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

De-editing Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Gerald Baker, writes…

I can no longer see William Shakespeare straight, nor feel him any longer on the bone or in the blood. By which I mean that over years (50 last month since I had my first Complete Works) of watching, reading, performing in the plays, and of being in a liberal humanist education (and still today working through a reading list that started when I was 18).

I have been told so many different versions or ideas that I often cannot disentangle my perception or understanding of a scene, or speech, or play, from other people’s reactions. Where I can do so, I find myself querying whether it’s my imagination/sensitivity at fault or merely different.

Case in point: Twelfth Night – for many people their favourite comedy, evoking terms like ‘bittersweet’ or ‘Mozartian’ – for me almost a total blind-spot; toneless, moodless, recycling bits he did better elsewhere (though I very much like the pieces often grouped with it, such as As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing). I know this is a discrepancy, and because I love the companion pieces so much I’m not much bothered about it being a failure or deficiency in me, but I go on giving Twelfth Night chances, attempting to get more from it that I know I can’t find.

And so with others: Coriolanus is firmly on the side of the people, exposing the flaws of the wealthy and individualistic ruling faction; Coriolanus has a proper scorn of the unwashed mob and endorses the virtues and strong leadership of its heroic general. It can’t be both (though it demonstrably is as a script) because Shakespeare the man can’t have been both – everything we know, what little everything there is, tends to place him on the side of the rulers against the people. Therefore the two-sidedness, the multi-facetedness, is a product or function not of Shakespeare’s myriad-mindedness, but of a variety of viewpoints and experiences of the play’s consumers and agents.

Othello is a terrible and poetic tragedy of a noble soul: no, actually, it’s a woman strangled in her marital bed by her bombastic and selfish, brutish husband. Desdemona is the one who undergoes the bloody tragedy, but the script manipulates you to forget or ignore this and foregrounds and privileges the killer. I know this, and nowadays this would not be reckoned a perverse interpretation, but all the time I watch, or read, or think of, Othello, I have this undertow pulling me back of Wilson Knight on “The Othello Music”, of images and reviews of noble Moors and “motiveless malignancy”.

And don’t get me started on Hamlet, and the idealizations and canonizations of the Prince as archetypal modern man, or the “claustrophobia” of Elsinore…

It’s not a universal feeling, and there are still parts of Shakespeare’s work that get to me very directly: the Macbeths immediately after killing Duncan, the moodshift of Marcade’s eleventh-hour irruption (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Lear’s and Timon’s denunciations of how their worlds are organized (King Lear and Timon of Athens), the gracefulness and good humour of As You Like It, the tumbling headlong spillage of images in the language of Antony and Cleopatra. But much doesn’t reach me anymore, and I feel tired, and it feels tired, when we meet.

The delights of Shakespeare are varied and multitudinous, but they are not infinite and he is not comprehensive. Let me suggest that mothers and daughters would not find him very engaged with their interrelated concerns.

Where I am happiest at the moment, and for many years past, with Shakespeare, is on the margins, the bits where there are fewer preconceptions to prejudice or handcuff me: parts of Timon of Athens fascinate me, and I have a disproportionate interest in The Two Noble Kinsmen.

I remember my first postgraduate reading of the May Day scene in Sir Thomas More and being blown away by a new bit of Shakespeare. And as I wrote before, I am trying to make all of this new by going back to facsimiles or lightly edited editions where I can see the scripts unmediated, or much less mediated, at least. And Hamlet makes more sense when you find there’s a case for him being only 18, and one of the greatest but least satisfactory scenes in King Lear (III, vi) is more intelligible when you can see that what we know is in fact a conflation of two quite different scenes in the first two editions of the play.

Scholars and academics have been moving on the margins and “de-editing” Shakespeare for a couple of decades now, at least, but not many of us outside universities have tried scraping the varnish off, I think.

It’s almost as if that whole paramountcy that the First Folio established by preserving 50% of the plays from extinction, and distinguishing Shakespeare by collecting a writer’s plays for the first time,* has actually also made it possible to separate him from his contemporaries, his co-workers and his peers.

What I’m trying to say is that the more I can break Shakespeare down in my head and see him in the same fragmented and partial way we perforce do his fellows, the more I have a direct and personal, excited and engaged, response to the work.


*I know the Folio of Ben Jonson’s work came first, but it wasn’t just plays, and more importantly he collected his work himself, whereas other people did it for Shakespeare.

 Gerald Baker