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

The First Folio: what is left out

Guest blogger, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, writes…

Without the First Folio we would not have almost twenty plays by Shakespeare. The Tempest, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, and many more plays, had not been printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime and are available to us only because of the Folio, and the initiative and ambition of its facilitators John Heminge and Henry Condell. It might seem churlish, then, to comment on what is left out – but it also tells us something about the preferences of the folio-makers, the early modern printing trade, and Shakespeare’s reputation in his lifetime. The first folio does not include Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, Sir Thomas More and Pericles (added in the third folio); these are all now thought to be at least partially by Shakespeare. But more striking than this is the omission of Shakespeare’s poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which were all printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and under his name.

Why was this? One argument is that the Folio is a work composed by actors not poets. Heminge and Condell had known and worked with Shakespeare, and saw him – and wanted the public to see him – as a man of the theatre. But the reason is probably less ideological and more financial. The texts of those plays which had not been published were owned by the group of actors who produced the Folio. The poems, however, had already been published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the right to print them passed hands several times in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the time of the Folio’s creation, the right to print them was owned by Roger Jackson and John Parker (Venus and Adonis and Lucrece), and Thomas Thorpe for Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Before the publication of the folio, and especially in the earlier phase of his career in the 1590s, Shakespeare was more famous for his poetry than his drama, and especially for the titillating classical poem, Venus and Adonis (1593). Instead of praising the characters, plots and action of his drama, early commentators spoke of Shakespeare’s poetic style. In 1598, Francis Meres famously referred to Shakespeare as “mellifluous and honey-tongued … witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets”. John Milton may have been picking up on such praise, his poem in the Folio admires “sweetest Shakespeare fancies childe”. Michael Schoenfeldt has said that “Shakespeare’s greatest publishing success in his lifetime was Venus and Adonis”.

In 1599 the printer William Jaggard cashed in on the success of Shakespeare’s poems by producing a collection which claimed to be by Shakespeare: The Passionate Pilgrim. Jaggard marketed this collection of largely non-Shakespearean verse on the basis of its Shakespearean style, and he included poems that are about Venus and Adonis and also poems in the Venus and Adonis stanza, suggesting the popularity and ubiquity of Shakespeare’s first printed poem and the public appetite for more of the same.

During his lifetime, Shakespeare was a print poet in a way that he was not a print dramatist. There is an irony that the omission of the narrative poems from the Folio was due to their popularity, but it has contributed to them becoming the least popular of all Shakespeare’s works– a trend that is only now being reversed.

Elizabeth Scott-Baumann
University of Leicester

My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.


Celia Smith

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