where you were reading to check the note at the bottom of the page.

The Norton Shakespeare is available in a number of formats: as one volume, two volumes (split into early and late work), or four volumes (split into Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances & Poems). Or you can purchase a one volume edition of ‘The Essential Plays / The Sonnets’. The complete digital edition comes free with any of these purchases.

For a publication with in-depth notes of individual plays, Arden has the best reputation. However, their notes can be obsessively detailed, which might not suit everyone! An alternative is the Oxford editions.

The Folger editions appear to have a reputation for being very readable (I haven’t yet read a Folger), and have the text of the play on one page, and the notes on the opposite page.

Then, of course, there are the Shakespeare Made Easy and No Sweat Shakespeare editions, which provide modern, plain language translations on the opposite page to the text of the play.

As an accompaniment to the individual plays, I would also highly recommend ‘The Shakespeare Handbook‘ series, published by Palgrave Macmillan. They’re very much focussed on visualising the play on the stage, scene by scene, and examining the different interpretive possibilities on stage. (In a similar vein, I would also highly recommend Secrets of Acting Shakespeare by Patrick Tucker, which I review at the bottom of this page).

If you’re interested in reading a play in the original Folio text (and Norton publish a facsimile of the whole Folio, if you’re prepared to shell out for it!), there are the Applause First Folio Editions, edited by Neil Freeman. These are individual editions of the plays in modern type, but retaining all the original text of the Folio (including the original punctuation, lineation, spelling, capitalisations and parentheses). Freeman provides notes throughout, including commentary on where modern editors may have presented the text differently.

A couple of warnings about these editions:

Firstly, Neil Freeman has a poor technical understanding of meter, which can render his notes on the meter unreliable or misleading.

Secondly, he includes all of the split lines of the Folio (this is when a pentameter line is split into two separate lines), without realising that the vast majority of split lines you will find in the original Folio were necessitated by lack of space. This is why so many split lines occur as the opening line of somebody’s speech: the line is always placed after the name of the character, which means there is less space for it to fit inside the column!

One thing I do like about the layout is Freeman’s decision to give visual prominence to full stops by shifting the next line (or the rest of the line) down a space. One of the most noticeable differences between the original texts and modern edited texts is that Shakespeare used much fewer full stops, which produces a much swifter, smoother forward flow. I find it very helpful that Freeman provides such visual clarity to the units of thought indicated by the full stops.

For reading groups, there are a new series of books published by the ISC Press. I have not yet looked at a copy, but this link will tell you more:

Internet resources

The ireadshakespeare site also provides a useful list of online resources and more:

This site also provides a series of video presentations (with accompanying transcripts) on a variety of subjects that provide context for Shakespeare’s plays, and aid comprehension: There are only two so far (on ‘The Great Chain of Being’ and ‘Thee & Thy or You & Your?’), but many more to come. I was impressed by the two I’ve watched: they’re easy to follow, yet thorough, and very logically organised. I would say they’re particularly useful for schoolteachers/students.

Finally, for anyone with an interest in taking a look at the work of other Elizabethan dramatists, this is a wonderful website:

For these plays’ relevance to Shakespeare, I think it’s worth quoting a passage from the website, in the article ‘Why Read Elizabethan Drama’: “Personally, I avoided reading Shakespeare for decades. Let’s face it, Shakespeare is difficult. His language is often cryptic. He frequently uses words to mean things that no other writer ever did before or since. To me, he is more difficult to understand than any other dramatist of that era. Thus, reading the much more easily understandable plays of other writers will train your ear for Elizabethan language; and once you become thoroughly practiced in the language and syntax of the era, you can return to Mr. Shakespeare’s work, and become one of the very few who truly understands his language.”

In addition, these plays are, quite simply, very entertaining!

As well as some very useful articles, covering background, timelines, and ways to approach the plays and understand their conventions, he provides annotated texts for a variety of Elizabethan plays (eight so far: two each for four different playwrights). The annotations are beautifully written, and exist solely to aid comprehension. And all the annotations are on the same line as the passage of text, which makes for a much more pleasant reading experience (as with the ‘Norton Shakespeare’, it saves you from constantly having to break off where you are to read a note at the bottom of the page!).

Further reading on meter

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

This is an excellent introductory book, with plenty of very useful exercises (writing in meter is a very effective way to gain a good grasp of meter). His chapter on enjambment is particularly good.

There are a few shortcomings to this book.

1. Stephen Fry does not recognise either the minor ionic or the 2nd epitrite as being legitimate metrical patterns.

2. He also chooses not to mark spondees on the grounds (supposedly) that most spondees have a slightly stronger stress on the second syllable, so are really ‘heavy iambs’. Aside from the fact that this is generally only true of spondees within a 1st epitrite (i.e. the final dum-dum in di-dumdumdum‘), or the fact that many pyrrhics could be described as ‘light iambs’, though he marks those, when you choose not to mark spondees you miss a lot of the expressive metrical patterning. For instance, this is Stephen Fry’s scansion of a line from Shakespeare’s first sonnet:-

But THOU, conTRACted to thine OWN bright EYES

And here’s mine:-


Note the striking metrical pattern at the end, where three light syllables run into three heavy syllables: di-di-di-dum-dum-dum! (the paeon-spondee, as described in Part 1). Stephen Fry misses this because he refuses to mark a spondee (dum-dum) at the end of this line.

3. He marks appended pyrrhics as iambs. If I were to mark the appende pyrrhics in Sonnet 1 as iambs, the effect would be quite different.

4. He suggest heavily emphasising every other syllable initially, in order to ingrain the iambic rhythm, and provides a long list of examples to practice on. The problem with this is that when you simply impose the iambic rhythm onto the line, it kills any expressive nuance. In practice, the speed and rhythm of the line is affected by all kinds of factors, such as: punctuation and phrasal junctures within the line; the presence or absence of consonant clusters; the use of long or short vowels and consonants; the use of mono- or polysyllabic words; the use of words and phrases within the line that have a contrary, trochaic rhythm, and span the foot divisions; etc. It is a very bad idea to get into the habit of punching every stress, as it prevents you from feeling the texture of the words, and how they interact with the meter.

All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele is a highly regarded poet, and as you would expect, he is a pretty good guide on the expressive techniques involved in writing in meter, and the expressive qualities of different types of meter. He comes across as very learned, and his book is wide ranging, informative and entertaining (though one thing he doesn’t pick up on is the effect of the presence or absence of consonant clusters, which I found a surprising gap given how well he covers other factors, such as phrasing, punctuation and word length).

He doesn’t, unfortunately, recognise that the minor ionic pattern contains a displaced beat, and instead, rather peculiarly, accounts for this pattern as a rising scale of stress, with each syllable stronger than the last by rising degrees (which doesn’t at all reflect what we actually hear: if we were to deliver the words in this way, it would sound very forced and awkward.  The reason this pattern causes so much confusion is because it cannot be accommodated by the traditional approach to scansion, as it cannot be broken down into individual feet!). This also means that Steele does not mark minor ionics in his scansion, as he chooses only to mark beat placement (and he doesn’t recognise that this pattern contains a displaced beat!). And where possible, he tends to avoid reading lines as containing this pattern.

His explanation of the 2nd epitrite pattern is no less confusing!

The Strict Metrical Tradition by David Keppel-Jones

It is from this book I borrowed the basic model of identifying and naming those patterns formed by combinations of feet (most definitely the model that has worked best for me), as well as the history of the development of meter that I have touched on. The only major point on which we differ is that he does not recognise an alternative to the ‘false choriamb’ (and partly because of this, I feel he often misreads lines that he regards as irregular in the final section of his book. He also regards ‘abrupt spondees’ as irregular, and is averse to them; I do not share his aversion. And he interprets the appended pyrrhic followed by a spondee as an irregular version of the minor ionic – wrongly, in my opinion – and regards it as an awkward figure; I actually find it an elegant variation).

For those of a technical bent, he goes into plenty of fine technical detail. And for those who aren’t of a technical bent, he provides long lists of examples of all the metrical figures in all their forms. You will gain a good feel for them simply by reading all the examples.

You will also read about trailing and semi-trailing syllables and deferred and semi-deferred closures; these are details I have touched on briefly in these posts, and in this book you will become more familiar with them (I also explain them in the very last entry of my glossary). Incidentally, following on from my description of my own notational system at the end of part 2, I also mark trailing syllables and deferred closures:

  • If either a 4th paeon or a minor ionic begins with a trailing syllable, I mark it off with a vertical line: -|–> /  or  -|-> / / . If it’s a semi-trailing syllable, I mark it off with a dot either side of the arrow:  -:–> /  or  -:-> / /
  • If an appended pyrrhic is followed by an iamb without a break, I mark it the same way as any other 4th paeon, but mark off the appended pyrrhic with a vertical line, and place two dots over the arrow above each syllable of the appended pyrrhic.
  • If a 1st epitrite opens with a trailing syllable, I underline the trailing syllable: U / / /. If it opens with a semi-trailing syllable, I break the underline in two (imagine a small gap in the middle of the underline).
  • If a figure has a deferred closure I mark the eventual closure with a square bracket: ]. If it’s a double-deferred closure, I add a vertical line after the bracket: ]|. If it’s a triple-deferred closure, I add yet one more vertical line: ]||. For a semi-deferred closure, I break the bracket in two (imagine a small gap in the middle of the bracket).

Again, my intention has been to develop a notational system that allows for the maximum amount of nuance and variability, whilst still maintaining visual simplicity.

Shakespeare’s Metrical Art by George T. Wright

Mr Wright explores some interesting history in the development of verse written in iambic pentameter, and then proceeds to explore Shakespeare’s work in depth, including those aspects of meter that are particular to dramatic verse. He finishes with a quick look at the work of some of his successors.

His technical understanding of meter is dodgy, and I do not agree with all of his scansion (he also doesn’t recognise that the minor ionic pattern contains a displaced beat; fails to recognise the importance of having a phrasal break before a trochee; and also has a habit I find quite odd of marking all spondees with a semi-stress followed by a stress – to my ear, it is only when the spondee forms the second half of a 1st epitrite that it is common that the first syllable of the spondee drops in pitch, relative to the beat syllables either side of it).

But as an exploration of how Shakespeare employed meter to expressive effect, it is impressive in it’s scope (though his analysis of Sonnet 116 is profoundly flawed). And unlike in these posts, he explores extended passages of verse [UPDATE: I have now included a full analysis of Sonnet 1!].

He does look at the same issues that I looked at in parts 5 and 6 of this post (‘Emphasis on a non-beat syllable’ and ‘The false choriamb’). His solution to the ‘false choriamb’ has a flattening effect, and isn’t very satisfactory. His pronunciation of the emphasised non-beat (a sharp, brief rise in pitch – though this then results in a sharp fall in pitch on the following word) does not serve Shakespeare’s verse well.

Rhythm & Meaning in Shakespeare by Peter Groves

I do not agree with everything in this book, but there is plenty of interest in here. I found the section on lines with missing syllables particularly useful, as well as his explanation of the important role of the schwa when identifying how to expand or contract words to fit the meter (the schwa is the most neutral vowel sound in our language: if you simply allow your jaw to hang loose and make a sound, you will produce a neutral ‘uh’ sound. Paradoxically, while it is the most common vowel sound in our language, it is not represented in our alphabet, so it’s importance and prevalence is often overlooked).

Peter Groves also includes plenty of links to recordings he has made of himself or a partner reading out lines of Shakespeare to illustrate a point.

Among those things we disagree over are:

1. He regards a trochee followed by a minor ionic as a legitimate metrical pattern (producing the pattern: DUM-di | di-di-DUMDUM). I regard this as hopelessly muddled. He gives one example of a line that he claims includes this pattern, but in fact, there is a perfectly satisfactory metrical reading of this line without the need to resort to this pattern.

2. He sometimes marks a trochee followed by a pyrrhic (producing the pattern: DUM-di | di-di-di-DUM). I regard this as unmetrical.

3. He interprets some of Shakespeare’s lines as employing what I have termed a ‘false choriamb’, albeit with a lingering over, or pause after, the word before the noun, so as to keep the meter in check. I think in only one of Groves’ examples did I agree with his reading.

If, after reading this book, anyone wants to question me on my points of difference, or how I interpreted any of these lines differently, feel free to ask!

And finally…

I have to mention this book!

Secrets of Acting Shakespeare by Patrick Tucker

This fascinating book is written by the director of the Original Shakespeare Company: they put on performances based on the Folio texts, in which the actors do not rehearse, but learn only their own lines – with the result that they go on stage not knowing what’s going to happen, and react spontaneously (Patrick Tucker makes a very convincing case that this was the standard theatre practice in Shakespeare’s day). It should probably be considered essential reading for any Shakespearean actor or director. For the reader, also, it adds a dimension to how one interprets the plays (a particularly interesting example is the ending of Measure for Measure).

I have not recommended this book primarily for it’s content on meter, though it’s one short segment devoted to meter does include an excellent illustration of the importance of following the lineation. Other than this, his grasp of meter doesn’t appear to be as solid as it could be: besides the minor error of describing an end-line appended pyrrhic as an anapest (the anapest is a three-syllable foot – di-di-DUM which is an irregularity when used in iambic verse), he doesn’t appear to recognise epic caesuras, and also doesn’t appear to recognise the principles of elision Shakespeare adopted (shortening words to fit the meter. Shakespeare also elongated words to fit the meter).

I also don’t share his complete faith in the Folio. Some (but not all) of my reasons for this are:

  • Patrick Tucker isn’t aware that when there is a split line in the Folio (a pentameter line that has been split in two over two separate lines) the vast majority of the time this is because the line was too long to fit in the column (this is why so many split lines are a character’s opening line: the line was always placed after the character’s name, which meant there was less space to fit the line in), and instead interprets this as two separate short lines with pauses after each one.
  • I don’t feel that the Folio can be completely relied upon to indicate faithfully whether a passage was originally written in verse or prose. Part of my reason for saying this is that, because of the way that books were printed, the printers had to estimate in advance how much text was required to fill each quire: twelve pages formed by three large sheets of paper folded together (they simultaneously printed backwards from pages 6 to 1 of each quire, and forwards from pages 7 to 12). Inevitably, they sometimes mis-estimated, and were either left with too much space, or too little. In this light, it is highly plausible that they would sometimes have resorted to either relineating prose as verse (to fill up more space), or relineating verse as prose (to take up less space).
  • Shakespeare wrote in secretary hand. With this form of handwriting, unfortunately, some of the letters can look quite similar; in this light, it is perhaps unlikely that Shakespeare’s written text was never misread. It is also possible that mistakes were made by the printers when setting the printing blocks. An interesting possible example (which could be accounted for by either explanation) which even modern editors haven’t considered, occurs in Egeon’s final lines at the end of the opening scene of The Comedy of Errors, when he is under threat of execution having unlawfully arrived in Ephesus seeking his missing son:

Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend,
But to procrastinate his lifeless end.

The phrase ‘lifeless end’ feels like a clumsy tautology to me. The word ‘lifeless’ was originally printed ‘liueleffe’: ‘u’ always stood in for ‘v’ (and so did ‘f’ for ‘s’). What if we turn the ‘u’ upside down? We then get ‘lineleffe’, or in modern type: ‘lineless’ (what is more, in secretary hand – in which ‘u’ also stood in for ‘v’ – ‘u’ and ‘n’ could be almost indistinguishable). This makes an awful lot more sense to me: both Egeon’s sons are lost to him (the son he had raised went missing searching for his long lost twin brother), as is his wife, so the phrase ‘lineless end’ (i.e. his own death without leaving any descendants) feels emotionally resonant; and this resonance would be heightened further by the fact that as soon as Egeon leaves the stage, the son he was pursuing walks on.


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