This page contains my recommendations for critical, annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays, followed by a selection of my favorite criticism. Almost all of the plays have enough references and ambiguities that it’s worth having a knowledgeable guide to consult with and to agree and disagree with. I don’t claim to be an expert, just an informed amateur with an interest in the Renaissance background of the plays and the history of the English language. By and large, there are three or four options for those who want heavy-duty apparatus with their Shakespeare:
- Arden Shakespeare (3rd Edition)
- New Cambridge Shakespeare
- Oxford Shakespeare
- Arden Shakespeare (2nd Edition)
None of the four are consistent. Oxford editions in particular sometimes fall prey to the evanescent trends of their time, which is a problem given that most date from the 80s and 90s. Cambirdge was for a time pitched at a student audience and so its editions tended to be less comprehensive than the others, but again, not consistently so. I’ve made these choices based on a number of factors:
- More recent editions are preferable, to take into account newer scholarship. Frank Kermode’s Arden2 edition of The Tempest is superb and was incredibly influential, but it is from 1955.
- The editor should not have an ideological axe to grind or slant the apparatus to the exclusion of other points of view. John Drakakis’s Arden3 Merchant of Venice, for example, pushes its viewpoint incessantly.
- Authorial attribution should match the current scholarly consensus as best it can. Only Suzanne Gossett’s Arden3 Pericles takes note of the rather important fact that Shakespeare didn’t write the first two acts (George Wilkins did).
- Philology is better than theory.
- The editor’s other scholarship should be reasonably trustworthy and non-extreme.
- And general quality, intelligence, accessibility, taste, comprehensiveness, etc.
Some plays, like 2 Henry IV and The Tempest, have been generally fortunate in their editors. Others less so. I’ve left out plays that I can’t quite muster an interest in, like Sir Thomas More. I may add them to this page at some later point if I arrive at an opinion. Amazon has made an absolute hash of its pages for the plays, collapsing multiple editions into a single result, mixing up editors’ names, and adding in dozens of worthless editions by fake publishers. I’ve linked to the editions by ISBN, so these links should take you to the right page.
Titus Andronicus: Jonathan Bate (Arden3)
After his edition in the 90s, Bate subsequently accepted co-authorship by George Peele, and this revised edition reflects that. Bate is trustworthy and enthusiastic on this formerly underrated and now overrated play.
Romeo and Juliet: Rene Weis (Arden3)
Weis is thoroughly competent and comprehensive.
Julius Caesar: David Daniell (Arden3)
Daniell brings an unusual passion and intensity to his introduction and commentary that may be too much for some people. I find it suits me, but otherwise A. R. Humphreys (Oxford) is excellent as well, though far more subdued.
Hamlet: Harold Jenkins (Arden2)
Jenkins tries very hard to be definitive and exhaustive, which has its benefits and downsides. I disagree with many of his interpretive arguments, but he makes them honestly, and it’s hard to match the breadth of the coverage, so this monument to 20th century scholarship is still my preferred choice. Thompson & Taylor (Arden3) fall into the textual ratholes that plagued Shakespeare studies in the 80s and 90s, separating out Quarto and Folio to the detriment of enjoyment and rejecting emendations needed for the text to even make sense. Ironically, they also dumb down the commentary too much in the process.
Troilus and Cressida: David Bevington (Arden3)
Bevington (who sadly passed away in July, 2019) was one of the most steady and reliable of editors, and he is characteristically judicious on this very problematic (in every regard) play.
Othello: E. A. J. Honigmann (Arden3)
Honigmann is generally solid, though Othello, of all the major tragedies, seems to resist convincing interpretations the most. (I agree with Rossiter and others that it is as much a “problem play” as any.) Arden have put out a “revised” version that substitutes a new introduction by Ayanna Thompson without revising Honigmann’s text and notes at all. This sort of laziness and tampering (Honigmann died in 2011) shouldn’t be encouraged. While making many intriguing points, Neill (Oxford) appeals far too much to the play’s legacy rather than to the text itself, the wrong approach for a scholarly edition, and his readings and emendations veer too often toward the eccentric. Sanders (Cambridge) has a more sparse apparatus than the other two, but I find his introduction to be the most incisive of the three, and I nearly considered selecting his edition on sheer grounds of judiciousness. In a few paragraphs, he is more convincing on the question of Othello’s race than either Honigmann or Neill is at far greater length. Othello still awaits an edition that is deeply perceptive on issues of sexuality and race without losing perspective on the movement of the whole.
King Lear: Kenneth Muir (Arden2) / Rene Weis (Routledge)
I don’t have an ideal choice here. King Lear was the subject of a pointless controversy about “the two King Lears” in the 1980s that resulted in a lot of academic bickering over whether the fairly similar Quarto and Folio versions of Lear should be treated as two separate entities as opposed to different working texts of a single play. Sanity eventually won out, but not before several recent editions were plagued by poor editorial judgment. Muir’s Arden2 edition, originally from 1950 and revised in 1972, still seems to me the best choice despite its age. The adequate Foakes (Arden3) edition uses somewhat distracting superscript to differentiate Folio and Quarto sections, and I find his commentary less insightful than Muir’s. Weis’ parallel-text edition prints the Quarto and the Folio on opposing pages, but it’s far more expensive and the parallel-text is overkill for all but diehards. Halio (Cambridge) and especially Wells/Taylor (Oxford) both suffer greatly from aggressive and unhelpful revisionism, as well as surprisingly incomplete apparatus.
Macbeth: Sandra Clark & Pamela Mason (Arden3)
Clark (working from Mason’s text) delivers a solid, comprehensive and up-to-date edition, one of the best of the recent Ardens. Preferable to the okay but more tendentious Braunmuller (Cambridge) and the inconsistent Brooke (Oxford).
Timon of Athens: Anthony Dawson & Gretchen Minton (Arden3)
Dawson & Minton do a capable job while taking note of Middleton’s heavy involvement in the writing of the play, which makes most older editions unsuitable.
Antony and Cleopatra: David Bevington (Cambridge)
John Wilders (Arden3) is excellent but Bevington has the edge for comprehensiveness and insight.
Coriolanus: Philip Brockbank (Arden2)
Brockbank does an exceptional job, and his 1976 edition hasn’t been surpassed. R. B. Parker (Oxford) is pretty good but sometimes gets mired in psychoanalytic interpretations of what is still a political play, and I find Peter Holland (Arden3) a trifle superficial in comparison to Brockbank.
1 Henry VI: Edward Burns (Arden3)
Debate over collaboration and authorship in the Henry VI plays is ongoing, so a recent edition is strongly recommended. Burns’s is one of the few to discuss the nightmarishly complicated bibliographical issues, which involve Thomas Nashe and probably at least one other person. (These questions arose for me personally after I quoted II.iv in my book Bitwise.) Questions remain as to whether Shakespeare collaborated or revised, as well as to whether the play was written after its two supposed sequels.
2 Henry VI: Ronald Knowles (Arden3)
I find Knowles to be stronger and more comprehensive than Burns and believe this edition easily the best available on what is, once again, a tricky early work. As ever, questions remain.
3 Henry VI: John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (Arden3)
I have not spent as much time with the third (or is it second?) part of Henry VI, but feel comfortable recommending Cox and Rasmussen over any other. George Walton Williams was associate general editor for all three Henry VI plays under Arden3, and I believe his steady hand deserves much credit.
Richard III: James R. Siemon (Arden3)
Siemon does a strong, cautious job of sorting through the many textual problems of this play.
Edward III: Richard Proudfoot and Nicola Bennett (Arden3)
There is now general consensus that Shakespeare had a hand in writing or revising part of this odd, funny history. Proudfoot and Bennett do a superb job of sifting through the evidence and presenting it clearly. Their conclusions are cautious and conditional, suggesting Shakespeare revised several scenes. They set out the cases for Marlowe, Kyd, Peele, and Nashe as original authors, but (justifiably) remain agnostic. It is a great achievement in scholarship, though by nature of more specialized interest than most editions on this page.
King John: Jesse Lander and J. J. M. Tobin (Arden3)
Lander and Tobin’s new edition is comprehensive and gets the edge over the quirky Braunmuller. The steady old Honigmann (Arden2) and the sparser Beaurline (Cambridge) both think the play was written far earlier than it feels to me, while Lander and Tobin don’t take a stand.
Richard II: Charles R. Forker (Arden3)
Forker is superb and meticulous on this underrated (though slow) history. A model of scholarship.
1 Henry IV: David Bevington (Oxford)
The indefatigable Bevington beats out the pretty good David Scott Kastan (Arden3).
2 Henry IV: James C. Bulman and George Walton Williams (Arden3)
The textual situation of 2 Henry IV is a mess, but previous meticulous editors like A. R. Humphreys (Arden2) and Rene Weis (Oxford) arrived at a general consensus which Bulman and Williams generally respect. Bulman is credited as sole editor, but associate editor Williams’ hand weighs heavily enough here that I’m co-crediting him. I’m not certain if they’ve truly improved on their excellent predecessors, but in the absence of a clear favorite, theirs is the most recent.
Henry V: Andrew Gurr (Cambridge)
T. W. Craik (Arden3) does a very fine job, but Gurr is more authoritative and in my opinion more interesting on a not-always-interesting play. Taylor (Oxford) suffers from “shocking, drastic editorial revision,” in Lisa Jardine’s words, and is untrustworthy.
Henry VIII: Jay Halio (Oxford)
I’m told Halio’s edition is reliable. McMullan (Arden3) is considerably more extensive, but I have not given it a close look. My recommendation here may change as a result.
Pericles: Suzanne Gossett (Arden3)
Gossett alone deals with the attribution question well, and does a fine job otherwise.
Cymbeline: John Pitcher (Penguin) / Valerie Wayne (Arden3)
Not wholly thrilled with any of the options here. John Pitcher did the British Penguin edition and I wish he’d been given one of the scholarly editions, as I find him more sensible and enlightening than the other editors. Of the others, Wayne seems the most reliable to me, but is simultaneously too theoretical and too populist, name-dropping both Harry Potter and Judith Butler. Warren (Oxford) and Butler (Cambridge) fall prey to some of the revisionist excesses of the Oxford school.
The Winter’s Tale: John Pitcher (Arden3)
Pitcher has a clear affection for this weird play, and it makes this edition quite endearing.
The Tempest: David Lindley (Cambridge)
The Vaughans (Arden3) are okay but a bit dreary in comparison to the more lively Lindley. Kermode (Arden2) is still worth a look.
The Two Noble Kinsmen: Lois Potter (Arden3)
Not really a romance, but since the term is an anachronism to begin with, I’ll leave it here. Potter’s exhaustive and meticulous edition, now updated, very nearly subsumes the excellent Waith (Oxford) while providing a great deal more background.
The Taming of the Shrew: Brian Morris (Arden2)
You can’t win with this one. If you defend it like Hodgdon (Arden3), it comes off as special pleading. If you excoriate it like Ann Thompson (Cambridge), it feels redundant. I think Morris has the most interesting things to say about it, while throwing up his hands over the difficulties of the play’s sexism. At least it’s not…
The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Clifford Leech (Arden2)
The scene where Valentine “gives” his girlfriend to the man who just tried to rape her is indefensible, and Arthur Quiller-Couch summed it up in 1921 by saying, “One’s impulse, upon this declaration, is to remark that there are, by this time, no gentlemen in Verona.” Leech is the best editor the play has had.
The Comedy of Errors: Kent Cartwright (Arden3)
Kent Cartwright has more enthusiasm for this early comedy than I thought it was capable of mustering. He overloads it with more significance than it can bear, but he seems to know his stuff.
Love’s Labour’s Lost: R. W. David (Arden2)
Very academic comedy demands very academic glossing, so go for Arden2, though be skeptical of David’s idiosyncratic interpretation. Hibbard’s (Oxford) no-nonsense edition is more up to date and seems fine, though this is not a play I have a huge interest in. The painstaking Woudhuysen (Arden3) is very, very textually focused and definitely worthy for specialists. Carroll (Cambridge) is far too psychoanalytically focused.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Harold F. Brooks (Arden2)
The magisterial Brooks easily remains the best edition.
As You Like It: Juliet Dusinberre (Arden3)
Dusinberre’s feminist approach yields excellent results on a play that is almost ideally suited to it.
Much Ado About Nothing: A. R. Humphreys (Arden2)
Humphreys is an excellent editor and does a thorough job on this somewhat fluffy play. Zitner (Oxford) is also good and more up to date. I find Claire McEachern’s (Arden3) stiff and humorless edition to be quite off-putting.
The Merry Wives of Windsor: Giorgio Melchiori (Arden3)
Melchiori wrote a great book on the sonnets, and here he makes a quirky edition out of a weird little play. Melchiori really likes the play, probably more than he should, but he’s a good enough critic that he adds to the play rather than detracting from it.
The Merchant of Venice: M. M. Mahood (Cambridge)
Mahood was a great scholar, and brings much to this ever-troubling play. She is vastly more perceptive about Shylock than Halio (Oxford) or John Russell Brown (Arden2). Yet she does not fall into polemic as does Drakakis (Arden3), who hauls out Lyotard and Terry Eagleton for the prosecution to deem Merchant “a racist text” in a “racist economy.” Drakakis descends into self-parody when he writes, in a footnote, “See Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.”
Twelfth Night: J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (Arden2)
Lothian and Craik are more comprehensive and reliable than any subsequent edition. Keir Elam (Arden3) manages to be even stuffier than McEachern.
Measure for Measure: J. W. Lever (Arden2)
No Arden3 yet for this, my favorite Shakespeare “comedy.” Lever is superb and judicious and has yet to be supplanted.
All’s Well That Ends Well: G. K. Hunter (Arden2)
Hunter does a characteristically careful job on a play that doesn’t make many people’s favorites list. Snyder (Oxford) is more recent and has interesting (and different) things to say as well. I have not yet examined Gossett and Wilcox (Arden3).
Sonnets: W. G. Ingram and Theodore Redpath (Hodder & Stoughton)
The sonnets are bathed in shadow, with so many unresolved questions (is the order right? is there an order? when were they written? were they written together? etc.). There’s far less context available here, so commentary and linguistic glosses are the most important thing, and Ingram and Redpath’s edition has the wisest and most judicious that I know. It deserves to be reissued. Kerrigan (Penguin) is extremely learned, but is sometimes aggravating in its speculation, while Burrow’s Complete Poems (Oxford) is more conservative. Both are fine runners-up. Duncan-Jones (Arden3) does a fine job as well, though she mines Shakespeare’s sparse biography a bit more deeply than it can tolerate. Stephen Booth’s (Yale) edition is certainly an achievement but is so excessive in exploring surface-level ambiguities of meaning and allusion that the poetry itself starts to disappear. It’s not for all tastes. David West (Duckworth) and Helen Vendler (Harvard) are more measured and their approaches are worthy. But Ingram/Redpath is a gem.
Everything Else: Colin Burrow (Oxford)
This includes the sonnets as well as the other poetic curios, and is excellent on the sonnets, if not up to Ingram and Redpath. Burrow knows his stuff and his treatment of the poetry is expert and comprehensive. The only blemish is the inclusion of the wretched, non-Shakespearean “Shall I die?”, which it appears Burrow was forced to include at gunpoint. (“It is a poem which it is very hard to read aloud, in my experience, without snorting at least once at its many inanities and points of metrical slackness”) Burrow’s chief competitor is Lyne and Shrank (Routledge), a thorough and more extensive edition, but one which I ultimately find less useful and judicious than Burrow.
David Bevington (Pearson/Longman)
David Bevington’s steadiness, consistency, and resistance to transient academic fashion recommends his as the best collected works. It is, alas, one of the more expensive ones, going for over $100. For the going price, you could obtain at least a dozen of the individual editions above (including some of Bevington’s), with far more extensive notes and vastly more portability.
But the $100 price can be dodged by purchasing a used copy of one of Bevington’s earlier editions. The 1997 fourth edition goes for around $10 used. If the differences between the editions are sufficiently crucial, I suggest it is worth purchasing individual plays anyway.
G. Blakemore Evans (Riverside/Houghton Mifflin)
As a close runner-up, there is G. Blakemore Evans (Riverside), which has a less attractive layout than Bevington but comparable quality and consistency.
To be avoided are The New Oxford Shakespeare (ed. Wells and Taylor) and The Oxford Shakespeare 2nd Edition (ed. Taylor, Jowett, Bourus, and Egan), both of which represent the worst trends in Shakespeare editing of the last 40 years, making perverse and unhelpful changes throughout. The Pelican Shakespeare (ed. Orgel and Braunmuller) reflects some of these unfortunate tendencies as well and is not recommended.
The Norton Shakespeare 2nd Edition (edited by Greenblatt, Cohen, Howard, and Maus) took the Oxford text as its basis and so disqualifies itself on that account. The Norton 3rd Edition (same editors plus McMullan and Gossett) sagely abandoned the Oxford text for its own, but I have not been able to review it yet. As its cost is $100, it does not immediately stand out as more attractive than Bevington or Evans.
The Arden Shakespeare (ed. Proudfoot, Kastan, and Thompson) prints the generally high-quality Arden texts as of 2000, but is as bare-bones as can be, including no notes whatsoever. For the texts themselves, this is an excellent edition, but the lack of even light annotation makes me hesitant to recommend it when Bevington and Evans are available.
Finally, The RSC Shakespeare or Modern Library Shakespeare (ed. Bate and Rasmussen) opts for reprinting the First Folio texts over any others when available. The First Folio is one of the most important and influential books of all time, and as far as I can tell Bate and Rasmussen have edited it well, but I don’t think it holds editorial authority over the many scholars who have come in its wake. There is a niche for such an edition, but I believe it is more scholarly and special-interest than general readership. A collection of the First Folio texts in original spelling would be welcome on that account. But Bate/Rasmussen is neither fish nor fowl.
For now there is Charlton Hinman’s meticulous First Folio: The Norton Facsimile, which is beautiful but not the easiest reading experience, printing carefully cleaned reproductions of the first folio. If the Folger First Folio reproductions catch your eye, Hinman’s edition is easily recommended. Yet a more readable non-facsimile would be worthy.
It is very difficult to know where to begin with Shakespeare criticism. I put together two lists some years ago that Amazon, in their wisdom, will no longer allow me to edit. They are lists of books that have struck me personally, and which I think are of appeal to more than just an academic specialist. I’ve stuck to books exclusively on Shakespeare, so great critics like Bridget Gellert Lyons and Wilbur Sanders are omitted. Jonathan Bate’s list of criticism offers excellent starting points. (Bate has read vastly more of this stuff than I have. More than a couple of the below books, such as Bradshaw’s, I found out about through him.)
Criticism of the Plays
From 1908. So influential that much subsequent criticism on the tragedies takes it as a starting point.
Empson was a genius. The essay on Hamlet is eye-opening, maybe the single best thing on Hamlet I’ve ever read.
Wilson Knight comes off as a brilliant loon with his against-the-grain readings, casting Hamlet as a cancer on the healthy state of Denmark with Claudius as its capable and only slightly flawed king. Alternately insightful and beyond belief.
Compelling and accessible lectures in the Bradleyan tradition. A very good starting point.
Very strong, even if the comedies aren’t your thing.
Colie was one of the greatest and most overlooked scholars of the century. Inimitable.
Quite a good introduction in fact. Mehl covers a lot of ground well.
Incisive, polemical book that follows on Empson and Rossiter. The Hamlet and Macbeth essays are very compelling.
Approachable and personable. Mack hones in on big issues with clarity and insight.
Excellent close reading of language in the tragedies. Doran is another great, forgotten female scholar whose work bests most of what’s going around today. (See also her epic Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama.)
Brilliant. Read the essay The Avoidance of Love on King Lear if nothing else.
The first of Nuttall’s three great philosophical books on Shakespeare.
The second. Incredibly thoughtful, and a response to Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.
The last, a tour through all the plays.
Excellent, exhaustive close reading of Lear.
An intensely personal reading of Lear.
A close reading of the entirety of Hamlet. Has its ups and downs but very thought-provoking.
The vastly erudite Brett Foster, who died tragically young, edited this superb anthology of four centuries of Hamlet criticism. Commentary from pre-20th century writers like Dryden, Voltaire, Schlegel, Goethe, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Turgenev, and Nietzsche precede the crucial essays by Bradley, Knight, Empson, Heilbrun, Booth, Bradshaw, and others.
The tragedies (mostly) through the lens of Communism.
The beginning of more ambiguous interpretations of the plays and the conflicting feelings they can generate in audiences.
Rabkin’s more famous book, including a famous essay on Henry V. Questions how we are to respond to the plays, whether the plays have conclusive meanings at all, and how they play with that idea itself.
Booth, like Rabkin, takes a more metatextual view of the plays than earlier critics. More quirky than Rabkin but intermittently brilliant.
Looking at the plays from a theatrical point of view. From the 60s, very much ahead of its time. Has been published under Anne Righter and Anne Barton.
Close readings from a tormented genius who died young. Insists the plays are better read than seen.
Frye with his usual keen structural insights.
As with all of Fiedler’s work, far-ranging, quirky, and pained.
Bradshaw’s second, somewhat more difficult book, dealing with Henry V and Othello while taking apart Stephen Greenblatt and many other recent trends. Difficult but deep.
An assemblage of Burke’s work on Shakespeare. Not an integral whole, but Burke as usual offers more insights per page than almost anyone since Empson.
Brilliant chapters on Othello, Lear, Timon of Athens, and especially Measure for Measure, folded into a double-knotted whole. Why is this out of print?
Excellent primer on rhetoric.
Impressively vast tour of imagery in the plays. A big book.
A concise chronological overview, if Spurgeon’s book is too much.
Close, expert examination of meter and rhythm.
Exactly what it says on the tin. Accessible overview.
A deeply strange, abstract, and brilliant book about rhetoric and its relationship to reality.
Covers every play in sequence and how prose (rather than poetry) is used (or not used) in them.
Intellectual background for the moral and philosophical issues of the Renaissance.
Useful survey on a difficult topic.
Focuses in particular on Greek sources for the plays, which is good for those like me who are far more interested in Euripides than Seneca. Also hits non-Senecan sources like Lucan.
New Historicism at its (patchy) best.
Some of the most amiable postmodern criticism on Shakespeare. A bit too breezy perhaps.
Psychoanalytic criticism, as you might guess from the title. Fascinating even when unconvincing.
Eccentric, inspired, singular. A poet’s view.
One of the best recent anthologies. Not a bad place to start. In general, be quite wary of anthologies, which often only offer a chronologically and theoretically narrow slice of criticism.
Criticism of the Sonnets
Only partly about the sonnets, but Empson’s reading of Sonnet 83 in Chapter 4 is indispensable. The whole book is indispensable really.
Empson takes on sonnet 94 with equally great results in They That Have Power. Great essay on Alice in Wonderland too.
Excellent overview of criticism up to 1976. Includes an extract from the controversial Graves/Riding essay on Sonnet 129.
Amazing contextualization of the sonnets in the history of poetry, including Horace, Ovid, and Petrarch.
Something of a classic. Booth is far more restrained and focused here than in his edition of the sonnets.
Abstract, creative analysis of a handful of sonnets in conjunction with a couple plays. Quite wide-ranging, somewhere between Empson and Vendler.
Excellent close reading that focuses on the historically neglected eroticism and sexuality (both homo- and hetero-) in the sonnets.
Wilson Knight: Always weird, always exciting. A collection of essays that take odd themes and run with them. He still can’t convince me that the Phoenix and the Turtle is interesting, though.
Good theoretical, synthetic approach treating the sonnets alongside the plays. Somewhat of the Austin/Cavell school.