The impact of television on scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays
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This chapter discusses the use of British television productions in the major British scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays published in the last thirty years, including those specifically prepared to inform readers of the history of the plays in performance. It examines editors’ introductory material but also explores the use made of television productions in the commentaries, notes and glosses tied to particular scenes and words.

Editors of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays took a long time to include discussions of plays in performance. Stage history sections initially focused on professional theatre or productions in other media. Since the 1990s, however, editors have increasingly begun to broaden the scope of these sections. Interestingly, their use of television productions has proved to be both disproportionately small and disproportionately large. Considering that Shakespeare has been by far the most frequently performed stage dramatist on television, at least within Britain, television has featured very little in his editors’ thinking; and when they have written about it, editors have found difficulty in abandoning the concept of ‘stage history’, reflecting a deep-seated resistance to the television medium, a resistance no doubt fuelled by intellectual, cultural and social snobbery. On the other hand, considering the tiny number of television broadcasts compared to the number of performances on stage, both in the same period and since the plays were first performed, television Shakespeare could be thought of as being served extremely well in the world of the scholarly edition.

Of the editors in the Arden Shakespeare’s third series and the Oxford and second New Cambridge series, 68% referred to the BBC Television Shakespeare broadcasts, which broadcast thirty-seven plays from 1978 to 1985. The BBC series was issued commercially, first on video and later on DVD: the fact that editors could study them at leisure, and were no longer reliant on published reviews or their own notes or memories, obviously skewed some editors’ attitude to their importance. While this might at first sight seem to be indefensible, editors can justifiably argue that their readers, most of whom will be students, can now consult and analyse minutely these recordings under something approaching their original viewing conditions and that the original audience numbers are now infinitely extendable. Television Shakespeare has thereby transformed the reach and value of stage history.

These issues raise important questions. What function does performance history as a whole serve within a scholarly edition and how it should be written? Given that it can never be comprehensive, what are the principles of selection and emphasis that should inform it? And are these principles changing or likely to change in the future?

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Theatre plays on British television

Editors: Amanda Wrigley and John Wyver


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