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

Conservation Diary — Day 9

Nicole Gilroy writes…

The final intact bifolium, before treatment

The final intact bifolium, before treatment

We are coming to the end of the treatment needed.

The final bifolium of the book had shifted out of position and protruded from the edge, causing damage to the corner.

The book's final intact bifolium, during work

Nicole Gilroy and Julie Sommerfeldt work on the book’s final intact bifolium

The final intact bifolium, after treatment

The final intact bifolium, after treatment

We have relaxed the spine fold and repositioned the bifolium so that the edges are back within the textblock and in their proper position.

We have also evaluated the success of our splint repairs and are pleased with the way that they allow the leaves to flex properly again.

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus before splint repairs

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus before splint repairs

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus after splint repairs

Final leaf of Titus Andronicus after splint repairs

Last leaf after treatment

Last leaf after treatment

The 3 detached leaves of Cymbeline (around the re-positioned bifolium) will be replaced in position, loose, at the back of the book. In our usual work, we would re-attach loose leaves, repairing the torn spine folds and hinging the loose leaves back into position. But we felt that such repair was undesirable in this case, and would stand out against the minimal approach to the rest of the volume, so they will remain loose. As the book will not be handled by readers as an ordinary book would be, the risks of unattached leaves can be balanced with the principle of minimal interference.

Some Lines from King John

Guest blogger, Jonathan Blaney, writes…

I was interested to hear that King John is, from the evidence of wear, the least read of the plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio. For me, it contains the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare’s writing. When Constance is separated from her son, Arthur, she says:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

King John, III, iii. 93-7

The play is often dated to 1596. The Arden edition, edited by Honigmann, remarks tersely of this passage: “Some edd. think Shakespeare remembers the death of his son Hamnet, ob. 1596.”

It’s a benefit of not being a Shakespeare scholar to be able to say, “of course he’s remembering Hamnet”. The writing in this part of the play, quite drab by Shakespeare’s standards, briefly takes wing. It’s incongruous and deeply felt. As long as the dating is correct, then of course it’s about Hamnet.

The curious thing is that at this point in the play Arthur is not dead. It seems to me that very often in Shakespeare death is attended by some kind of misprision: Lear thinks Cordelia is alive but she is dead; Romeo thinks Juliet is dead but she is alive. And death frequently strikes blindly, as though through an arras: Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius but he’s killing Polonius; Claudius thinks he is killing Hamlet but he’s killing Gertrude. Most insistently, Shakespeare works away obsessively at the idea that characters thought to be dead are, in various ways, redeemed from death and restored by drama: Imogen, Ferdinand, Perdita and Marina are just the most explicit examples, as if in the late plays Shakespeare allowed himself licence to write about what interested him most.

I cannot help noticing that after the restoration of the nuclear family in The Winter’s Tale one character is not brought back to the life of Leontes: his son Mamillius, who was perhaps the age of Arthur and of Hamnet.

It may be that I am just partial to such scenes: nothing in Henry V stays in my mind except the death of Falstaff. Or it may be that, as the poet (and wonderful Shakespeare translator) Paul Celan wrote shortly before his own death, “when is great poetry not about last things?”

Jonathan Blaney