This candle burns not clear

Andrew Honey, one of the Bodleian’s conservators who worked on the First Folio, writes…

This candle burns not clear: ’tis I must snuff it

Henry VIII, III, ii

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Recent attention has rightly focused on the ‘Bodleian’ copy of the First Folio (Arch. G c.7) but some final checks of the catalogue records, in advance of the images being published, gave me the chance to see the Bodleian’s other copy – the ‘Malone’ (Arch. G c.8). I spent two memorable mornings with Sarah Wheale and Pip Willcox collating the two copies. This involved a leaf-by-leaf comparison of them against each other and against the published descriptions, checking for anomalies and differences.

If the Bodleian copy stands as witness to the early reception of the plays, then the Malone copy marks the start of modern Shakespearean textual scholarship. It belonged to Edmond Malone (1741–1812), the editor of Shakespeare whose unprecedented documentary and textual research led him to consult the early quartos and folios of the plays more thoroughly than any scholar before him in order to establish an authoritative text.

At first sight Malone’s copy, clad in a late eighteenth-century binding that he commissioned, looks more pristine than the well-thumbed but carefully preserved Bodleian copy. Closer examination, however, reveals a greater degree of repair and ‘improvement’. The repairs seem to have been carried out as part of the binding process and some pages are now discoloured in places – probably the result of the partial rinsing (with new bleaching agents that were just starting to be used in this period) to remove blots and annotations from books.

The book has other more mysterious marks which seem to be later than the rebinding.  As we carefully worked though the volume burn holes were spotted in places and groups of round stains could be seen. Surely these cannot have happened after the book entered the Bodleian in 1815, where all readers and staff solemnly swear an oath that they will not “kindle therein any fire or flame” – could they have been caused by Edmond Malone’s nighttime reading?

Unfortunately Edmond Malone did not live to see the ‘snuffless’ candles that emerged in the 1820s with plaited wicks: his nighttime reading would have required constant tending of his candle. Maureen Dillon in her illuminating Artificial Sunshine: a social history of domestic lighting (London: National Trust, 2002) explains that “the best-quality tallow candles could last for at least twenty minutes before snuffing, while the cheapest tallow candles, if a decent flame was to be kept and guttering avoided, needed snuffing every few minutes”.

The burn marks in the Malone copy are small, and appear to be caused by small embers falling onto the opened book and lying there momentarily before being extinguished. Other burn holes, decreasing in size, are found in the leaves underneath the first hole but are not found on the leaves facing the largest hole.

The yellowish round stains have the appearance of wax or tallow and fall as circular spots which have made the paper translucent in places. Could this be evidence of Malone’s distracted management of tallow candles whilst he read? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that he seriously damaged his eye-sight by combing through the corporation archives at Stratford by dim candle-light; his First Folio would seem to suggest that he read it on occasion under similarly difficult lighting conditions.

Andrew Honey (with thanks to Abigail Williams)

Considering Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Paul Kasay, writes…

I used to be relatively confident in my idea of Shakespeare. Or at least I thought there wasn’t much to know, and that seemed almost the same thing as having an opinion. I’m relieved to say I no longer have that kind of confidence. Instead, I have more doubt as to what he meant than ever before: every critic and authoritative text always seeming to offer another lovely contradiction. I’m also more confident in the idea that this kind of doubt is the point.

Much has been said about William Shakespeare: historic analysis from various schools of thought; ideas on the importance of the author; or the importance of his context; or the importance of his later editors; or the influence of his contemporaries. With everything from complex close readings on character intent to the more subtle debates on how to properly act out “Exit, pursued by a bear” (The Winter’s Tale, III, iii). For all that has been said, there are always more words, and always more room for them.

In the end, the questions Shakespeare poses are more powerful when they are considered, not when they are answered: considerations of identity and death, love and folly, the uses of power, and the psychological responses to grief. In every raging soliloquy to every spritely aside, Shakespeare defies the attempts to assign easy morals or quiet conclusions. Whether this is due to the veil of history or the fog of fame or the clear expressions of a master artist, and more than likely it is all of these things, there is always the sense that “this our life exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in everything” (As You Like It, II, i). A good life is, after all, filled with heroes and villains, the ordinary and the complex, and the odd ways they switch roles.

If mystery most properly describes life, then Shakespeare as an artist, and then as a man, comes as close as possible to saying it truly. In the end, he is one of the only authors great enough to encompass it, touching on more than many can consider. Not simplicity in fiction, but a recasting of life recognizable yet elevated, shown for all its potentially brilliant tragedy and oscillating beauty. Even now, Shakespeare seems far more alive than dead, no matter what you thought of him in high school.

Paul Kasay

Teach young babes

Guest blogger, Judith Siefring, writes…

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks

Othello, IV, ii

Like so many of us, I love reading and watching Shakespeare. And like many book-loving parents, I perhaps think a little too much about how to pass on my favourite works to my children. I’m a digital editor at the Bodleian and having had the good fortune to work on the Shakespeare Quartos Archive in 2009, when my son was only two years old, I pondered the question of when to introduce a child to Shakespeare rather earlier than most!

I would often sit at my laptop surrounded by different editions of Hamlet, while my son played happily on the floor beside me. I have a treasured photograph of him absorbed in a paperback Hamlet; any secret desires I may have had to circulate it as evidence of my son’s incipient genius were scuppered by the fact that the book is upside down.

When my son was four, I decided to dip our toes together into Shakespeare in performance by taking him to the wonderful Shakespeare4Kidz production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any doubts I may have had about whether it is possible to make Shakespeare truly appealing for kids were quickly dispelled by a theatre full of children in hysterics at the antics of Puck and company. Well over a year later, my son still talks about “the funny fairy guy”. I must confess, too, to feeling just a tiny bit smug when my boy pointed excitedly at a theatre poster recently at a crowded traffic crossing and bellowed, “Look Mummy – Hamlet!!

Now with the fantastic Sprint for Shakespeare initiative for inspiration, the time might be right to get to work on my two-year-old daughter…

 Judith Siefring

Is Shakespeare in our DNA?

Guest blogger, Professor Martin Maiden, writes…

During my career as a microbiologist I have seen the molecule that I have spent much of my time working on, DNA, become part of popular culture. Phrases such as so-and-so “is in my DNA” are now frequently used and perhaps, sometimes, even vaguely understood.  Although many press announcements describing a “gene for…” are greatly oversimplified, we are increasingly aware of the importance of genetics and inheritance in complex human behaviours and it is fun, as long as we don’t take it too seriously, to speculate on the relationships of nature and nurture in our ability to produce and appreciate art.

If there were a “gene for” appreciating Shakespeare, I would be a good candidate to have inherited it.  Both my parents were great Shakespeare enthusiasts despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that their formal education ended in their early teenage. They went to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the Shakespeare memorial theatre for their honeymoon, and I grew up with our copy of the complete works and a plaster copy of the Stratford statue prominent household possessions.

In the fullness of time, the whole family went on holiday to Stratford to visit the theatre – the first plays I saw there (standing) were King John and Richard II.  The later astonishment of the head of drama at my secondary modern school underlined that this was not a normal school holiday activity.

I was hooked from that time on – I even carried around a copy of the Sonnets (purchased, of course, in Stratford) for a number of years although, the apocryphal act of parliament never having been passed, I read them less often than I aspired to. With my own children approaching teenage, I naturally want them to enjoy Shakespeare too, but am sceptical that I shall be as successful as my parents in passing on my enthusiasm. If there really were a “gene for” this then I wouldn’t have to worry, of course, but perhaps my confidence in genetic determinism, at least for my own children, is not that strong…

I still find Shakespeare’s wide appeal, across time and cultures, remarkable and intriguing. A particular combination of human genes, placed in the environment of late Elizabethan England, resulted in an individual who not only had a remarkable understanding of the emotions and motivations of other, but who was also capable of using the English language to convey those feelings to an audience.

My own enjoyment of the plays is rooted in the reality of his characters: the people who inhabit his plays are the neighbour, the colleague, the person you meet in the supermarket.  Although living at a time when scientific knowledge was rudimentary, Shakespeare accurately observed and described the diversity of feelings and behaviours of human beings in a way that shall remain relevant for as long as our species continues to exist. In the sense of how we are constituted, for me, Shakespeare really does get inside “our DNA”.

Professor Martin Maiden
University of Oxford

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