Voices of Performance in the Collected Works of Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Edmund G. C. King, writes…

Ever since the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays — the First Folio — was printed in 1623, there have been two sets of competing voices present in scholarly editions of his works. The first are the voices of the many theatrical agents — actors, revisers, collaborators — whose words found their way into Shakespeare’s works. The second are the voices of Shakespeare’s editors, who sought to suppress the stylistic imprint of the stage entirely, leaving Shakespeare’s words to stand in their place. The result was something of a paradox — play-texts purged of the theatre, yet interpolated with the argumentative voices of his many subsequent editors, all competing to restore the “authentic” Shakespeare. Anyone who has flicked through the pages of an eighteenth-century “variorum” Shakespeare, with its dizzying array of signed footnotes (which sometimes threaten to crowd out the main text altogether!) has seen this paradox at first hand. In seeking to exclude the theatrical and restore the “authentic” voice of the author, Shakespeare’s early editors ultimately placed themselves — their names and their voices — at the centre of the project.

One of the most pressing concerns of eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare was to identify — and, if possible, to weed out — the contributions of his collaborators, whether dramatists or actors. Alexander Pope in 1725, for instance, identified no fewer than 1,560 lines “unworthy” of Shakespeare that he believed had been foisted into the text by improvising actors or revising “hack” playwrights after Shakespeare’s death. These he cast to the bottom of the page of his edition, relegated to the status of footnotes. Other eighteenth-century editors and commentators were less drastic in their interventions, but no less scathing of the theatre personnel and inferior co-authors they believed had “corrupted” Shakespeare’s text. In 1767, Shakespeare critic Richard Farmer singled out Titus Andronicus as being almost wholly inauthentic, declaring,

I have not the least doubt but this horrible Piece was originally written by the Author of the Lines thrown into the mouth of the Player in Hamlet, and of the Tragedy of Locrine: which likewise from some assistance perhaps given to his Friend, hath been unjustly and ignorantly charged upon Shakespeare.

In Farmer’s view, Shakespeare had only fleetingly revised Titus Andronicus as a favour to its original author (Farmer suspected this had been Thomas Kyd), and anyone who ascribed the play to Shakespeare on that basis was casting an “ignorant” and “unjust” slur upon Shakespeare’s authorial reputation. Other eighteenth-century critics denied Shakespeare’s authorship of Pericles, parts of Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew, and Troilus and Cressida on similar grounds. These scholars saw their task as above all preserving Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation, something that could be harmed by the attribution to him of material — or, in the case of Titus, whole plays — that seemed “inferior.”

No Shakespeare critic would now use the kinds of words Richard Farmer employed against Titus Andronicus. We understand that we should not base our editorial decisions on our own, subjective responses to the texts we work on. But the lengths that eighteenth-century editors went to to “purge” Shakespeare of non-Shakespearean elements should give us pause. A large part of the Shakespearean editorial project has been reclaiming Shakespeare as a literary author and denying — or at least downplaying — the theatrical context from which his plays arose. As we work from the ground up to reconstruct dramatic authorship as it actually was — social, malleable, intensely collaborative — we are realising just how distorting that ideal of singular authorial presence is. Shakespeare’s works were necessarily multivalent, shot through with the voices of actors, revisers, and collaborators. Shakespeare himself was only one of these voices — in the foreground, to be sure, but never entirely a solo presence.

Edmund G. C. King