The New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (NVS), which began collating previous editions of Romeo and Juliet in 1871, is now published open-access in digital form, beginning with two editions in 2021, and then extending forward (new editors are under contract) and backward to eventually include all the volumes in the series. The digital edition has been designed with three main goals: 1) to teach students and early career researchers the concepts behind variorum editing through interface design as well as tutorials; 2) to enable searching across and within volumes and variants using Modern English and major Act-Scene-Line numbers, returning not only exportable lists, text, and bibliographical citations, but also visualizations demonstrating everything from when characters speak in plays to the evolution of variant histories; and 3) to be interoperable with, and allow access to, other major Shakespeare digital resources including bibliographies of criticism, digital copies of editions published since Shakespeare’s time, images, and videos. Following the practice of state-of-the-art digital humanities projects, we aim to render Shakespeare’s texts and international criticism available world-wide.
The New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (NVS) was founded in Philadelphia in 1871 by the American lawyer Horace Howard Furness, with an edition of Romeo and Juliet. The term variorum alludes to the Latin phrase editio cum notis variorum, that is, “an edition with the notes of the various [editors and commentators],” a phrase indicating the chief purpose of a variorum edition: namely, to collect what has been written by various commentators, critics, and editors. Furness called his edition "New" because there had already been seven earlier variorum editions of Shakespeare, the earliest in 1773, and the latest, before his own, in 1821. By the time he died in 1912, Furness had edited fifteen plays in variorum format, including the major tragedies, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra.
Long before his death, his son had joined him in the work. Horace Howard Furness Jr. edited four plays and was working on Henry V when death took him in 1930. Before his death, Furness Jr. had consulted the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Felix E. Schelling, seeking from among the university’s junior faculty two assistants. Schelling directed him to Matthias Shaaber and Matthew W. Black, who completed Henry IV, Part II, in 1940, and Richard II in 1955 respectively. Thus the series began to be the work of professional academics. Shaaber continued to work on the series and supplied the commentary notes to Richard Knowles's edition of As You Like It (1977).
In 1933 the NVS became an official project of the Modern Languages Association of America (MLA), under the specific direction of an advisory committee and a general editor. The first general editor was Joseph Quincy Adams, first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, who was followed by Hyder E. Rollins and then by James G. McManaway. Neither Adams nor McManaway produced a variorum himself, but Rollins completed editions of both the Poems (1938) and the Sonnets (1944). Besides attending to Shaaber and Black’s editions, these early general editors oversaw editions of Henry IV, Part 1, by Samuel B. Hemingway (1936), and an edition of Troilus and Cressida (1953), by Harold N. Hillebrand and T. W. Baldwin.
After a hiatus following 1955, the NVS surged forward between 1977 and 1990 under the general editorship of Robert K. Turner Jr., soon joined in that role by Richard Knowles, with publication of three editions, As You Like It, Mark Eccles' Measure for Measure (1980), and Marvin Spevack's Antony and Cleopatra (1990).
In 1997, Turner stepped down as a general editor in order to finish the edition of The Winter's Tale with Virginia Westling Haas, published in 2005 as both a book and an electronic edition on CD-ROM, and Paul Werstine joined Knowles as a general editor. In 2011 Standish Henning's edition of The Comedy of Errors was also published as a book and a CD-ROM. In 2020 Knowles's edition of King Lear appeared in two volumes as the last NVS edition to be published by MLA. In 2015, while Lear was at press, Eric Rasmussen joined Knowles and Werstine as a general editor of the series.
In 2017, MLA's Executive Council established a Working Group consisting of Matt Cohen, Julia Flanders, Alan Galey, and Valerie Wayne to find a new publisher for the NVS. The Working Group chose as its Chair Lena Orlin. In 2019 Laura Mandell, Director of the Center of Digital Humanities Research (CoDHR) at Texas A&M University, generously offered to publish the NVS and contracted with Anne Burdick to build a site for the series in order to bring it to the WWW and thereby to a broad audience.
—Dr. Paul Werstine, General Editor