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Which Shakespeare texts are best for language studies?

Aside from whether to go for a modern edition or not, you need to decide which plays to choose if you want to study Shakespeare’s language.

Aside from issues to do with, for example, whether to go for a modern edition or an original text, you need to decide which plays to choose if you want to study Shakespeare’s language.

This is not least because whether or not Shakespeare wrote (or at least contributed to the writing of) some of those plays is occasionally a matter of controversy.

The First Folio

You might decide to use the plays of the First Folio. After all, it is the earliest publication intended to represent the works of Shakespeare. However, there are reasons against this choice – it only includes the plays, and not, for example, the poetry attributed to Shakespeare, for example.

Another is that some have argued that it does not include plays or parts of plays believed to have been written by Shakespeare. Conversely, some have argued that what is there in the First Folio includes plays or parts of plays thought to be at least co-written with other playwrights.

First Folio, supplemented

Another choice is to go for the First Folio but supplement it with other texts, selected Quartos, for example – many modern editions do exactly this.

This hybrid choice can have the merit of being based on the “best” plays that textual and attribution scholarship suggests we have (“best” meaning closest to Shakespeare’s presumed own work).

But an argument against this choice is precisely that it is a hybrid, a modern construction with no historical parallel as a collection. Also, whilst scholars agree in some cases about what counts as “best”, there is endless debate about others.

First Folio, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen

Finally, a choice might be to go for the canon, essentially the First Folio, plus Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. This has the merit of being widely available and used in various formats around the globe. But this choice has the same disadvantages as those of the First Folio, and there is also considerable doubt about whether (or which parts of) Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen Shakespeare actually wrote.

What collection of Shakespeare’s works do you use to study his language? What would you argue is the best choice?

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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