Modern Shakespeare

Graham Bradshaw

  • The Taming of the Shrew edited by H.J. Oliver
    Oxford, 248 pp, £9.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 812907 6
  • Henry V edited by Gary Taylor
    Oxford, 330 pp, £9.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 812912 2
  • Troilus and Cressida edited by Kenneth Muir
    Oxford, 205 pp, £9.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 812903 3
  • Troilus and Cressida edited by Kenneth Palmer
    Methuen, 337 pp, £12.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 416 47680 5

Ann Pasternak Slater’s Shakespeare the Director is the best new book on Shakespeare I have read in the last year, and is prefaced by generous tributes to and from the General Editor of the New Arden Shakespeare. Nonetheless, that edition is unsuited to her critical purposes, and she explains that her ‘sole criterion in each case is to use the text supposedly closest to the author’s manuscript.’

A general principle is at issue here: wherever it is disregarded, the reader has reason to feel insecure. Here is a non-Shakespearean example, which I have not seen discussed elsewhere. Since English is not German, it is not surprising that Blake does not capitalize every noun in his poem ‘London’ (Songs of Experience). But then he does capitalise Man, Infants, Chimney-sweeper, Church, Soldier, Palace and Marriage. Why? The reader of a scholarly modern edition like that in the Longman English Poets series is not even in a position to realise that this question may need to be asked. The text has already been standardised by a modernising editor, who evidently assumes that Blakes’s distribution of capitals is idiosyncratic and therefore (?) insignificant.

Yet Blake’s idiosyncrasy is in this case consistent and critically instructive: the capitals are reserved for human victims and institutions. Each of the victims is crying – making some kind of noise which, in the poem’s third and fourth stanzas, is presented in synaesthetic ways. The sweep’s cry appals churches (which, as the derivation from apalir unnervingly suggests, grow pale as they blacken); the soldier’s sigh runs in blood; the harlot’s curse blasts a tear and blights plagues. Nothing is heard; each cry is felt, or seen, in surreal, disturbing ways. Moreover, the capitalization of the three institutions – Church, Palace, Marriage – posits parallel relations, which in turn imply relation of cause and effect. The situations of the victims are illuminated through their relationship with the respective institutions, while the further relationship between these institutions explains why the speaker claims to ‘hear’, not cries, but ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ in the cries. One implication is that Marriage is another malign manacling institution, which, by attempting to legalise and ‘charter’ love, perverts it, and institutionalises harlotry – earning the infected harlot’s infecting curse. Another implication is that the manacles are not forged in every mind through some obscurely inevitable natural process. The process is arbitrary and unnatural; the institutions have evolved from perverse mental abstractions into perfected social mechanisms, but could be dismantled. Ironically, Blake’s apparently idiosyncratic or anarchic capitals underline what some critics fail to notice or prefer to forget – that ‘London’ is revolutionary and anarchic.

Since it would be difficult to argue that a modern reader would be confused and distressed by Blake’s irregular capitals, we might well ask who or what has been served by trotting after the sacred Cow of Standardisation. Not the reader; not Blake. In general terms, we confront a familiar and painful paradox: modernisation is always defended on the grounds that it removes real or imaginary barriers which separate an author from a contemporary reader, but this ideal aim always leads to a material increase in editorial inter-positions which separate what the writer wrote from what the reader reads.

In Blake’s poem the capitals are not ‘accidentals’ but pointers, constituents of meaning. Metrical rhythm is also a constituent of meaning, wherever it conveys the dynamics of emotion; insensitive modernisation can disrupt or destroy metrical rhythm. Although A.J. Smith, the editor of Donne’s poetry in the Penguin English Poets series, is more than usually conscientious, he still prints Donne’s ‘Sembriefe’ as ‘semibreve’, making a metrically regular line irregular. A reader who was puzzled by ‘Sembriefe’ would only have to consult the notes once; a reader who listens to poetry will ‘semibreve’ jarring every time he reads Donne’s fourth satire in the Penguin text. And he may of course be misled into supposing that Donne was irregular in this instance – just as Dorothy Sipe observes, in her 1968 study Shakespeare’s Metrics, that misleading accounts of Shakespeare’s ‘carefully constructed iambic verse’ are frequently attributable to ‘the corrupting influence of Renaissance orthography and modern editing’.

Turning to Milton as printed in the Longman edition, we might wonder whether the reader is really helped or hindered, when ‘adventrous’, ‘wandring’, ‘flowry’, ‘countnance’ or ‘Sovran’ are modernised. And what, precisely, has been gained by printing ‘th’ Aonian’ as ‘the Aonian’, when both manuscripts and early editions indicate synaloepha? If the reader is reading the verse as verse, he must make his own effort to reconstruct the original. Here is another paradox: early editions of Milton made it easier for the reader to see how the verse should sound, while also respecting the poet’s evident preference, yet the Longman editors decided that making it more difficult to hear the verse would best help the modern reader. On a pessimistic view, which corresponds with my experience, most students read verse as prose, which is what most modernising editions encourage.

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[*] Modernising Shakespeare’s Spelling with Three Studies in the Text of ‘Henry V’ by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford, 164 pp., £9, 28 February 1980, 0 19 812913 0.