September 30, 2008

Shakespeare and Text – John Jowett

5 out of 5 stars

Another book to recommend. John Jowett is a lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham and an editor whose work I'm particularly interested in as he's both written on and edited important editions of Timon and Thomas More. He's also one of the general editors of the forthcoming Arden Early Modern Drama series.

I picked up Shakespeare and Text cheaply after a quick rifle through the contents page showed some potentially useful essays, and have been thoroughly impressed by the book. It's accessible, but for a slim volume is extremely detailed and covers a lot of ground. The book provides both a useful history and analysis of early print culture and the mechanisms through which Shakespeare first appeared in book form, and then expands to the process of editing and - most interestingly - the theories and practices behind editing.

Jowett's emphasis is on the instability of text. Outlining the various forms of textual transmission that brought us the texts we see today, he draws attention to the unspoken question that guides editors - what, exactly, are editors trying to do? The idea of a lost, original, authorial manuscript appears to be the holy grail towards which editors tend, yet Jowett demonstrates that a) we don't know whether this ever existed, given the processes of writing plays, and b) we don't know if that's even what we want. The 'finished' version of a play is similarly elusive, as a playtext is an active one, constantly evolving and changing for better or worse. So, does an editor try to recreate the text as it appeared at a particular stage? At first performance? As playable text? Do they include all variants? Do they try to recreate the author's original intention?

It almost seems hopeless, but Jowett doesn't let the impossibility of the task become overpowering; rather, he is outlining the questions that editors need to put to themselves in order to clarify what their task actually is. Ultimately, the aim of a modern edition is to provide a usable text to the reader and scholar, and within that we must accept a margin for error and conjecture.

Jowett also talks at length about the book as material object, and the questionable reliability in particular of the First Folio. Given the unstable process of authorship, Jowett deconstructs the Folio's claims that it was based on the 'True Original Copies', and voices the interesting viewpoint that the Folio's presentation of the plays as by one man and perfect in their origin has actually done centuries of harm to serious scholarship on Shakespearean authorship; to put it extremely simply (and not do justice to Jowett at all), that it created the impression that there were perfect, finished copies of the 36 plays written by a solitary genius. Creating a book which presents stable texts, coming out of a theatrical culture when texts were so UNstable, made the Folio into a bizarre anachronism. The Folio editors gave Shakespeare an almost unprecedented cultural value, which has led to the climate of bardolatry that has coloured authorship studies over the preceding centuries.

Ultimately, this book claims, work on Shakespeare's text must be grounded in a true understanding of the processes that formed the texts in the first place. Combined with the work I've been reading on systems of collaboration within the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, this book provides an important jumping-off point for my project. To understand the apocryphal plays and the processes that have led to their current status, it is essential to bear in mind their original transmission and the unbalanced importance of editors in deciding the 'canon'. Authorship studies have long been tainted by the aesthetic judgements of editors and an overly reverential sense of what is 'good enough' to be considered Shakespeare's. Current attribution methodologies, by contrast, are far more scientific and resistant to bias. With science on one hand, and a solid historical understanding on the other, hopefully this project should be able to re-open some important questions.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    It is interesting to contrast the attitudes of editors who have seen the plays as ‘perfect, finished’ with the attitudes of theatremakers who have taken the texts, chopped, rewrote and added to them at will.

    One questions arises: were the claims made about the First Folio regarding it being based on ‘true original copies’ different to the claims made in other folios of the period (eg Johnson)?

    30 Sep 2008, 12:48

  2. Well, it’s an extremely different situation! Jonson (of course, the great self-mythologiser) oversaw his own Folio himself, so that carries a very different kind of authority. We have a great deal more evidence, though I confess I’m no expert on Jonson, that he rewrote and adapted his own works specifically for a literary audience, to the point of even purging a collaborator’s material from Sejanus in order to present it as entirely his own. In a sense, with the Jonson Folio, we have the ‘Director’s Cut’ special edition of the plays. What we have in the First Folio is a project in which the author himself has no hand, hence the claim that it was based on the ‘true, original copies’ in order to lend it authority.

    It strikes me, thinking about it, that there are two important things that the Jonson Folio shows us. One is that the author didn’t necessarily consider their ‘original’ copy the true one – if Jonson did indeed go back over his plays and prune them for posterity, we see yet another stage in the transmission process, the re-working (or perhaps un-working in the case of Sejanus) of a playtext for a completely different medium. The other thing the Jonson Folio sets up is the precedent of placing high cultural value on the figure of the author himself, as opposed to his company. By placing himself above all else, including the practical factors of the playhouse, Jonson set up the model which Heminge and Condell then, by and large, followed in their presentation of their fellow. One wonders if Shakespeare, the company man, would ever have wanted his ‘works’ presented in quite so proud a form as the Folio seems.

    30 Sep 2008, 13:35

  3. Duncan

    “One wonders if Shakespeare, the company man, would ever have wanted his ‘works’ presented in quite so proud a form as the Folio seems.”

    He definitely would have hurled if he had been able to see this:

    30 Sep 2008, 15:33

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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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