So far as I have been able to discover, only fifteen of Shakespeare's plays have been published in the Penguin Popular Classics series. Information of them online is scarce: I could barely manage to find decent scans of the covers. The following conclusions are drawn on the six volumes I have in my possession (Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Penguin are notoriously disrespectful fellows. They live up to their notoriety in these dashing little books. You have to struggle with the eye-killing font on the copyright page in order to learn who is responsible for the enormous amount of work which the editing of Shakespeare for modern publication requires. With the help of a magnifying glass you usually read something like “Editorial matter copyright 1937 by the Estate of G. B. Harrison”. This evidently refers to Shakespeare’s complete works (including sonnets and narrative poems) as edited by G. B. Harrison and published by Penguin in 37 volumes between 1937 and 1959. Eighteen of these volumes appeared in 1937 and 1938, fourteen are reprinted in the Penguin Popular Classics. The only exception is Measure for Measure, originally published in 1954. Why the rest never made it I haven’t the least idea. If I have missed a title, please correct me. If you have a nice scan of the cover, please share.
I have never seen any of these earlier Penguin editions and I do not know if the Penguin Popular Classics are exact reprints. I expect they are, for this would make most sense in a budget-price series, although there are indications that at least some of the plays (e.g. Twelfth Night) may have been revised and enlarged after WWII. The evidence from pagination is confusing. Of the six books I have, three have more pages than the originals, two have less, and one exactly the same number. Some of the differences are small and may, perhaps, be explained with a few additional pages between the endpapers and the major body of text, but others are more substantial:
The Tempest: 112 pp. (1937), 112 pp. (1994);
Hamlet: 192 pp. (1937), 190 pp. (2001);
Macbeth: 144 pp. (1937), 124 pp. (1994);
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: 112 pp. (1937), 106 pp. (1994);
Romeo and Juliet: 128 pp. (1937), 155 pp. (1994);
Othello: 160 pp. (1938), 156 pp. (1994).
Each volume contains a chronology of Shakespeare’s works, a biography of the Bard, an essay about the Elizabethan theatre, an introduction about the play in question, full text, notes and glossary. For example, the table of contents about A Midsummer Night’s Dream looks like this:
The Works of Shakespeare
The Elizabethan Theatre
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Introduction)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The first three are the same in all volumes; the last three are obviously not. Sometimes there are bonuses. For instance, Romeo and Juliet contains a fascinating reconstruction of the staging in Elizabethan times using stage directions in the early quartos.
“The Works of Shakespeare” is a one-page table listing 35 plays together with their years of composition and first printing, only approximate in the first case. It does differ from the modern equivalent, but the differences are minor enough to be of interest to scholars only. Mr Harrison, to my mind wisely, does not assign exact year to each play but separates them into five periods: before 1594, 1594-97, 1597-1600, 1601-1608, after 1608. Possible co-authors are omitted, but the most notable “bad quartos” (pirated editions) are noted. In the single instance of play absent from the First Folio (Pericles), this is also noted. The Two Noble Kinsmen is omitted altogether. The total is 35 because the three parts of Henry VI (but not the two parts of Henry IV) are listed together; so are they considered here. The poems and the Sonnets are listed separately, all of them with the label “date unknown”.
To contemplate Shakespeare’s output in table form is illuminating. It makes clear, for example, that he experienced a marked decline in popularity towards the end of his career. Of the 15 plays he wrote after 1600, only four (27%) were printed before the First Folio (1623), one of them (Othello) only in 1622, six years after his death. In a striking contrast, of the 20 plays he wrote before 1600, no fewer than eleven (55%) were printed before the First Folio, only one of them (Troylus and Cressida) as late as 1609, seven years before his death.
The biographical essay is not quite on par with Stanley Wells’ General Introduction in the current Penguin Shakespeare series, but for mere four and a half pages (more than twice shorter) it is packed with information. The facts of Shakespeare’s life and the contemporary references to him, such as they are, are told simply and without rhetoric, perhaps a little dryly, but without far-fetched fantasies. Mr Harrison does mention the legendary deer stealing accident and the Bard’s putative occupation as a schoolmaster during his early years, but he makes no bones that neither hypothesis is “universally accepted”. He is satisfied to observe that “it is unlikely that a writer who dramatized such an incomparable range and variety of human kinds and experiences should have spent his early manhood entirely in placid pursuits in a country town.”
The essay on the Elizabethan stage is an even more spectacular example of brevity. In just two pages (the third is occupied by a wonderful reproduction of a wood-engraving by R. J. Beedham of The Globe as reconstructed by J. C. Adams), Mr Harrison gives you a vivid impression of theatre unimaginably different than any modern equivalent. The only curtain was the one covering the backstage, the so-called “tiring house”, which served as the Witches’ cave in Macbeth, Prospero’s cell in The Tempest and other relatively closed spaces; above that there was an upper stage used to represent high places (e.g. Juliet’s balcony, Cleopatra’s monument). The large stage was curtain-less, rather small and extending deep into the audience. The action was extremely quick, with rapid change of scenes that were marked merely by the characters entering or leaving the stage. There was virtually no scenery. Locations were either indicated in the text or suggested by very simple means (e.g. chair for an indoor scene, armour for battlefield, etc.). It is well worth keeping in mind all this while reading Shakespeare’s plays.
The introductions to the different plays chiefly discuss the sources Shakespeare probably used and, briefly in the end, the textual problems a modern editor is faced with. Mr Harrison always finishes with the warning that his text may look unfamiliar to those used to the “accepted text” (at the time of writing), but “it reproduces as closely as possible the text used in Shakespeare’s own playhouse.” The Notes and the Glossary are scholarly and authoritative, often including quotes from rare contemporary works. They make no attempt to leave a single word unexplained, a single phrase unburdened with indirect meaning. The downside is that the editions thus require some basic familiarity with Elizabethan English. The advantage is that Mr Harrison largely leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions. Unlike many other editors, he is not anxious to inflict his own opinions.
For something more than 70 years old, both the texts of the plays themselves and the additional material hold up extremely well. You could do much worse with your introduction to Shakespeare than Penguin Popular Classics (or the old editions from the 1930s to 1950s). Price-for-value-wise, you probably can’t do better. G. B. Harrison was extremely well-versed in the period and an uncommonly fine writer. If you happen to come across his Penguin editions of Shakespeare and find his style appealing, you might want to check Introducing Shakespeare (1939, rev. 1954), Shakespeare’s Tragedies (1951), England in Shakespeare’s Day (1928), Shakespeare at Work (1933), his complete edition of the Bard’s works (1952) or his introduction (1923) to the First Quarto of Hamlet.