La Pléiade

In the spirit of fairness and balance, after my ode to an American magazine, I would like now to mention my admiration for one of the great achievements of the French publishing world: La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. This is one of the collections edited by Gallimard, maybe the greatest French publishing house, which is dedicated to producing definitive editions of the best of the world’s literature. There is a strong emphasis on French-language writers, of course (including thirteen volumes of Voltaire’s correspondance), but by no means an exclusivity (as can be seen in the catalogue: note Spanish-language writers, such as Borgès, Russian masters like Dostoievski, Boulgakov or Tolstoy, Italian writers like Machiavelli, and of course many English-speaking ones, such as Faulkner, Melville or the Brontë family). This is one of the great differences with the natural reference point in the American world, the Library of America. The other main difference is that, besides the text itself, the Pléiade aims to provide extensive (sometimes exhaustive) editorial information on the author and the work, with notes, introductions and discussions, bibliographies, sometimes early versions or other relevant sources, etc. The books themselves (like those of the Library of America) are beautifully produced, on the thinnest paper (papier bible), so each volume is routinely longer than 1000 pages without being much bigger or heavier than a (fairly fat) paperback. The font is the elegant Garamond, with its intricate ligatures.

Being in Paris earlier this week, I visited one of the many bookstores, and noticed that the second part of the new complete Pléiade edition of Shakespeare’s works, the Histories, had just appeared; I therefore snatched the two volumes without more ado, to add to the Tragedies which were published a few years ago.

Now, it might seem slightly ridiculous to spend a lot of money on a French edition of Shakespeare (however beautiful the italic font in the scenic indications), and this was a valid criticism of the earlier edition (dating to the 1950’s), but the new one is in fact bilingual. And I will venture the opinion that reading Shakespeare in a bilingual version makes very good sense: one can try to read the “original” version as much as possible, but in case the syntax or grammar becomes decidedly perplexing on the page, the translation gives a backup. If the translation is written from the point of view of actual theatrical experience, then the solutions which are offered to the many ambiguities in the texts (which can most often not be fully translated) are likely to make more sense and to flow more smoothly than isolated glosses or paraphrases in footnotes, even if they can not convey all the possible meanings. In the new Pléiade edition, the main translator is Jean-Michel Déprats, and most of the translations were indeed used for actual representations in France before they appeared; so even if one can not always be sure of reading Shakespeare’s intended meaning, at least one gets something which may be the next best thing: some well-defined meaning, coming from a writer with enormous theatrical experience. And I’m sure that anyone who has seen a few plays of Shakespeare on the stage knows how different the experience may be from reading them. (My personal favorite memory is a magical version of The Tempest in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, in Paris, directed by Peter Brook in 1990, in a translation of J-C. Carrière).

Now, lest any scholar of the Elizabethan theatre jump on my word “original” in the previous paragraphs, I emphasize the quotation marks: just as in any modern English edition, there has, very often, been a real choice of which text to use (Good Quarto, Bad Quarto, First Folio, and what you will). The whole history behind those various versions can be quite fascinating, and the very detailed notes explain which was used, what principles were applied in terms of localized corrections, etc: again, very solid scholarship comparable to those detailed editions one can find in English. There is also a separate genealogical tree of the relevant Kings, Queens, Princes, Princesses, Dukes, and other divers Noblemen and Noblewomen, included in the first volume of the Histories, which is certainly quite useful…

Here’s a picture of the two-volume Histories:

Shakespeare’s Histories in the Pléiade edition

and here’s one of the text of Richard III:

A page from Richard III

and the genealogical tree:


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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

6 thoughts on “La Pléiade”

  1. Dear Pléiadiste,
    your enthusiasm is thoroughly justified, although I do not wholeheartedly share your admiration for Garamond:
    its ligature over the sequence”st” for example really annoys me .
    I am amazed that you find the books expensive(“it might seem slightly ridiculous to spend a lot of money on a French edition of Shakespeare”).
    They cost an average of 53 euros per volume: what fraction of your salary is that?
    And what can you buy today at that price (or even at a much larger one), that you will be able to enjoy in forty years?
    Anyway,I wish you a hundred years of (sporadic) solitude with La Pléiade.

  2. Today, yes, I can easily afford to buy such books, but it wasn’t really so when I was a graduate student, for instance… And not everyone is as lucky as me.

  3. I share your appreciation for the Pléiade collection. However, are you certain that the font used is Garamond? Some publishers identify the font used, often on the copyright page, but this series does not.

    The reason I ask is that I would like to use the Pléiade font for a book I am designing. I find that Caslon includes all the ligatures — not only ff, fl, fi, ffl, and ffi, but the beautiful ct and st ligatures with their hairline loops as well. I do not find these ligatures on any Garamond font that I can locate.

    If it is indeed Garamond, do you know of a source for the complete font, including the ligatures?


    1. You are right, I remembered that the font is Garamond but the books do not say so.
      I think a friend of mine probably knows which font it is, or indeed which possibly different one has the ligatures you mention. I will ask him and add another comment once I have the answer

  4. From looking at samples of the Caslon font, I think it’s more than likely that this is the font used in the Pléiade. (For instance, the very long tail of the capital Q seems characteristic).

  5. The font used in the Pléiade is Garamond. No doubt about it. Gallimard used the Monotype Garamond as a model and created the 43 missing ligatures, which is why you cannot find a digital versions which is similar. The closer digital version is Monotype Garamond, especially if you look at the italics and compare:

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