HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureShakespeare’s concerns don’t always coincide with ours

Shakespeare’s concerns don’t always coincide with ours

Stephen Orgel is interested in books: continental books, illustrated books, Caxton’s books, editors’ creation of books. He is also interested in plays: Edward Gordon Craig’s collaboration with Stanislavsky, contemporary Shakespeare performance in Italy and Santa Cruz, early-modern audience responses to Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Othello. But throughout The Invention of Shakespeare, Orgel is adamant that a/the book is not the play. These essays, written over thirty years, have an argumentative throughline that makes this a more integrated volume than the author’s previous collections, as he demonstrates the varied ways in which plays are mutable: “composition and revision was unsystematic and piecemeal”; “no version of a Shakespeare play is ever a final version”. The “invention” of the book’s title is about the way editors, critics and eras give a fixed identity to a figure we confidently but misleadingly identify as “Shakespeare”.

Orgel writes with elegant common sense, though, as he acknowledges, common sense is “culturally specific”. He biopsies culturally specific moments, from sixteenth-century audience responses to editorial assumptions, approaching them, initially, through performance: “tastes change, and theater is the great barometer of taste”. The greatest international theatre success in Shakespeare’s day was not Hamlet (that was a nineteenth-century invention), but “a comedy we care nothing about”: the anonymous Nobody and Somebody. In England the most popular plays on stage in Shakespeare’s lifetime were Titus Andronicus and Pericles.

But if audiences are barometers of taste, so too are readers. Only after the Restoration did Shakespeare become marketable as a playwright; early-modern readers knew Shakespeare as a poet. (Wearing his general editor’s hat, Orgel points out that the narrative poems are low-sellers in his Pelican series.) But even in the Elizabethan period “Shakespeare” is not easily identifiable. Robert Allott’s commonplace collectionEngland’s Parnassus (1600) attributes John of Gaunt’s dying speech to Michael Drayton. As Orgel observes, “Shakespeare does not sound to us like Drayton … but in 1600, at least to one reader, he did”. Similarly, A Lover’s Complaint, at the end of the sonnets, “may well have sounded like Shakespeare to Thorpe [the publisher]”. What sounds like Shakespeare is no more stable than is the text of Shakespeare.

It is editors who try to stabilize this flux, and Orgel queries cherished assumptions (“what I cannot understand I suppose unintelligible”, Dr Johnson writes). Here he makes his most irreverent claim: that aspects of Shakespeare’s plays were unintelligible to the original audience. He cites, via Abby Warburg, evidence from Italian entertainments where erudite audiences were baffled. It is the editorial tradition, he says, that has made us want paraphrasable meaning and led us to assume that intelligibility is the bottom line. (He provocatively suggests that emendation is a form of forgery in that it claims to “represent Shakespeare’s lost original”.) He finds a parallel in theatre history with Beerbohm Tree’s insertion of a Magna Carta scene in his production of King John. Explaining and correcting Shakespeare, constructing drama as history, does more than “correct” Shakespeare: it acknowledges that “Shakespeare’s concerns often do not simply coincide with ours”. This book’s title could have been Shakespeare: Not our contemporary.

Throughout these essays we are treated to Orgel’s brilliance as a literary critic and close reader. He moves not just effortlessly but analogously from material books – a study of blanks, lacunae, the empty parentheses at the end of sonnet 126 – to Iago’s last line in Othello as the dramatic equivalent of empty brackets – “What you know, you know / From this time forth I never will speak word”. Twelfth Night and Hamlet, written in the same year, are often linked, but rarely as perceptively as in this throwaway remark: “In Hamlet … the notion that brothers might be erotically interchangeable is the precipitating subject of the tragedy; the chronicles of Olivia’s effortless change of heart is the real play within the play in Hamlet”.

In a chapter on Romeo and Juliet (Q1 1597, Q2 1599) we see the underpinning of Orgel’s argument that texts are always under construction. In Q1 “[t]wo houshold Friends” move from “civil broils to uncivil ones”; Capulet’s guest list, with the inclusion of Mercutio, suggests that Q1 is “not about inveterate enmity, but about friends becoming enemies and enemies becoming lovers”. But Q2’s Chorus to Act II (not in Q1) links with the play’s source in Arthur Brooke’s long poem. This leads Orgel to the textual conundrum that “each of the texts is in some respects prior to the other”.

Whereas Orgel can build his argument by tacking across essays, Suzanne Gossett tackles her subject chronologically in Shakespeare and Textual Theory, a volume aimed at students new to textual studies. This she does admirably, beginning with obligatory explanations about the Elizabeth printing and publishing industry, then increasingly cross-weaving in nuanced ways.

Part One covers the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, Part Two is devoted to the twentieth. With Part Three, “Current Debates”, the book becomes less a dutiful rehearsal and more interrogative, partly because the author’s expertise as an editor enables her to pose the practical problems editors confront when turning theory into an edition.

As with Orgel, Gossett’s theme is the creation of Shakespeare: “what do we mean when we say ‘Shakespeare’?”. Whereas for Orgel the text is not Shakespeare, Gossett, like Shakespeare’s Portia, accepts muddy vesture: “there is no Shakespeare without text”, she begins. Consequently, she reminds us, the author is created by publication. The sonnets in Benson’s edition of 1640 may be Shakespeare’s, “but the author that Benson’s collection constructs lived well past 1616”. The concept of the author gives Gossett her thematic throughline. Viewing collaboration as the “early modern norm immediately reduces the status of the godlike author … to one among many”. Her crisp summary of the two texts of King Lear (1608, 1623), with Shakespeare as reviser of the 1608 version, means that “the author reappeared, doubled”. A chapter on theatre history illustrates the self-sufficiency of performances, which have “no reason to worry about the author”. The digital turn, whereby internet editions present texts as process, seems to “accord no agency and almost no recognition to the author”.

Part Three’s clarity when chronicling complex textual issues is partly due to its division of textual theories into binaries. A chapter on “Authorship, Agency, and Intentionality” summarizes “two fundamentally opposed positions”: literature as social and collaborative versus a private act of creation (citing G. Thomas Tanselle). In “Attribution and Collaboration” (chapter 6) there are two fundamental positions: “inclusiveness [everything attributed to Shakespeare] and purity [a cordon sanitaire]”. “Editing and Unediting” discusses two different editorial schools: “interventionist and hands-off”. And in book history, when David Scott Kastan is pitted against Lukas Erne, the former believing that Shakespeare had no interest in publishing his plays and the latter that Shakespeare wanted to be “bought, read and preserved”, Gossett wryly observes that book history seems “both to confirm and to undo the author”.

It is difficult for undergraduate students to make textual studies their own, as they can with other essay topics. They tend to summarize historical (changes of) attitude or go overboard on distracting detail. Gossett does not get bogged down in textual minutiae, moving always to larger questions, appropriately for a publishing series on theory. (The book is part of an Arden series on Shakespeare and Theory.) Thus, Gossett shows students how to respond to textual material deftly and interrogatively. (But it is sad that students need – or publishers think they need – to have words like enjambement explained to them.)

The author frequently quotes academic colleagues from private conversations or correspondence. Given that this book is about changing textual theories over time, it is alarming to see personal, unpublished quotations from 2016 without any attempt to check whether the academic’s opinion has changed. Similarly, it is odd to read that “scholars suggest” Shakespeare “probably” wrote the fly scene in Titus for a revival of the play without reference to more recent work on Thomas Middleton’s authorship.

Both Suzanne Gossett and Stephen Orgel address, through historical examples, Thomas Adams and Nicolas Barker’s five stages of a book’s life: publishing, manufacturing, distribution, reception, survival. Gossett discusses these, and one of the most stimulating chapters is her coda on digitalization, where she raises the possibility that these stages may soon become one with Amazon’s publishing arm, customer reviews and server control.

Laurie Maguire’s most recent book is The Rhetoric of the Page, 2020

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post Of his time appeared first on TLS.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments