November 26, 2009

Richard III (Arden Shakespeare, Third Series)

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I've just finished working my way through James R. Siemon's new edition of Richard III for the Arden Shakespeare (the first new AS, incidentally, since the imprint's move to Methuen Drama). It's a hefty volume even by Arden 3 standards, a whisker over 500 pages long, and as exhaustive as one might expect.

Siemon's text is eclectic. A lengthy appendix details the elaborate textual theory to which he subscribes, which imagines a complex textual genealogy including two authoritative (FMS and QMS, with QMS at least partially dependent on FMS) and an annotated manuscript influenced by FMS and by the line of quartos stemming from QMS. The upshot of all this is that Siemon's text flicks between base text according to whichever text is most authoritative at any given point, according to this model, while at the same time freely amending from the other early texts.

On the upside, this allows for a thorough 'maximal' text which contains all that is important from all the early editions. Siemon's edition laudably embraces the essential state of flux in which early modern texts existed and circulated, and thus rather than recreating and canonising any one material text, which would misleadingly prioritise one text above several other authoritative texts, he contributes his edition as representative of the varying accounts. The downsides are practical; compared to other Arden editions, the reader is required to work much harder to remember what is the base text at any given time and to respond to continuing shifts in the priority of the textual notes. It is difficult to get a sense of any one text's contribution to the edition, and while Siemon's 43-page textual appendix accurately reflects the complexity of the textual situation, its high level of detail and focus on non-extant manuscript originals doesn't render itself helpful to the more casual reader wanting to quickly establish the basic editorial strategies employed.

Add to this the combination of in text QQ marks for quarto-only passages and the usual asterixed footnotes for emendations and square brackets for editorial SDs, and I have to confess that I simpy found it too difficult to work out what in this text came from where, without having to actively search for the information. If I was in need of doing serious textual work on Richard III, this text would be my first port of call; that not being the case, I would have liked to have had the information more immedialy available.

Siemon's second appendix introduces a casting chart, in the introduction to which he notes that "it does not attempt to distribute the play's many minor and silent parts" (461); which is fine, but when it excludes characters such as Vaughan and Grey while including single-scene parts such as the Scrivener and Archbishop, one wonders how far such a chart can be useful?

The Introduction is fascinating, detailing the discourses surrounding Richard which circulated both prior to and contemporaneously with Shakespeare's play. To my mind, it's an exemplary piece of 21st century source-study, thinking not in terms of direct influence but in the ideas and processes that necessarily formed both Shakespeare's and a contemporary audience's conceptions of Richard and medieval history. My only concern is that this forms the bulk of the Introduction, about fifty pages, during which space the play itself gets very little mention. We learn much about Hall's Richard, More's Richard, Holinshed's Richard etc., but surprisingly little time is devoted to how our play reshapes that material.

A further 45 pages is then given over to stage history which, as Siemon admits, is little more than "a mere sketch" (79). lt's a good job of a stage history, surveying an impressive range of productions, but the space allowed doesn't allow for the depth of critical interpretation that would have made this really worthwhile. There are a couple of disappointing omissions, most crucially the BBC film: as one of the most widely available DVDs for students and academics to get hold of,;as the only commercially available Richard III that is part of a filmed cycle of history plays, thus allowing the chance to follow the progression of Richard and his brothers; and as a bloody good version in its own right, its snub here seems shortsighted. However, this is not a performance book, and the stage history generally fulfils its purpose of providing a starting point for further investigation of the play in performance.

The framing materials for the book thus cover three essential areas; sources and para-texts (excellent), text (dense) and performance (broad). What is lacking across these is real insight into the play; there is little space given to critical matters, apart from a brief discussion of the female characters and Richard's forbears in the Vice and Machiavel (which arguably feeds into the 'source' study). Happily, this is part of the edition's design, as Siemon's excellent commentary notes form the highlight of the book. Rather than surveying critical perspectives as part of the Introduction, Siemon spreads it through the notes, allowing him to pick up on relevant criticism and dramaturgical insight at every point of the play. His glossing is clear and helpful; his use of performance to expand on key moments is well-chosen; his notes on changes to the sources shed light on authorial strategies; and his highlighting of key critical debates cuts across important moments and links them with other areas of the play. It is in these notes that Siemon's engagement with the play finally comes across, and the play's greatness is justified.

In all, then, Siemon's edition eventually proved to be a thorough and consistently fascinating one, which seems to me to particularly justify its existence through its painstaking work on text and sources. It could have been much more user-friendly, particularly in regard to its apparatus and to the organisation of its framing materials, but the important stuff is all here. A strong addition to the Arden imprint.

On a side note, the cover finally completes the progressively darker and bloodier images of roses and thorns that has run through the Henry VI third series, providing some of the best covers of the collection.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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