All entries for September 2008

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.

September 16, 2008

Et cetera

Brian Vickers is one of the foremost writers on Shakespearean authorship. Just thought I'd share this quick quote from his Shakespeare, Co-Author (OUP, 2002):

The Witch of Edmonton: A known true Story. Composed into A Tragi-comedy By divers well-esteemed poets; William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, etc. (1658) - scholars could have done without the 'etc'.

His drollness did raise a laugh, but it also demonstrates one of the key problems facing anyone trying to investigate the authorship of Renaissance drama. The 'author' as a concept was only just starting to come into prominence. Published quartos would usually have the theatre company, and often the venue at which it was performed, but the author himself was something of an optional extra. It seems alien to us in an age where the author is usually the most important part of any kind of publication, in an age of intellectual copyright and our obsession with oeuvres of work. It's refreshing to imagine a time when the play was indeed 'the thing', rather than the man or men behind it, and it's particularly heartening to think of Shakespeare as just one of several of these men. However, it's also deeply frustrating to be confronted repeatedly with the blank slate of "etc", if even that.

We're in the business of reconstructing a time and place that are long and far distant. It's a foreign country, as they say - they do things differently there. We've got enough to go on to make a decent crack at working out what happened, and who was responsible for what, but at some level we will always be reliant on best guesses and educated conjectures. I think, though, that's part of the reason that this field holds so much fascination for me and for others. I'm intrigued and challenged by the mystery of the 'etcs.', the fact that we will never know with 100% certainty exactly who they were.

Title page for The Witch of Edmonton (1658)

September 12, 2008

Are They Any Good? Another Four Plays

Following straight on from the first four plays, here are some thoughts on another four plays that I'll be working on:

  • The Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell

This is a really interesting biographical history, in particular containing some fascinating musings on the inconstant nature of Fate. Part of the fun comes from seeing the return of characters familiar from Thomas More and Henry VIII. The play itself follows the basic outline of Thomas More quite closely, tracking the rise and fall of one of Henry's favourites. In many ways it is better structured though. Subsidiary characters from the earlier parts of the play, who meet Cromwell in his lower state, encounter him again when in power, and as such it's a more satisfying dramatic piece with a greater range of good parts. There's also a lot of discourse about debt exchange, which is reminiscent of both The Merchant of Venice and Timon of Athens. It's a really good play, and offers a lot of potential for performance in that it's a bit more complex than Thomas More. In particular, while the central character is portrayed as noble, his shades are far greyer than More's - in early scenes he is more self-indulgent, concerned with his reputation and studies rather than the practicalities of daily life, yet he retains a basically noble nature.

  • The Merry Devil of Edmonton

The first of the plays that I don't particularly like. Frankly, it's a bit rubbish. It starts with echoes of Marlowe's Faustus, introducing a scholar called Peter Fabell who has made a deal with a demon similar to Faustus', and here tricks the demon into giving him another seven years. From this promising start, however, it descends into a very basic and rather dull domestic comedy, featuring a father who tries to thwart the marriage between his daughter and the man she loves and marry him to another, and then the tricks of the young people and Fabell to get their own way. There are a lots of echoes of Merry Wives, interestingly - the play is set in and around a provincial inn near a wood, and both the Host and a preacher called Sir John recall the Shakespeare play. However, it's all a bit tired and the plot seems horribly holey. It's also the most difficult to read of the plays I've flicked through thus far, with a great deal of colloquial language. It'll be interesting to study, I'm sure, but so far I'm not enamoured of it.

  • Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter

This is a double-plotted play, with the two plots extremely disconnected until the end (I haven't followed this thought through, but in a sense it structurally reminded me of The Changeling, albeit without the darkness). Both stories are quite fun, the main one involving William the Conqueror travelling to the Danish court to find a girl he has seen a picture of, then finding the real girl to be uglier than expected. He immediately transfers his affections onto her friend, who his companion is betrothed to, and we are left with an interesting mix of power/honour relations, some good comedy and the potential for some quite dark moments. Meanwhile, in England, Fair Em is wooed by three courtly suitors. The one she was in love with, however, has a massive jealous rage when he finds out about the other suitors and abandons her, even while she is pretending to be deaf and dumb for her sake. The main interest in this story is the shifting loyalties the reader feels to the various suitors, with the eventual 'winner' not being the one you might expect at first. Here, jealousy genuinely destroys their relationship, and in that we see the themes of Othello and The Winter's Tale being taken to a point between the two, where jealousy only causes the jealous man to lose out. A trick played on William, who is made to marry a woman he believes to be someone else, is a common Elizabethan device, cf. All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado about Nothing which both touch on the idea. Good fun - not the greatest play, and the plots are deceptively simple, but it's genuinely very funny.

  • The London Prodigal

This is possibly my favourite of the plays so far, utterly rivetting in its depiction of the seemingly irredeemable Flowerdale. Flowerdale is the prodigal of the title, a spendthrift and liar who loves only money. His father is disguised in order to see how he conducts himself (Measure for Measure, of course, springs to mind) and follows him throughout. Flowerdals is a shocking human being, leading to a phenomenal central scene. Having just married the beautiful and loyal Luce, who has been forced into the marriage by her father, Flowerdale's father than arranges for him to be arrested for his debts in public to shame him. Luce's father orders her to return to him and forsake her husband, but Luce points out his hypocrisy and stays with her husband, and her father disowns him for her pains. Forsaken by her entire family, she turns to her husband, who is released at her suit, but Flowerdale casts her off as her dowry has been revoked. In a powerfully awful moment, he tells her that he will never more see her, unless she turns prostitute, in which case he might bump into her from time to time. The shock and sheer injustice of this scene are among the best things I've ever read in Renaissance drama. There is also a surprisingly enlightened attitude towards women - here, loyalty is the key quality (cf Cymbeline or the old stories of Geraint and Enid), and the cleverest of Luce's sisters, Delia, at the end chooses not to marry either of two suitors, as she would rather be single. Almost all the characters are fully fleshed out and interesting, and the play retains a solid pace throughout. If there's any play in this project that I want to see performed, it's this.

The RSC Shakespeare: Individual editions

4 out of 5 stars

Last week, on 5th September, the first five single editions of the RSC Shakespeare were released onto the nation's bookshelves. As I was at the Courtyard Theatre that night, who happened to be doing a cheapie offer if you bought all five together, I picked them up and have been flicking through them on the side, starting with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The RSC Complete Works of Shakespeare is an important project, closely related to mine - in effect, the new edition of the Apocrypha will serve as a companion to the canonical Complete Works. Therefore the team are following a similar process, and the edition will likely be structured in a similar manner. In that sense, having a good familiarity with both the collected and individual editions of the main project can only be helpful, even though I'm not working on the new edition itself.

While the Big Yellow Book (as I'll now refer to the Complete Works volume) is an excellent edition with lots of plus points (unlike the Norton, for example, it's not made of toilet roll so you can make notes), there's one notable deficiency. Despite being an 'RSC' edition, the wisdom and experience of the RSC is not particularly in evidence. There's a cursory foreword from the Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and some lovely production images at the front of the book, but little else. This is where the single editions come in, and I'll focus on Dream as the only one I've finished reading.

The book itself is extremely light and relatively thin, about half the thickness of the last Arden edition of the play, which is an immediate plus point for my purposes as what I lack is a decent, portable reading edition. The text itself is perfect for this use - clear, bright, space for notes. Speech headings are given in full and, mercifully, in CAPITAL BOLD LETTERS. These may sound like trivial details, but it's surprising how few editions take these simple measures to guide a reader's eyes. It's essentially the same text as in the BYB, but obviously infinitely less cumbersome. It doesn't offer collations or particularly extensive footnotes (which I'll still be using the Arden for), but there is an on-page glossary with brief explanatory notes that, again, serves to assist with straightforward reading of the text.

My main motivation for buying any new edition is the strength of the supporting materials, and this Dream offers an interesting selection. Jonathan Bate's introduction comes, naturally, first. The size of the edition is primarily down to the relevant brevity of this section - as opposed to the now 100-page-plus essays in the Arden critical editions, Bate's runs to 9.5 pages - far shorter than a normal academic edition, but generous for a general-public edition. If you've got the BYB, you should note that the first half of the introduction is identical to the one found there. However, it's top quality, an interesting and informative brief that covers the play's important themes and explains, in a nutshell, why it's worth reading and seeing. While of course it can't hope to be nearly as thorough as a full-length critical introduction, I actually gleaned quite a lot from it, details which I've either missed or have been pushed out of my head in the trawl through exhaustive readings. There's then the obligatory note on the layout of the text and a reprise of the interesting'Key Facts' section found in the BYB that lists the parts in size order and so on.

Of more interest is the performance section at the back of the book, which is where the RSC connection finally comes in. Firstly, a scene-by-scene analysis gives a synopsis (with some additional interpretation). This is followed by sections on the performance of Dream - firstly in a general overview, and then specifically at the RSC. These sections were simultaneously one of the edition's biggest strengths but also frustrations. The content was fine and interesting, particularly giving an excellent account of the changing attitudes towards the Dream from the Victorian pictorial landscapes (with live rabbits!) through the seminal RSC stagings by Peter Brook and others to the darkly sexual productions of recent years. However, these sections were let down by their structure. They moved freely back and forth between stage and film, present and past, with no real sense of direction - they appeared to pick and choose whatever moments they wanted to talk about at any given time and go directly to them. This left me floundering somewhat in a colourful and fascinating world of Dream images with plenty of detail, but little sense of the big picture. Keeping to the chronological proceedings which the overview began with would have greatly strengthened these sections, or more clearly defining the method which dictated the back-and-forth style.

The edition's most shocking omission also played a factor in this - where, oh where, was a list of important productions? One can't hope to list everything, of course, but surely an ordered list of the ones discussed, and then an exhaustive list of RSC productions (or again, even just the ones discussed) would have done fine. It would have allowed the performance histories to roam freely in the knowledge that the reader could consult the list and contextualise the reading accordingly. Considering that this is an RSC edition, I was just surprised that such an obvious resource, that surely would have been of interest to the intended readership, wasn't available.

The performance section concluded with the most exciting section: interviews with three previous directors of the play: Michael Boyd, Gregory Doran and Tim Supple. Having seen the productions by the last two, this discussion was of particular in interest to me, and this was happily the fullest and most developed section of the book. Structured as a series of set questions which the three each answered (Blind Date-style!), listening to the directors discussing their work was utterly fascinating, particularly when the three absolutely disagreed with each other (e.g. Boyd considering Puck to be an awful stage manager, while Doran and Supple both made his skill an essential part of their productions). The tone was pitched perfectly between anecdotal and academic, providing accessible discussion that fully utilised the resources of the RSC. Absolutely inspired. The format could be developed a bit further - the three were interviewed separately, and it would have been extremely interesting (if impractical) to hear them respond to one another. The set-question format also meant there were a couple of awkward moments where a question had effectively been answered earlier under another heading, which didn't particularly detract but looked odd on the page. Nonetheless, this section really realised the potential of releasing a literary text under the auspices of a theatre company, and was an extremely pleasurable read. I'll be doing director interviews myself for the apocrypha, and this has already given me some useful ideas.

The edition wrapped up with Bate giving a useful (and reasonably long) introduction to the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre with some interesting observations on how the nature of the playhouse affected the writing of the plays, and closed with a list of further reading and DVD versions of the play (still no stage listing!) as well as a chronology of Shakespeare's works (which places Arden of Faversham as possibly Shakespeare's earliest play, interestingly).

For the theatregoer or the casual Shakespeare enthusiast, this is the perfect edition of Shakespeare, clear and light enough to enjoy reading with enough supplementary materials, at an accessible level, to enhance enjoyment of the play. For the academic, this edition won't replace the more established critical versions, but offers an extremely useful accompaniment. Its greatest strength will be in promoting to the academic community the importance and usefulness of consulting theatre practitioners to enhance academic understanding. My complaints with the edition fundamentally come down to the lack of a production list that would have strengthened the structure of the performance histories, but this is hardly a terminal issue. I'll certainly get a great deal of use out of these editions, and look forward to seeing the remainder of the series.

September 11, 2008

Are they any good? The First Four Plays

This is a question I've been asked several times since taking up this project. If these plays are largely unknown, and generally ignored, is it simply because they're rubbish?

One of my first jobs has been to simply re-read the Apocrypha, re-familiarising myself with the plays in advance of starting the work on attribution, and I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I've been enjoying them. Here's a selection of what I've read so far. These aren't academic readings of the plays, just passing observations from quick read-throughs:

  • The Book of Sir Thomas More

This play is a top-notch historical biography, a genre which Shakespeare doesn't really engage with (though Henry VIII has a similar 'domestic' sense about it, in that it's a history not concerned with wars). Thomas More himself is one of the great characters in Renaissance drama. Genuinely funny, supremely clever and with great integrity, the play is structured around his rise (following on from his role in pacifying the instigators of the May Day riots) and fall (his failure to sign some unspecified articles, leading to his ultimate execution). It's a wonderful play, with its main weakness perhaps being the lack of fully-fleshed supporting roles - apart from the rioters, who dominate the first couple of acts, most characters only appear in one or two scenes. The execeptions are his family, who don't have much to do apart from bemoan More's downfall, and the Earls of Surrey and Shrewsbury who act as a voice of political reason against More's idealism throughout. Still, it's action-packed, particularly in the early rioting scenes, and surprisingly tense and moving as More loses his position and slides inevitably towards his death. Yet, even at the end, he's still joking on the gibbet. In terms of links, there are some moments that reminded me of Coriolanus in the interactions between nobles and peasants.

  • Edward III

A more traditional history play, dealing with the original conquering of France by Edward III and his son, the Black Prince. Particularly interesting in that this period is referenced constantly throughout Shakespeare's English history plays, and in many ways Henry V is a replay of the same actions, sieges and all. However, there's a surprising depth of character considering the relatively episodic nature of events. The Scottish King David is a particularly funny coward, for example, and the Duchess of Salisbury (in the scenes most traditionally attributed to Shakespeare) is particularly well-rounded. Her skill in thwarting the King's adulterous designs on her are breathtaking. There are some great discussions of honour during the war, particularly in an extended sequence relating to the French Prince guaranteeing Salisbury passage through his lands and the French King trying to renege on that promise. Downsides? Well, it's rather sickeningly patriotic in places, and doesn't seem to have a wider story to tell. It bears strong comparison to Henry V, though.

  • Arden of Faversham

The first of two domestic tragedies based on real events. Arden is absolutely fascinating for its pace and bloodiness, and also for its bizarre humour. The murder of Arden has been planned by his wife and her adulterous lover by the time the play starts, and for much of it I found myself laughing at the repeated thwarted attempts on Arden's life as the hapless murderers continually made mistakes. Yet there's also some great character work between Alice, the wife, and Moseby, her lover, as they test each other's committment. She's a real piece of work. There are also moments of interest among the minor characters; local landowners who have grievances against Arden; the servant who is bribed into taking part in the murders by being promised the girl he loves; and, in a moment of shocking injustice, the ultimate execution of Bradshaw for simply carrying a letter to Alice. Considering the play's brevity, there's so much going on.

  • A Yorkshire Tragedy

An evil little play, which crams some truly horrible stuff into its few pages. The only named characters are three servants in the first scene who have no important impact on the rest of the play, and after that it's all 'Husband', 'Wife', 'Son' etc. The Husband, the man who commits his crimes, is beyond redemption, an utterly evil man who has gambled away all of his - and his faithful Wife's - money and prowls their house, snarling at everything and crying out against his wife's infidelity (which, of course, is all in his mind). Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere on the page, he kills his Son, then tries to kill the rest of his household (succeeding in killing another son), before he is stopped. Only in his final moments, confronted with his wounded wife and dead children, does repentance finally hit him. Short and shocking, the play brings onto stage what one imagines would have been going on in Othello's mind, extending the homicidal jealousy found in other plays of the period to its extreme limit, turning a local scandal into a grimly fascinating depiction of a murderer at work. It bears comparison to the killing of Macduff's family in Macbeth in terms of content. Savage.

Whether or not they're by Shakespeare, or have his hand in them, these four plays are great in their own ways. These are probably the best known of the group, and the most performed (though that's not saying much in terms of the apocrypha). Whatever my findings in terms of authorship, it's going to be really rewarding to work on these in more depth.

September 04, 2008

The Cultural Olympiad

Writing about web page

Not much detail yet, but this news storyis the first mention I've found online of the Shakespeare Festival that is going to form part of the Cultural Olympiad. I don't know huge amounts about this yet, but the RSC are heavily involved in (if not actually running) the event, which is going to consist of performance of Shakespeare plays all over the country on some astronomical scale.

I'm reporting this on this blog (as opposed to my theatre review blog) because this Festival is actually related to my PhD. One of the main purposes of the new edition of the Apocrypha is to create performable playtexts of the apocryphal plays. Several of them only exist in old-spelling versions, and most are impractical to obtain unless you're an academic (or really committed). One of the outcomes of the edition, then, is planned to be a series of the apocryphal plays as part of the Shakespeare Festival, simultaneously celebrating the new edition and bringing the plays, at long last, to an audience.

All of which is very laudable. I'm waiting to hear more details about the Festival itself, though, as I'm not completely sold on the idea. Shakespeare is one of the international images, if you like, of Britain, and it's understandable that, with the world's eyes on the country in the run up to the Olympics, the authorities want to remind the world of our most popular exports. However, there ARE other writers (gasp, horror), not to mention dramatists, and if this festival is as large-scale as it threatens to be then I think there's a huge danger of overkill. We have, after all, only just finished one Complete Works Festival.

Nonetheless, as long as it's got some artistic merit I'm sure I'll enjoy it, and if the work done by our project contributes tangibly to the Festival then it'll be a wonderful (and hopefully fun) outcome.

September 01, 2008

Welcome to the Apocrypha

Welcome to the Apocrypha!

This is the blog on which, over the next three years, I'll be posting news, thoughts, short essays, multimedia material (with a bit of luck), links and updates on the progress of the Shakespeare Apocrypha studentship.

This studentship is part of a larger AHRC funded project entitled 'Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others', which will result in a new edition of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that may have Shakespeare's hand in them. My part of the project will be dealing with a number of issues - how one establishes authorship, how the plays have been attributed over the centuries, the methodologies and technologies that have been and are used, the cultural importance of Shakespeare's name as associated with these plays and so on.

At this stage (day one of 1,095!), I'm primarily just excited to be working on a selection of relatively neglected plays. The last collected edition of the apocrypha was in 1908, and this new edition will hopefully be a significant contribution to their re-introduction into higher-profile theatrical and critical circulation.

Anyway, at this stage there's quite clearly very little else to say. As the project gets going, I'll hopefully be able to start posting here more regularly. For now, it's time to hit the books.


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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