The prose and cons of the Bard

Lit­er­ary critic Peter Craven sees ‘ de­con­struc­tive flag wav­ing’ be­hind the RSC’s mam­moth new edi­tion of Shake­speare

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ANEW edi­tion of Shake­speare’s com­plete works is al­ways ex­cit­ing for those who trea­sure his work and this one, with its hand­some cover in lineny gold adorned with red roses, is a won­der­ful dash of colour in the book­case. It is im­mense at nearly 2500 pages; it has the great ad­van­tage of notes printed on the page you are read­ing; and those pages are el­e­gantly set and easy to read.

It is billed as the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany edi­tion and it comes with il­lus­tra­tions from fa­mous RSC pro­duc­tions. There is Paul Scofield’s Lear, black- eyed and mad in the Peter Brook pro­duc­tion of 1962, and Ian McKellen’s Mac­beth from the 1970s, to­gether with his wiry north­ern Iago in Othello . A num­ber are of pro­duc­tions that toured to Aus­tralia: Twelfth Night from 1969 with Judi Dench as Vi­ola and Don­ald Sin­den as an oily Malvo­lio, and Antony Sher 15 or so years later with his spi­dery Richard III.

Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Ras­mussen, this vol­ume is the most no­table since Stephen Green­blatt was mas­ter of cer­e­monies for the Nor­ton Shake­speare a decade ago. The dif­fi­culty ( or the glory, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive) is the text. Any­one familiar with Shake­speare edit­ing in the past cou­ple of decades knows there has been a de­gree of trail­blaz­ing on the part of edi­tors that can look like coat- trail­ing. In the late ’ 80s this led to the Ox­ford edi­tion of Shake­speare, edited by Gary Tay­lor and Stan­ley Wells, which made a point of be­ing dif­fer­ent. Wells and Tay­lor pub­lished two ver­sions of King Lear ; they changed the names of char­ac­ters and plays; they even did an orig­i­nal spell­ing edi­tion that re­sulted, as Bri­tish lit­er­ary critic Frank Ker­mode noted, in the cre­ation of false an­tiques: in or­der to im­pose con­sis­tency in the mat­ter of spell­ing, they added olde formes.

The edit­ing of the plays th­ese days is in­flu­enced by sev­eral com­plex fac­tors. Shake­speare’s rep­u­ta­tion as the great­est writer in the canon ( which is as sure and in­dis­putable as any­one’s could be) has less of a halo of rev­er­ence in the aca­demic world than it has else­where. Of course there is no get­ting around Shake­speare even if you are the kind of English de­part­ment type with a pro­fes­sional griev­ance against dead white males. So the im­pulse to have a go at his em­i­nence has been trans­ferred to his plays.

Shake­speare edit­ing reached its height in the early 20th cen­tury with edi­tors such as Wal­ter Wil­son Greg and John Dover Wil­son. If what you wanted was schol­ars who looked at the quar­tos ( one- off scripts pub­lished dur­ing the first life­times of the plays), then tal­lied them with the fo­lio first pub­lished in 1623 by John Heminge and Henry Con­dell ( fel­low play­ers of Shake­speare) to get a text that might re­sem­ble what the Bard ac­tu­ally wrote, then Shake­speare edit­ing was at its most bril­liant in the 1930s.

The vari­a­tions were by and large in the de­tails ( did Ham­let imag­ine his ‘‘ solid’’ or his ‘‘ sul­lied’’ flesh melt­ing into a dew?) rather than in the mat­ter of whole lines and scenes.

The Shake­speare Head edi­tion is the one I use most fre­quently be­cause it sits in the hand eas­ily, pub­lishes the names of char­ac­ters in full ( An­thony, not Ant.) and, most at­trac­tively of all, prints the plays in some ap­prox­i­ma­tion to their date of com­po­si­tion, be­gin­ning with Henry VI and end­ing with The Tem­pest and Henry VIII . It dates from 1937 and is based on a text edited by A. H. Bullen in 1904. The punc­tu­a­tion is elab­o­rate and com­plex in the Ed­war­dian man­ner ( and in that re­spect old- fash­ioned), but the words, based on a con­fla­tion of quarto and fo­lio texts, are es­sen­tially what is in Peter Alexan­der’s Collins edi­tion, the best post- war edi­tion and still about as good as you can get. ( It’s the pre­ferred edi­tion of Harold Bloom.)

That the edi­tors of this new edi­tion — the RSC la­bel is it­self a deft piece of ad­ver­tis­ing — have plumped for the fo­lio text as their base is it­self a bit of de­con­struc­tive flag- wav­ing. So is their boast that they are the first edi­tors of the fo­lio Shake­speare for 300 years.

On the one hand there have been fo­lio loy­al­ists with edi­tions of in­di­vid­ual plays and, on the other, there is the plain fact that ev­ery ed­i­tor of Shake­speare has looked at the fo­lio in tan­dem with the quar­tos, ex­cept for plays such as The Tem­pest and its com­pan­ion piece The Win­ter’s Tale , where the fo­lio is the only text printed.

In prac­tice the RSC edi­tors back­track a fair bit on their prin­ci­ples by con­sult­ing the quar­tos when they are needed to res­cue the fo­lio. Then again, they do ad­here to the un­for­tu­nate prin­ci­ple of stick­ing to the fo­lio as long as it makes sense even where a quarto read­ing is more fe­lic­i­tous. So in that daz­zling dark scene in which Othello weaves the magic web of his elo­quence to ex­plain to the Duke and com­pany how he wooed Des­de­mona, he does not say, ‘‘ She gave me for my pains a world of sighs’’; but in­stead, ‘‘ She gave me for my pains a world of kisses’’.

Why? To cause a bit of a splash, I think. It’s what the fo­lio says and the change draws at­ten­tion to it­self be­cause the speech is fa­mous, with­out ab­so­lutely vi­o­lat­ing the ver­bal beauty of the line. The edi­tors prob­a­bly think ‘‘ kisses’’ has a greater freight of phys­i­cal­ity and eroti­cism than the more con­ven­tion­alised ‘‘ sighs’’ with its proto- ro­man­tic lan­guor. But, then, the con­text is un­de­ni­ably lan­guorous and rep­re­sents Othello in­dulging in a bit of myth- mak­ing about his beloved.

It has to be ad­mit­ted that the con­tem­po­rary ten­dency among edi­tors, which Bate and Ras­mussen re­flect, is to imag­ine that when a fa­mous pas­sage such as Ham­let’s so­lil­o­quy ‘‘ How all oc­ca­sions do in­form against me’’ is miss­ing from the text, it must rep­re­sent a cut that has the full and con­sid­ered im­pri­matur of Shake­speare.

There is a col­lec­tive in­cli­na­tion ( shared by the great tra­di­tional scholar Anne Bar­ton) to think the ed­its that make their way into the fo­lio text show Shake­speare ta­per­ing his text the way W. H. Au­den later chucked out a lot of the elo­quent lines in his youth­ful po­etry. Harold Jenk­ins, who did the won­der­ful 1982 Ar­den edi­tion of Ham­let , deals with this very ef­fec­tively when he says that, yes, the Ham­let so­lil­o­quy was cut but there is no rea­son to think this was done by Shake­speare or that it rep­re­sents any sig­nif­i­cant re­vi­sion of his dra­matic con­cep­tion.

There’s some­thing sheep­ish about th­ese schol­ars be­ing so solemn on the ev­i­dence of a few cuts that serve, pretty bla­tantly, to al­low them to dress up their icon­o­clasm in Shake­spearean cos­tume, puff­ing up with high and mighty in­ten­tion­al­ity a cut based, in all prob­a­bil­ity, on the de­sired run­ning time for a par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion.

It is the na­ture of Shake­speare’s plays that they can be cut. As Au­den said once, all Shake­speare’s plays could be longer or shorter in a way that is not true of Sopho­cles.

It’s hard to read the pas­sages from the quar­tos that Bate and Ras­mussen print as ap­pen­dices with­out feel­ing a sense of loss that they are not printed in the main text; even small things such as the mo­ment when the Fool says, in a for­mu­la­tion much beloved of Pa­trick White, ‘‘ He’s mad that trusts in the tame­ness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love or a whore’s oath.’’ Who in their right mind wants to get rid of that for the ben­e­fit of a mo­ment’s edi­to­rial dizzi­ness?

Still, this is a hand­some and fas­ci­nat­ing edi­tion. I thought it ridicu­lous that Ham­let, see­ing Claudius pray­ing, should re­fer to him­self as ‘‘ the foul son of a fa­ther mur­dered’’ rather than ‘‘ the sole son’’, and I would have liked Fal­staff bab­bling of green fields even if it was an 18th­cen­tury ed­i­tor’s in­spired guess.

But when I turned to Troilus and Cres­sida, a play so gnarled and dark- cor­nered it is im­pos­si­ble to know well ( the mind reels at such a blood­fest of pes­simism) I was en­thralled by this text and all its lean and rugged glo­ries. William Shake­speare: Com­plete Works, RSC Edi­tion, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Ras­mussen, Pal­grave Macmil­lan, $ 99.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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