It is an excellent principle, in literature as in life, to judge a book by its cover; and there is much to be learned from the appearance of the new Oxford Middleton. Even as the blurb declares that Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino's monumental collection is 'based on the award-winning design of the Oxford Shakespeare', the binding and dust jacket defiantly proclaim its difference from that distinguished model. The Shakespeare was bound in the press's traditional Oxford blue, its spine adorned with the familiar gilt coat of arms; the Middleton is clad in unornamented black, suggesting a sly homage to the author's early prose satire The Black Book, with its sardonic farewell to the reader: 'Now sir, what is your censure now? You have read me, I am sure. Am I black enough, think you, dressed up in a lasting suit of ink?' The binding's colour is well fitted to the dark humour of this cynical puritan, and its disdain for heraldic ornament nicely mirrors Taylor's invitation to the reader to join 'the republic of Middleton', with its dig at the regal bard. This, we are being reminded, is as much a work of radical revisionism as of conventional literary piety.
LRB 4 December 2008 | PDF Download