“All the Youths of England are on Fire (for Shakespeare)”: Evelyn Smith’s Henry V

Saturday, March 27, 2021


In 1969, Fredson Bowers claimed that most student editions of literary texts, which he called “practical editions,” were “a disgrace,” the result of a process in which “having committed himself to a hack job, some scholar contents himself with writing a general introduction and sends this off to the publisher with a note about the text of some edition that can be reprinted without charge.”[i] And yet, I propose here to review a student edition—specifically, Evelyn Smith’s 1927 edition of  Henry V. How can such a thing be worthy of review alongside luminaries of twentieth-century bibliography such as Alfred Pollard and Percy Simpson? Although Bowers acknowledged the “certain small contribution to scholarship” made by a few useful practical editions, he cautioned us that we should not, under any circumstances, “confuse them with the real thing […] An editor who thinks that he is really establishing a text when working on a practical basis is deluding himself and his readers.”[ii]

 And this is the crux of the matter. For Bowers, editing was about establishing a text. It was the be-all end-all, the apotheosis, the quintessence of editing.

 But what about when it isn’t?

 Without question, the text is important in a student edition, but it cannot reasonably be claimed that an editor needs to carry out extensive, original textual work in order to produce a good student edition. Student editions exist in a nebulous interstitial space between public- and academia-oriented scholarship, and as a result, they tend to be damned if they do, damned if they don’t—while Bowers complained about school editors’ lackadaisical approach, late-twentieth-century school editor Rex Gibson claims that older school editions failed because they “thoughtlessly imitated scholarly editions.”[iii] While Bowers’s “practical text” nomenclature possesses patronizing undertones, it also reflects an important reality. A student edition is intended to fulfil a specific function; therefore, its resulting form cannot be evaluated in isolation from that context. If that is the case, then on what basis is it possible to review an edition that simply was not intended for the reviewer? Although the actual student-use experience is difficult to quantify retrospectively, I suggest evaluating based on intended use—understanding what the editor was trying to accomplish and judging how well the edition met those goals. This is not a novel concept, but it has not always been applied thoroughly. Rex Gibson, for example, overgeneralizes in his denunciation of older school editions, particularly in his claim that those editions were designed “with scant regard for the needs, aptitudes, or interests of school students.”[iv]

With this criticism in mind, let us turn to Evelyn Smith’s edition of Henry V. A graduate of Royal Holloway, Smith (1885-1928) taught literature at Glasgow High School.[v] Over the course of five years, she edited twelve of Shakespeare’s plays for Thomas Nelson and Sons’ Teaching of English Series, under the general editorship of Henry Newbolt.[vi] Before the series commenced, Henry Newbolt led a government commission investigating how English literature was being taught in English schools. The resulting 1921 Newbolt Report on English Education painstakingly laid out suggestions to improve the study of literature from all angles, including student editions of classic texts. The Teaching of English Series seems intended to demonstrate how the Report’s principles could be put into practice.

Here is what Evelyn Smith (and Newbolt) hoped to accomplish in her edition. The Report advocated fewer annotations in student editions of Shakespeare in the belief that “extensive annotation will not remove the impediments” to understanding archaic language; rather, it would “actually add more.”[vii] Correspondingly, the Teaching of English Series’ preface explains that the series’ overall goal is “to make the reading of Shakespeare’s plays as easy and straightforward as possible.”[viii] The Report’s recommendation for fewer notes did not mandate the erasure of all philological and grammatical notes in a student edition, however, and, judging from her other writing, Smith seemed to agree that some “boring” details were necessary. Smith’s best-remembered works are girls’ school novels. These include The First Fifth Form, in which a teacher and her students have an exchange about the best way to learn Shakespeare. One student asks, “[d]on’t you think it spoils Shakespeare […] learning all those dull old notes and dull meanings of words?” Her teacher confidently replies, “your powers of appreciation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth won’t be blasted forever because you know what the words he uses mean.”[ix]

Therefore, while glossarial notes were “reduced to the smallest compass,” some on-page notation remained, and additional critical information and context were available in an introduction and appendices on Shakespeare, his career, and early modern drama. The introduction also included information on historical costumes and props that would be appropriate for staging. This was consistent with the priorities of the Newbolt report, which included an entire section on the importance of incorporating reading, writing, and performing drama into the English curriculum. After all, the report claimed, the most important function of a literary education is “to teach young men and women the use of leisure,” and “the sooner a child becomes familiar with the best forms of theatrical amusement the less likely he is to be attracted by the worst.”[x] In other words, the sooner a child learns to enjoy Shakespeare, the less likely he is to get lured into burlesque shows and music halls as an adult. As a result, multiple questions in Smith’s editions addressed classroom reading, performance, and creative writing, as well as performance history. In Henry V, Smith explained Coleridge’s idea of writing plays about every English king not covered by Shakespeare and establishing a national tradition of performing the complete sequence every year at Christmas.[xi] In this vein, Smith directed students to choose a king, outline a play about his reign, and write an act or scene of the proposed drama.[xii] Again, this was consistent with Smith’s pedagogy—her publications included volumes of abridged plays for classroom performance and The First Fifth Form includes both classroom recitation and a form-room play assignment.

The Coleridge prompt also introduces one of the more abstract, but most insidious, goals of the Newbolt Report. In Great Britain, the teaching of English language and literature had been deeply invested in the development of “English” national identity and culture since at least the 1880s, a reaction to the anxiety caused by issues such as poverty, property ownership, reform, Irish unrest, and overseas military actions putting pressure on social and political structures in England.[xiii] By 1921, the pressures of the 1880s had evolved but not abated; no surprise, then, to find the Newbolt Report demanding an increased focus on the study of English, which it identified as “the main source of culture of the millions of English-speaking men and women in the British Empire,” able to “form a new element of national unity, linking together the mental life of all classes by experiences which have hitherto been the privilege of a limited section.”[xiv] Although, as we shall see, Evelyn Smith injected some nuanced commentary on militarism and patriotism into her notes, her edition of Henry V must always be considered within this context.

The Coleridge prompt appears in the edition’s questions and activities section, which is consistently the best component in all of Smith’s editions. Entitled “On Thinking It Over” in Henry V, she divided the questions into “Preliminary Exercises” and “Further Notes and Queries,” which were intended for more advanced students, such as those preparing for local examinations. Rex Gibson complains about the inclusion of sample examination questions in old school editions, claiming that it reflects a “pedagogy of explanation” in which “the student’s task became the reproduction of ‘expert’ knowledge.”[xv] The Newbolt Report acknowledged and enumerated the challenges and dangers of compulsory exams on literature, but concluded that “for good or ill the examination system is with us,” and that they therefore had a duty to suggest best practices.[xvi] To that end, the Report discussed numerous facets of examinations, including the formation of questions, suggesting that questions “looking beyond the books definitely prescribed for study” would assist the teacher “in communicating experience, suggesting fresh ideas and exposing stereotyped methods.”[xvii] For her edition of Henry V, Smith drew on a cataclysmic event still shaping the world she lived in—the First World War.

Even before the war ended, teachers like Caroline Spurgeon, another author of the Newbolt Report, urged their colleagues to consider how to harness the public’s burgeoning interest in war poetry to spark students’ enthusiasm.[xviii] With this in mind, Smith posed questions connecting Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry’s war in France with the recent war in Europe. Through the juxtaposition of contemporary war poetry and Henry V, Smith attempted not only to draw parallels between the play and modern events, but also to foster in students a greater understanding of the recent conflict.

In the wake of the Great War, Henry V, with its stirring martial speeches and portrayal of a warrior king, exemplified the heroic view of the national past that became a target of bitterness and cynicism after the war. “Debunking the past,” Raphael Samuel suggests, “was a kind of national sport in the 1920s, a way perhaps of anaesthetizing the pain for those [...] who had walked the fields of death, and for others, marking a break with their elders and betters.”[xix] At the beginning of the war, many had employed Henry V as a rallying cry to stir emotions and increase patriotic fervor.[xx] In contrast, by 1919, poet and critic Gerald Gould, who had worked in the official propaganda department during the war, contended that Henry V was “a satire on monarchical government, on imperialism, on the baser kinds of ‘patriotism,’ and on war.”[xxi]

While Smith’s questions were structurally designed to inspire insight in her readers, rather than to dictate interpretation, her choice of poets and critics might reflect an attempt to hint at anti-war sentiment while trying to avoid imposing ideology too directly. Her first upper-level question immediately sets out her critical agenda, encouraging students to consider the play not just in terms of literary value, but of political symbolism:

On August 4, 1914, the day war was declared by Great Britain against Germany and Austria, an alteration was made in the programme of the Shakespearean festival season at Stratford-on-Avon, and Henry V. was played at the Memorial Theatre that night. From your knowledge of the play show fully why this choice was made.[xxii]

If this question is perhaps implicitly jingoistic, inviting essays on the power of the play to inspire heroism and nationalistic fervor, it nonetheless insists on the contemporary political force of Shakespeare’s works and invites students to reflect on their institutional operations. It also leaves open the possibility for cynical, pragmatic answers. She begins introducing war poetry with an example of the war’s earliest literary outputs:

You may not remember what it was like to be a nation at war, but you are living with people who remember it well, and you have read poetry which was written by fighting men, and has all the value of sincerity. There is in all men a spirit which responds to the demand for superhuman exertion, to the promise of honour; a spirit which, in men who were poets, expresses itself as in those splendid last lines of Rupert Brooke’s sonnet called The Dead […] Where, in Henry V., do you find the praise of honour, praise to which humanity can never remain unresponsive?[xxiii]

Although Rupert Brooke’s idealistic poems were popular, he gradually came to be seen to represent the naïveté and unthinking patriotism of the pre-Somme years.[xxiv] Smith’s description of the verse as possessing “the value of sincerity” is carefully chosen—"sincerity” implies a subjective, but not necessarily objective, truth.

In Brooke’s defense, his idealism never had a chance to be tarnished; he died from an infected mosquito bite on his lip in 1915, having never engaged in the trench warfare that scarred so many of his fellow poets and soldiers. To temper it, Smith placed Brooke’s call to glory alongside the work of poets who experienced the true horrors of the war:

Read some of the war poetry that you will find in the third and fourth ‘Georgian books’ and elsewhere, and compare and contrast the attitude of the twentieth century man and the Elizabethan towards war. Read Wilfred [sic] Wilson Gibson’s Battle […] the poems of Siegfried Sassoon […] Compare The Assault, by Robert Nichols, with Shakespeare’s picture of the storming of Harfleur in Henry V., Act III.[xxv]

Of these three, Siegfried Sassoon in particular was known for his anger about the war, while Robert Nichols and Wilfrid Gibson both attempted realistic “trench lyrics.”[xxvi] Wilfrid Gibson was unable to enlist due to poor eyesight, but Sassoon and Nichols were both treated for shellshock, and Sassoon wrote a well-publicized letter to Parliament protesting the war in 1917. Their more experience-driven poetry provided a counterbalance to the emotive patriotism of Brooke’s work.

Nevertheless, Smith confined her references to the “Georgian” poets, avoiding the more overt brutality and cynicism of poets like Wilfred Owen, thereby reinforcing the sense that she was aiming for a diluted anti-war sentiment, rather than a full-throated pacifist stance. She structured many questions in accordance with the Newbolt Report’s position that a good question “itself offers a criticism and asks the candidate to refute or confirm it from the evidence of his own reading.”[xxvii] For this format, Smith quoted numerous writers who hated Henry V (e.g., George Bernard Shaw) or who defied simplistic conceptions of war, patriotism, and courage (e.g., Montaigne). She asked readers if they considered Hazlitt’s description of Henry as a dissolute, cynical war-monger “a fair description of the character of Henry.”[xxviii] She excerpted Bertrand Russell at length, contrasting his concerns about how patriotism, when untempered by empathy for humanity as a whole, becomes “a source of hatred for other countries” with Coleridge’s denunciation of “mock cosmopolitanism” which “really implies nothing but a negation of, or indifference to, the particular love of our country.”[xxix] She sometimes abandoned more subtle probing in favor of provocation, as in Question 26: “It has been said that [Henry V] shows both the best and the worst of the English spirit. Discuss the truth of this.”[xxx]

Gibson dismisses the practice of extensively citing critics as “name-dropping […] pseudo-scholarship” that privileges the thoughts of critics over both the play itself and the students’ opinions and feelings.[xxxi] While perhaps inconsistent with modern pedagogy, Smith made the best of her period’s conventions by converting citations into provocative questions. According to the Newbolt Report’s interpretation, an examiner’s questions must necessarily “ask for knowledge, but it must be knowledge which matters, which counts towards appreciation, towards seeing a work as a whole.”[xxxii] Smith’s wide-ranging, holistic questions put the report’s aspirations and pedagogical theories into practice.

Smith’s methods and goals, as illustrated in her edition and elucidated in the Report, resemble those of modern school editors to a remarkable degree. Even though the advent of digital editions and classroom resources has shifted pedagogical paradigms significantly, some of the topics discussed in the Newbolt report remain relevant today, such as the effects of standardized tests on curriculum development and teaching.[xxxiii] Over the course of examining innumerable school editions, I have often noted down methods or questions to use in my own teaching. Like many modern teachers and school editors, Smith deployed modern parallels, minimized notes, and developed active learning methods to engage students’ interest and attention. Many of her prompts could be adapted for use in a modern classroom or new student edition and finding points of consistency in editions written a hundred years apart has helped me narrow in on particularly effective approaches. Perhaps surprisingly, for example, the point of greatest similarity between Smith’s editions and Rex Gibson’s modern Cambridge School Shakespeare series is the presentation of textual issues. Like the Cambridge School editors, Smith offered quarto and folio variants as questions rather than lists, challenging students to position themselves as editors and to make their own judgements, and providing an active, interesting framework to introduce fraught, often obscure textual issues.[xxxiv]

The value of historical school editions rests not on any proleptic modernity, however, but in their potential to make us better teachers and editors, even if only by clarifying what not to do. Beyond that, they force us to consider the editorial task from a different perspective, an exercise that could influence current editorial and bibliographical practices, helping to build, in Kate Ozment’s words, “a feminist approach [to bibliography] [that] knits a narrative of book history through librarianship, book collecting, and textual editing alongside the traditional space of bibliography.”[xxxv] So while this is, ostensibly, an untimely review of Evelyn Smith’s 1927 edition of Henry V, this is also a call to review the entire genre of early student editions of Shakespeare.


[i] Fredson Bowers, “Practical Texts and Definitive Editions,” in Essays in Bibliography, Text, and Editing (Charlottesville, Va.: Published for the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia by the University Press of Virginia, 1975), pp. 412–39 (p. 416).

[ii] Bowers, p. 419.

[iii] Rex Gibson, “Editing Shakespeare for School Students,” in Problems of Editing, ed. by Christa Jansohn (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999), pp. 180–99 (p. 183).

[iv] Gibson, pp. 193, 182.

[v] Hilary Clare, “Evelyn Smith, Part 1,” Folly, November 1995, pp. 1–5.

[vi] For more on women editors, see my forthcoming book Shakespeare’s ‘Lady Editors’: A New History of the Shakespearean Text (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[vii] The Teaching of English in England. Report of the Departmental Committee Appointed by the President of the Board of Education to Inquire into the Position of English in the Educational System of England. (London: Board of Education, 1921), p. 312. (Hereafter called The Newbolt Report.)

[viii] William Shakespeare and Evelyn Smith, Shakespeare’s King Henry V, Teaching of English Series, 114 (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1927), p. v.

[ix] Evelyn Smith, The First Fifth Form (London: Blackie & Son, 1926), pp. 57–59.

[x] The Newbolt Report, p. 315.

[xi] The mind boggles.

[xii] Shakespeare and Smith, p. 192.

[xiii] John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 179. For more on national identity and teaching during this period, see John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 179. See also Kate Harvey, “Shakespeare’s History Plays and Nationhood in Children’s Literature and Education,” in Children’s Literature on the Move: Nations, Translations, Migrations, ed. Nora Maguire and Beth Rodgers (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013), Peter Yeandle, “Englishness in Retrospect: Rewriting the National Past for the Children of the English Working Classes, c. 1880–1919,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 6, no. 2 (September 1, 2006): 9–26, and Stephen Heathorn, For Home, Country, and Race: Gender, Class, and Englishness in the Elementary School, 1880-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

[xiv] The Newbolt Report, pp. 247, 15.

[xv] Gibson, p. 183.

[xvi] The Newbolt Report, p. 301.

[xvii] The Newbolt Report, p. 305.

[xviii] Caroline F.E. Spurgeon, Poetry in the Light of War (London: The English Association, 1917).

[xix] Raphael Samuel, Island Stories: Unravelling Britain. Volume II, Theatres of Memory, ed. by Alison Light, Sally Alexander, and Gareth Stedman Jones (London, New York: Verso, 1998), p. 211.

[xx] Paul Brown, “Stealing Soldiers’ Hearts: Appropriating Henry V and Marching Shakespeare’s Boys off to The Great War,” Vides, III (2015), 11 (p. 34); Catherine Alexander, “Shakespeare and War: A Reflection on Instances of Dramatic Production, Appropriation, and Celebration,” Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 1.2 (2014), 279–96 (pp. 288–89); Lynne W. Hinojosa, The Renaissance, English Cultural Nationalism, and Modernism, 1860-1920 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 168.

[xxi] Gerald Gould, “A New Reading of Henry V,” The English Review, 1919, 42–55; Brown, p. 35.

[xxii] Shakespeare and Smith, p. 171.

[xxiii] Shakespeare and Smith, pp. 172–73.

[xxiv] Elizabeth Vandiver, “Early Poets of the First World War.” in The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War, pp. 69–80.

[xxv] Shakespeare and Smith, p. 173.

[xxvi] Vandiver; Sarah Cole, “Siegfried Sassoon” and Mark Rawlinson, “Later Poets of the First World War,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War, pp. 94–104 and 81–93.

[xxvii] The Newbolt Report, p. 305.

[xxviii] Shakespeare and Smith, pp. 176–77.

[xxix] Shakespeare and Smith, pp. 174–75.

[xxx] Shakespeare and Smith, p. 182.

[xxxi] Gibson, p. 197.

[xxxii] The Newbolt Report, p. 308.

[xxxiii] The writers of the Newbolt report deplored the practice of “teaching to the test” and sought ways in which testing and teaching could co-exist “with no subserviency on the part of the teaching”. The Newbolt Report, p. 302.

[xxxiv] For more on women editors who deployed this tactic, see my chapter on Katharine Lee Bates and school editions in Women’s Labour and the History of the Book in Early Modern England (ed. Valerie Wayne, Bloomsbury Arden, 2020).

[xxxv] Kate Ozment, “Rationale for Feminist Bibliography.” Textual Cultures, vol. 13, no. 1, Apr. 2020, pp. 149–78 (p. 172).