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The Oxford Anthology of Shakespeare by…

The Oxford Anthology of Shakespeare (1987)

by William Shakespeare

Other authors: Stanley W. Wells (Editor)

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An Oxford Anthology of Shakespeare

Selected and Introduced by Stanley Wells

Oxford University Press, Paperback, 1989.

8vo. xx+396 pp. Introduction by Stanley Wells [xi-xx]. Glossary, Index [387-96].

First published by Oxford University Press, 1987.
First issued as an Oxford University Press paperback, 1989.


A Note on the Text

1. People
2. Friendship
3. Love
4. Hatred
5. Imagination
6. Wisdom and Folly
7. Magic and Superstition
8. Responsibility and Government
9. Time
10. Places
11. Stories
12. Death
13. Unconsidered Trifles

A Select Glossary


Extracting passages from Shakespeare dates back to his own lifetime, although the first anthology to consist entirely of his own writings was published only in 1752. It was edited by one William Dodd and proved successful enough to be reprinted as late as 1936. Numerous Shakespearean anthologies published in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries have praised the Bard as sage, moralist, lover, soldier and what not – including golfer. Perhaps the most bizarre anthology ever published is Shakespeare on Golf, With Special Reference to St Andrews Links (1885). The most recent success in the field is, of course, The Ages of Man (1939), edited by George Rylands, ingeniously arranging the excerpts under the headings “Youth”, “Manhood” and “Age”.

I have taken all this information from the introduction to this volume by Stanley Wells, one of the foremost Shakespearean scholars of our time. To my mind, he has done a better job than George Rylands and I really don’t know why this anthology is not better known. Mr Wells presents several arguments for and against butchering Shakespeare like the “bleeding hunks of Wagner” sometimes offered in concert programs. Well, Mr Wells’ grasp of Wagner is not very secure (the correct phrase is “bleeding chunks”), but there is no doubt about his Shakespearean erudition. Let him explain his criteria of inclusion and working methods:

In choosing extracts for this collection I have had in mind one simple question: What are the passages from Shakespeare that are most readable in their own right, and suffer least from detachment from their surroundings? Not until I had selected most of the passages did I decide on headings under which to arrange them and on the order in which they should be presented. It seemed desirable to allow the passages to determine the shape of the volume rather than to select excerpts to fit a predetermined scheme. My criterion of selection inevitably emphasizes the set piece, the more highly wrought rhetorical passages of verse and prose, at the expense of more dramatically complex sequences involving interplay among a number of characters. Of course, some of Shakespeare’s greatest dramatic writing occurs in the more complex passages; but to represent Shakespeare at his greatest as a dramatist has not been my principal aim, for that, I believe, is not properly done in extracts intended primarily for reading (though suitable also for reading aloud).

So you won’t find here, Mr Wells continues, such supreme Shakespearean feats like Iago’s tormenting of Othello, Mark Antony’s death, the gulling of Malvolio or Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. “What I hope you will find”, continues the editor, “is many of the finest examples of Shakespeare’s work as a literary artist who chose mostly to express himself in dramatic form.” Mr Wells does include a number of excerpts, some of them almost a hundred lines long, in which several characters participate, and for all of them allowances for being out of the context must be made. For example, you will find here Cleopatra’s death, and though it is beautiful and moving in itself, the effect is greatly diminished without the tremendous scene with Octavius that precedes it. Likewise, you will find here Rosalind and Orlando discoursing on the relativity of time some three centuries before Einstein, but there is of course much more between these characters than that. Shortcomings like these are inevitable in such a book.

Three other caveats, perhaps not quite inevitable, should be kept in mind.

First, it’s not always easy to find the famous passage you’re looking for. I have omitted the editor’s headings above because most of them are too generic to be useful. “The Ages of Man”, “The Course of True Love”, “A Round Unvarnished Tale of Courtship” or “Supernatural Power Renounced” are clear enough if you’re familiar with As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and The Tempest, respectively. But if you’re looking for Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be”, you must be very familiar with it, indeed, to discover it under the quotation-title “What dreams may come…” The situation with the sonnets is even worse. There are 14 of them, all under dreadful “titles” like “Love Celebrated”, “Love’s Power”, “Poetic Immortality”, “Mourning Forbidden”, etc. The index at the end uses the same headings and is useful only insofar as it gives the page number of each extract, not only of the 13 major sections as the table of contents does, and the first lines of the sonnets.

Second, except for a helpful but short glossary at the end, you get no help with Shakespeare’s vocabulary, still less with his complex allusions, imagery and wordplay. I hasten to add that this is nowhere near as bad as Shakespearean neophytes might think. The Bard’s subtleties may be elusive, but his general meaning is just as clear as his verbal virtuosity is palpable.

Third, a chronological list of the plays would have been nice. Shakespeare’s writing career lasted for only two decades or so, but he changed a great deal during that time. Though chronological matters are somewhat vague, there is a world of difference between the extravagant verbosity of Love’s Labour’s Lost or Romeo and Juliet, both written around 1595, and the extraordinary concision of Macbeth (1606) or The Tempest (1610–11).

Nevertheless, this is a delightful anthology for every time or mood. It can be read with pleasure fresh in the morning or tired in the evening, depressed or cheerful, knowing much or knowing nothing about the Bard. I will not claim I have read every page of it, but I have read a great deal and I have found that it works equally well with the plays I know and with the ones I don’t.

P.S. The first edition (1986) of the so-called Oxford Shakespeare, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, was used as a copy text. The most notable thing about this edition of Will’s Complete Works are the two different texts of King Lear. This is why you have here The History of King Lear, based on the 1608 quarto, and The Tragedy of King Lear, based on the Folio (1623). The most notable difference is that the quarto contains one scene more, the short but crucial encounter between Kent and a Gentleman about Cordelia’s attitude to her father’s plight. This is usually printed as IV.3. in modern editions based on collation of the quarto and the Folio. ( )
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William Shakespeareprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wells, Stanley W.Editorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192822403, Paperback)

This elegantly-crafted anthology presents over two hundred of the finest examples of Shakespeare's work, ranging from two-line aphorisms to sonnets and even complete scenes. Ideal for browsing, it allows readers to revisit favorite passages such as Hamlet's soliloquy or the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, or to discover unfamiliar gems. Above all, it permits readers to savor Shakespeare's unequaled capacity to portray the peaks and valleys of human experience.
The anthology reveals Shakespeare's extraordinary ability to capture in words the hearts, minds, and imaginations of kings and peasants, wise men and fools, warriors and page-boys, statesmen and common thieves, as well as quintessential expressions of admiration and vituperation, villainy and virtue, grief, joy, and despair.
In creating this anthology, Stanley Wells--the General Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare--has selected those passages which he finds most attractive in their own right and which suffer least from being read out of context. He has also arranged the excerpts according to subject matter, under headings such as Friendship, Love, Hatred, Responsibility and Government, Time, Wisdom and Folly, and Death. For readers looking for a particular quotation, this edition--based on the text of the Complete Oxford Shakespeare--also contains a play-by-play index and glossary.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:01 -0400)

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