Improving the Plays

Frank Kermode

  • Shakespeare at Work by John Jones
    Oxford, 293 pp, £35.00, December 1995, ISBN 0 19 811966 6

John Jones, sometime Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has written a number of good, idiosyncratic books on topics as diverse as Greek tragedy and Wordsworth, together with an excellent novel, The Same God, published in 1972 and apparently without a successor. He has now produced a good, idiosyncratic book on Shakespeare. In the nature of the project he can’t avoid technical questions, and readers new to the complex problems of Shakespearean texts may find some parts hard going, but Jones avoids all temptation to be impressively professional and bejargoned; and his book is indeed so courteously written, so curiously intimate in manner and so engagingly clear and resourceful in argument, that anybody with a genuine interest in Shakespeare, and particularly in Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, should read it for pleasure and then reread it to pick quarrels about details.

Jones’s material is drawn principally from readings in earlier Shakespearean texts that differ from those of the collected edition, the Folio of 1623. His method is demonstrated on the first page by this example:

SHALLOW: O, Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the Windmill in Saint George’s Field?

SIR JOHN: No more of that, good Master Shallow, no more of that.

SHALLOW: Ha, ’twas a merry night! And is Jane Nightwork alive?

SIR JOHN: She lives, Master Shallow.

The italicised words, found in the Folio, are not in the Quarto of Henry IV, published in 1600 – a text almost certainly derived from Shakespeare’s autograph. The fuller text can therefore be taken either as evidence of revision, or as suggesting that the printers of the Quarto for some reason omitted the italicised words. In this instance the first is the more credible explanation; somebody, probably Shakespeare, had touched up the old text. Here he is, then, snapped at work.

Not all the alterations in the Folio are so manifestly Shakespeare’s own second thoughts, and of those that seem likely to be so not all can be represented as improvements. Some are journeyman expedients to meet needs that became evident in rehearsal – giving a character a bit more time to get to his mark etc. But many are a good deal more than that, and some sound so much like Shakespeare that it would be perverse to attribute them to anybody else. So this Shallow-Falstaff dialogue is offered as a tiny but persuasive instance of Shakespeare revising his own play, not to meet some momentary theatrical need but simply to improve it. Plausible as this may sound, it runs counter to the scholarly opinion, until recently stubbornly held, that it wasn’t Shakespeare’s practice to rehandle his material.

Lately this view has been repeatedly challenged, as it now is by Jones; and common sense is surely on his side. Shakespeare was acting in and doubtless directing the plays, and might, almost in the ordinary course of business, see ways of improving them which are reflected in later texts. Of course the proofs are difficult, and are often reduced to flat declarations that such and such a new reading is unmistakably ‘Shakespearean’; this is what Jones says about the little change in Falstaff’s reply to Shallow. But more could be added in his support. Falstaff in the later version is more uneasy, less willing to be reminded of that episode in the windmill with Jane Nightwork: he has had many more subsequent escapades than Shallow, whose senile memories of juvenile debauch make Falstaff a little uncomfortable. Shadows are beginning to thicken around him. Or whatever; anybody could produce other reasons for admiring these additions. On the other hand it might still be maintained by stubborn anti-revisers that they are merely instances of theatrical sophistication, the work of intrusive, self-indulgent actors. And there are certainly cases where that kind of explanation is more plausible than it is here.

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[*] This occurred quite often in the printing of the Folio. The copy was cast off to make for economy in composition (more than one compositor worked on the job), and if the casting-off was inaccurate a compositor would have to ‘stretch’ copy to fill his page, or compress it if he had more than there was normal space for. He would do this by printing verse as prose to save space, or prose as verse to lose it. There were other such expedients, but I doubt if the compositors often wrote new copy. However, Jones seems to believe that one may have done so here.