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The Bard of Everybody

By (May 1, 2007) No Comment

William Shakespeare: Complete Works

Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Modern Library, 2007

Bright and glossy it sits there on the countertop, corpulent, serenely confident of its right to exist: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the collected works of William Shakespeare.

It’s of course a hefty volume, and it’s a handsome production: pretty floral dust jacket, bright white acid-free pages, stoutly sewn binding. The thing’s imprimatur couldn’t be more pristine, the Royal Shakespeare Company being the world’s foremost troupe for interpreting Shakespeare on stage. There are plentiful notes on every page, and they have the full range of complexity, from the simple word-explanations students will find helpful (although there are quite a few more of these than anybody – student or otherwise – would ever need, the editors choosing to err on the side of caution) to the complex textual elucidations about which scholars love to write outraged letters to the Times Literary Supplement.  

Each play comes with its own introduction and synopsis, and the synopses contain oddly clarifying stats like what proportion of each play is in verse and what in prose, who has the most lines, things like that. This is a Modern Library production, after all, and Modern Library has had a long time to learn how to please a general audience.

So the thing is well put together, a perfectly well-formed fat little baby, gurgling and happy to be breathing the fresh air. But this isn’t some cut-rate quickie version of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ – this is a complete Shakespeare, a gigantic firewood-log of a book, and this one is being pushed aggressively by its publisher, with half a dozen copies plopped in the shelves of every chain bookstore in the entire country. It isn’t enough that it just IS – when confronted with a new collected works of Shakespeare, any intelligent reader is entirely justified in asking: Why? Is there a need?

The editors of this new edition, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, are serious men of unquestionable scholarly credentials, and they maintain there is indeed a need. In fact, they maintain their edition fills a need that’s been lacking for three hundred years, a need that’s been either missed, ignored, or deepened by every single Collected Works editor since Nicholas Rowe in 1709.

Their contention is, at heart, refreshingly simple: they maintain that in all those centuries, nobody has created an exhaustively-edited scholarly modern version of the First Folio itself, which they rightly call “the most important single book in the history of world drama.” Instead, their argument goes, editors from Rowe on down have consistently chosen a ‘pick and mix’ approach, hybridizing material from the First Folio with bits and pieces (and occasionally whole scenes) from so-called ‘Quarto’ versions of the plays. Their contention is that this approach has created a centuries-old layer of plaque over the purity of the First Folio itself, and the aim of their edition is to scrape away that plaque and leave the work shining brightly for the first time in four hundred years.

In order to assess the merits of this claim, it will be necessary for us to take a short summarizing foray into one of the darkest hearts of all literary criticism: Shakespearean textual criticism. In all the world, only the Talmud is more of a looney-haunted labyrinth, but we must thread it (however briefly) if we’re to make any sense of the arguments put forth by Bate and Rasmussen.

It all starts with the printing of the First Folio in 1623, although it doesn’t really. In 1623 a big, expensive, complete edition of the works of William Shakespeare was brought forth by William (and then his son Isaac) Jaggard, Edward Blount, John Sethwick, and William Aspley. The edition was edited by John Heminge and Henry Condell, both of whom had been colleagues of Shakespeare in the Chamberlain’s Men and its successor the King’s Men. They brought out their big new edition, which they took pains to characterize as definitive, because by 1623 there were numerous spurious copies of Shakespeare plays in circulation, called Quartos and ranging in critical reliability from ‘good’ to ‘bad.’ In all cases, ‘definitive’ or ‘spurious’ are being judged against the fair copies of the plays themselves as made or authorized by Shakespeare, except Shakespeare apparently never bothered to make many fair copies, which would have forced Heminge and Condell (as well as the more scrupulous renderers of the Quartos) to rely on the author’s manuscript copy of the play, called his ‘foul papers,’ or on the theater’s legible, much-used ‘prompt book’ of the play, if such a thing existed. Heminge and Condell also relied, to one extent or another, on the Quartos available to them, which is why the Jaggards, Blount, Smethwick, and Aspley were involved, since they held the copyrights to the plays published before the First Folio.

Half of Shakespeare’s plays, in other words. Eighteen of the 36 plays contained in the First Folio had been printed in some form or other before its appearance. ‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ ‘As You Like It,’ ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ ‘Coriolanus,’ Cymbeline,’ ‘3 Henry VI’ ‘Henry VIII,’ ‘Julius Caesar,’ ‘King John,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Measure for Measure,’ ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Timon of Athens,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ all
appear only in the First Folio, with no extant earlier versions. Everything else – most famously including ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ – appeared in earlier Quarto versions, with varying degrees of accuracy.

William_Shakespeare_1609Accuracy to what, is the next obvious question, and it has no set answer. Shakespeare wrote his plays in the fluid, heavily collaborative atmosphere of active theater companies (too often editors are tempted to locate this atmosphere exclusively in the 16th century; anyone who’s ever directed a play, in any age, will set you straight on this if needed). These companies were staffed with men who could read an audience’s reactions (though not their souls) as well as Shakespeare could. As a result, the plays themselves were almost certainly in a state of constant flux – being cut for certain venues, being expanded for other venues, etc. Capturing some of these changes into a more or less permanent form would have been the task of the author’s ‘foul papers,’ or the theater’s prompt book, or the theater’s fair copy. All these thing ‘were’ the play, and none of them was. It’s an Aristotelian nightmare.

To this nightmare must be added a near-infinite number of ways for even this multiplicity to be multiplied. To my knowledge Bate and Rasmussen are the first editors of a major Shakespeare edition to suggest that one of these factors was inebriation (ale was always plentiful in printing shops, because urine was commonly used by typesetters to lubricate the leather of the machinery), and that lengthens an already dismaying tally of factors that stand ready to mar the perfection of the First Folio:

– errors of the typesetter made through incompetence

– errors of the typesetters made through drunkenness

– errors of compositors that can be cross-checked against a Quarto version of the particular play

– errors of the compositors on plays unique to the First Folio (the compositor dubbed ‘E’ by scholarly tradition, for instance, came to the project late and made a pig’s breakfast out of the plays on which he worked (a few of which, like ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ don’t exist in Quarto)

– errors in the Quartos due to any number of reasons (poor source material, for instance, or in the case of the portions of some ‘bad’ Quartos reconstructed from actors’ memories, faulty recall)

– errors or inconsistencies in the company’s own fair copies

– errors or inconsistencies in the company’s prompt book

– changes imposed on the company by the Master of Revels for ever-shifting reasons of censorship

– inconsistencies or last minute changes of heart in the author’s ‘foul papers’

– indeterminacy of the contents of those ‘foul papers,’ at least with regard to Shakespeare’s ideal ‘intent’ (at what point do somebody else’s suggestions become the author’s own ideas? at what point does extensive editorial comment become collaboration?)

When we come up for air from these depths, we find ourselves, and we are not the first, both in contempt of such infinitely regressed persnicketyness and in awe of it. What had seemed a laudatory and fairly straightforward idea before – offering a fresh, clean, up-to-date critical version of the First Folio – now seems a hopeless Augean Stable of a task.

Bate and Rasmussen are well aware of this, and theirs is clearly a labor of genuine (albeit exhausted) love. They’re motivated as much out of regard for the priceless treasure that is the First Folio as out of displeasure with nearly four centuries of Shakespearean scholarship.

Nevertheless, their displeasure is sharp enough. They write:

In short, then, all existing Shakespeare editions are deeply flawed: Rowe set editors off down the wrong path and they have not returned.

Or, even more stridently:

To stress again: our claim to originality is that we have edited a real book (the First Folio), not an imaginary construct (‘the plays as they came from Shakespeare’s hand,’ as in the dominant editorial tradition, or ‘the plays as first performed’ as in the revisionist school of editing)

(No idea whether Bate and Rasmussen condoned – or even knew of beforehand – the edition’s dust jacket copy, which screams “The first authoritative, modernized, and corrected edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio in three centuries” … a charitable soul would like to think not, would like to think either of our two editors would have caught the two glaring contradictions in that little blurb)

In light of the fact that the First Folio itself was almost certainly a product of the very same organic, even sensible process of ‘emendation’ that Bate and Rasmussen so stridently condemn, the reader is tempted to feel like a hapless toddler caught in the middle of a protracted custody battle. Our present editors maintain they’re offering – for the first time in centuries, over the lemminglike inactivity of generations of previous editors – the first lovingly edited edition of that most important text of all the world’s drama, the Shakespeare First Folio, and they adamantly insist that they’re only going outside that authority for two reasons: to correct ‘obvious’ printer errors in the various Quartos, and to adhere to ‘editorial tradition’ wherever it ‘makes obvious sense.’

The quickest, most reflexive response to such claims is to look to previous editions of the collected works of Shakespeare, and for the 20th century (which, it’s certainly allowable to conjecture, Bate, Rasmussen, and co. are very pointedly hoping to supplant for the new century) the edition to beat is the Riverside Shakespeare.

Meaning, of course, the second edition of that mighty work, the one overseen by G. Blakemore Evans (the current third edition demonstrates throughout that it is entirely the product of the very latest trends in literary criticism, alas, and so may be dismissed from our considerations), the one so familiar – for good or ill – to so many college students for the last quarter-century. The Riverside is a work of scrupulous and painstaking scholarship; indeed it bears all the marks of being an exemplar of such things. Coming from its exhaustively detailed pages to the edition prepared by Bate and Rasmussen, an edition which all but explicitly says the Riverside (and all other editions) are hopelessly on the wrong track and should be paid very little mind, is a fairly disorienting experience.

The crux of the split happens on the question of emendation, which is the more professional-sounding name the discipline has given to what Bate and Rasmussen refer to as ‘pick and mix.’ Their term – perhaps unconsciously – suggests something cavalier and even a bit random, certainly not terms that could be fairly assigned to either the Riverside or any of the other serious Shakespeare editions produced in the last century. And indeed, our present editors don’t finally seem to know their own minds on the subject: they say they’re doing something nobody’s done in three centuries, that they’re editing the First Folio because it’s an actual book, not the futile fairy tale of ‘the plays as Shakespeare wrote them,’ But they don’t actually do that – the First Folio’s a mess, but it’s not that much of a mess. It contains virtually no stage directions, for instance, and its line-attributions are hugely spotty (actually reading the First Folio in its entirety, reading it before the attentions of Bate and Rasmussen or any other editors except poor hapless Heminge and Condell, the original stooges who started this whole business… well, you end up not only knowing Shakespeare the playwright better in his ways than a legion of biographers have construed him, you also end up liking him for all his preoccupied, slipshod ways). It’s a flawed edition, in other words, an edition its editors – any editors – know ahead of time is deeply flawed. Bate and Rasmussen try to work their way around this:

Like all editors since those of the 1623 First Folio, we have attempted to be more accurate than the First Folio compositors were. Our golden rule has been to follow the Folio whenever it makes sense, but correct it from the Quartos when a Quarto is manifestly correct and the Folio manifestly erroneous. So too with the larger questions of emendation: we follow the Folio whenever it makes sense, but correct it from the editorial tradition when the editorial tradition when the editorial tradition makes sense of what of what is manifestly erroneous in the Folio.

This isn’t, it must be pointed out (however reluctantly) convincing at all. By invoking a catch-all bogeyman such as ‘editorial tradition,’ Bate and Rasmussen get to eat their cake (by grandly decrying Rowe’s ‘pick and mix’ approach and all those who’ve followed it since) and have it too (by citing ‘editorial tradition’ whenever a straightforward editorial approach to the First Folio would yield a result they didn’t like).

William_Mulready_-_OthelloTake one of the two examples they choose to expand upon in their introduction. They draw our attention to the scene in Act One of ‘Othello’ where the tragic Moor, telling the city elders of the time he recounted his heroic exploits to Desdemona. In the ‘good’ Quarto of the play, he says, “She gave me for me pains a world of sighs.” In the First Folio, he says, “She gave me for my pains a world of kisses.”

Needless to say, Bate and Rasmussen decide in favor of the First Folio and go with ‘kisses.’ The Quarto line has a very strong claim to veracity (to the very fleeting extent such a concept can possibly apply), but Bate and Rasmussen justify their choice for two reasons: 1) because the First Folio is their ‘base text,’ (a reason that can either explain a lot or explain virtually nothing at all) and 2) because “a Desdemona who kisses Othello in the imagined pre-action of the play is a stronger, more active and interesting character than one who merely sighs in admiration of his charisma.”

Well, yes and no. ‘Stronger, more active, and more interesting’ to whom, after all? To a Jacobean audience? To a 21st Century audience in the thrall of Kate Beckinsale? To Shakespeare?

That last is the key. Our present editors have snidely eschewed as one of their motivations ‘the plays as they came from Shakespeare’s hand’ – but that same chimera haunts their work nonetheless, and how could it not? We are all children when it comes to Shakespeare: we want nothing more than to talk with him. Bate and Rasmussen imagine themselves approximating this by sticking close to the First Folio, but the Quartos, for all their manifest problems, often derive from Shakespeare at least as ‘accurately’ as the First Folio. ‘Sighs’ is more subtle than ‘kisses,’ more insinuating – in short, more Shakespearean. Surely other well-versed editors are permitted to make such a call without always being in the thrall of Nicholas Rowe?

Ironically, the pugnacity of Bate and Rasmussen’s stand on textual emendation, far from lending their endeavor ‘originality,’ serves mainly to obscure the way in which their edition is unique. Their invention of the ‘running scene’ device is nothing short of revelatory.

They write:

Nowadays, partly under the influence of film, we tend to consider a scene to be a dramatic unit that ends with either a change of imaginary location or a significant passage of time within the narrative. Shakespeare’s fluidity of composition accords well with this convention, so in addition to act and scene numbers we provide a running scene count in the right margin at the beginning of each new scene.

This notation is meant to point out where a scene is essentially still going on, despite the additions or subtractions of personae onstage – where the location and time of events onstage stays the same from one scene to the next. It’s a novel idea, and again and again, it transforms the reader’s sense of the action, often in wonderful, eye-opening ways. This, and the editors’ less traditional, less certain approach to many stage directions (in this edition, they’re often accompanied by question marks), really serves to remind the reader that this edition was compiled under the auspices not of a publishing house but of a working acting company. As Bate
and Rasmussen themselves write, “here, then, is the actors’ Shakespeare.”

A reader can only hope subsequent editions will focus more on this; an updated version, with less aspersions cast on all other scholars (and one featuring more photos from various Royal Shakespeare productions over the years – this present edition has a delightful handful, but it only serves to leave the reader wanting many, many more), would be a welcome thing indeed.

Garrett Handley is a graduate student in the Film Studies program at Northeastern University. This is his first published piece.