The Arden Shakespeare is one of my favourite things in all of the world. Founded in 1899, the Arden set out to be an exemplary scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s works in single-volume releases. Each work is presented in modern spelling, lavishly edited with dense commentaries and textual notes on the same page as the text, each written by a highly reputable editor. Alongside this, each edition contains an introduction in the ballpark of 150 pages detailing the play’s textual, critical, and performance history, as well as appendices examining the play’s sources, Elizabethan casting charts, and photocopies of other texts in instances like Henry V where there is more than one version of the play printed in Shakespeare’s era. (Not to mention a bibliography to keep you busy until the end of days!)
If you’re after an easy-to-read edition that will help you “see” the play in your mind, I’d really recommend the “New Penguin Shakespeare” (no longer new,
since they came out mid-century), many of which feature the startling illustrations of Paul Hogarth. These editions, and the later Pelican Shakespeare, have a friendlier general approach, with notes (at the end rather than crowding the page) that really help elucidate what’s going on. For the reader who wants to plunge full-throttle into the murky depths of scholarship, though, the Ardens are exhaustive and absorbing.
The first Arden series was published by Methuen between 1899 and 1924. The Second Series began preparation in 1946, after the end of WWII, and was released sporadically up to 1982. (Interestingly, the last of the Second Series was Hamlet, which was the first to be published in the First Series, marking a massive 83 year gap between Arden editions of that play!) The covers of the Second Series are particularly notable, illustrated by the late 20th century artistic school, the Brotherhood of Ruralists. (You can see the complete range at Icknield Indagations.)
Responding to the ever-changing and technologically-enlivened scholarship of the late 20th century, a Third Series was quickly commissioned. This series was inaugurated with Henry V in 1995, and is expected to end its run in 2019. Improving on its predecessors, the Third Series includes, for the first time, The Two Noble Kinsmen, as well as a dense volume on the Sonnets and Poems (apparently omitted from the second), and three plays that stand on the fringes of Shakespearean scholarship, where his involvement is highly debated.
Arden also publishes a range of texts to help students approach the Bard, as well as an impressive line of other early modern plays, and a complete works (which, of course, lacks much of the detailed notes of the individual editions). And, yes, a Fourth Series has been commissioned. The general editors have been announced, and they are now choosing individual volume editors for a beginning release date in the late 2020s.
You can buy the Third Series (and the remaining holdover from the Second, Measure for Measure) at the Bloomsbury website, and I’ve listed an edition history below.