There can never be a Fourth Arden Shakespeare. Coloured pictures must never run in the silent cinema where The Arden runs its “Priscian but a little scratched” 38mm projections. Coloured plates! Among the woodcuts it would be frightening. This unwieldy Richard II (600 pages with index) is an example of the mighty Third Arden. In print this is clearly as far as it is possible to go with ink on thicker paper. The thinner stock chosen for the second Arden (300 pages no index) looks a very slim piece of work by its side; dashed off in “a term’s leave of absence” for which, in its preface, Peter Ure breathlessly thanks “the Council of King’s College”.
Why so thick? After six years’ work, Charles R. Forker disingenuously apologises for hefty quotation in the footnotes from Holinshed and Woodstock and all the rest; that might “overwhelm the text”. On top of obsessive noting of every alexandrine and compulsive suggestions how failures in the pentameter might be force fed to us, it is indeed hard to tell the rooky wood from the paper pulp of the trees. Unlike The Cambridge which has sensibly decided to add accents to the basic text, there is a footnote for every single accented è. It takes some time to become familiar with the Arden abbreviations: SD, SP, t.n. and LN. It is not difficult; but the constant turning back; looking for willow wands to divine for an abbreviations list; checking the bibliography; hailing a taxi and speeding along in the long notes, getting out while the meter is running; stopping the reading, is finally depressing. This is as far as we can take the typesetters art. It is no longer the way to go. We want something we can look at on the phone.
I dream of a day when copyright is laughed at; when we’ll be able to put our own text together. Feel free to use my joke about “willow wands” without acknowledgement. We can be free to cut and paste from all the Ardens of the past, link to Capell, Samuel Johnson and Abbott and see facsimiles of the pages they wrote. After Baptists like me, there will come a Jimmy Wales who will provide, for every word, links to dictionary etymologies and meanings; one click for footnotes and a double click for the actual line in all FIVE Quarto facsimiles and the Folio; buttons and apps so that we could find video clips of the very lines being spoken in every play on record; even deeper: the audio files. The future for The Arden must be as it was for my yellowing red and black Penguin Roget’s Thesaurus. The relational databases of The Internet have shown us The Way. Imagine your own text of Shakespeare, endlessly variable to taste; to see it unsullied by footnotes unless we choose, at mouseover, to mark our doorposts and sit back for a variorum aurora borealis of The Northern Lights.
As long as we think like children, we must defer to those with tenure and university gowns, until we can place experts like Charles R. Forker; who himself, in this magisterial masterpiece, gives us pause to weigh the declamations of the earlier Arden editors, Ivor B. John and Peter Ure, old Phaetons of the past, that are now apart from the fires at the cloaking edge of black, wholly eclipsed.
To be called from the badlands of scholarship to the aerie regions of immortality with the prospect of regular employment with The Arden Shakespeare, must strike a man “more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”. It is clear that the benediction of the Arden call is less an acknowledgement of expertise in the field than that it comes with humility. The chosen ones must join with, but defer to Arden associates, deservedly immortal, that include Richard Proudfoot and George Walton Williams; both acknowledged in the Richard II commentary as RP and GWW. The self-aggrandizing Professor Stanley Wells, now, as we speak, trawling The Internet for his own name, would NEVER have been called. This Arden compliments Wells by quoting his subtle insights verbatim on many occasions.
Charles R. Forker is as safe a pair of hands as ever wore a strait jacket. He never strays from orthodoxy to commandeer the methodology of Brian Vickers to assert that the old play “Woodstock” discovered in 1870 by Halliwell might be by Shakespeare and is essential to understanding the artistry of the canon’s Richard II. The high water mark of the typesetters art is moved higher in any Arden. Do the, as ever, unrecorded Arden journeymen typesetters, treading warily upon such holy ground, ever imagine being presented with laurels as their Tudor forebears have been? Has anyone pointed out that in the second Arden “Egerton 1994” is referred to as “1944”? Was this obfuscation intentional? Or was it “eye-skip” of a latter-day “Compositor B” or “Simmes’s Compositor A”?
Imagining the play that we now know as “Richard II” as it was rehearsed and performed by the original Elizabethans in castles and country manor houses and then for the London theatres; its revival with the deposition scene for The Essex rebellion; imagining what it was that Shakespeare actually wrote; deciding between the quartos and the folio to reach a consensus upon what might be a definitive text; deciding whether to bring in to the canon other texts or whether to exclude “Thomas of Woodstock” or call it “1Richard II”; and the recalling of performances of plays now available on DVD and those seen in real life; are so thoroughly covered in the authority that goes by the name of The Arden Shakespeare; we must think that no more can ever be said. The Arden however, far from ever having the final word, has established that there can be no final word, but nowhere else between two covers is there an attempt to summarise ALL that has gone before. It will never be done again or done better.