The prose and cons of the Bard
Literary critic Peter Craven sees ‘ deconstructive flag waving’ behind the RSC’s mammoth new edition of Shakespeare
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.