What will students gain from a Complete Works?
Why would students want to read Shakespeare’s Complete Works? Why not just focus on his “greatest hits”?
Firstly, because each generation should discover and decide for themselves which works speak most directly to their experience, their time, their place, their emotional and social habitat. The global financial crash of 2008 produced an explosion of productions of Timon of Athens. The 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was not reprinted for more than 170 years, but it is now the single most famous book of English lyric poetry. Titus Andronicus was almost never performed for three hundred years; but in the decades since its theatrical revival in 1955 it has become one of Shakespeare’s most successful plays on stage and television, in film, among critics and students. Who can guess which of Shakespeare’s works will grab the heart of the generation born this year? Which sentences will stick in their memories?
And secondly, because, like all great artists, Shakespeare created an entire new world, an imaginative alternative universe in which each part, each play, each poem, contributes to our understanding of that whole. Reading the whole book is like getting to know the whole person. Most of the people we encounter play bit-parts in our lives. But there is a much smaller number that we want to know more about, and there is a very very small number that we would be delighted to know everything about. We learn the overall patterns of their behaviour, but also the less obvious quirks; we puzzle over the apparent incompatibles; over time, with attention, we acquire a sense of the whole complex network of their being.
Shakespeare is one of those writers who rewards the long, intense, intimate relationship created by rereading, and rereading, all their work.
Gary Taylor, General Editor