For his Nose was as sharpe as a Pen, and a Table of greene fields

Michael Dobson

  • BuyWilliam Shakespeare, Complete Works: The RSC Shakespeare edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
    Macmillan, 2486 pp, £30.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 230 00350 7

In a glass case in the garret of a house just off Fleet Street, a historic publishing contract has just gone on display.[*] It only takes up one piece of paper, rather smaller than a sheet of A4, and compared to most such agreements today seems remarkably straightforward. It is the document by which, in 1756, the firm of J.&R. Tonson undertook to publish The plays of William Shakespeare, in eight volumes, with the corrections and illustrations of Various Commentators; To which are added notes by Sam. Johnson. This edition, with its much reprinted preface and doggedly commonsensical approach to the text, still exerts a palpable influence on Shakespeare scholars: Jonathan Bate’s introduction to this new edition of the Complete Works makes regular appeals to Johnson’s authority and Johnson’s precedent. The differences between the circumstances and the procedures of the two editions, however, are at least as revealing as their similarities.

By 1756, nine collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays had been produced – the First Folio (1623) and its reprints (1632, 1663-64, 1685), followed by the editions of Nicholas Rowe (1709), Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1733), Sir Thomas Hanmer (1744) and William Warburton (1747) – and each had been able to offer what a modern commissioning editor would call a Unique Selling Point. The First Folio had supplied 18 plays which had never been printed before, quite apart from an authorised likeness of their author and some attractive commendatory poems; the Second had added more commendatory poems, including one by Milton; the Third had added Pericles (together with several more plays, mostly reprinted from opportunistically misattributed quartos); Rowe had added lists of dramatis personae, and straightened out a good many exits and entrances and act and scene divisions; Pope had added indications of ‘Shining Passages’, in the form of inverted commas in the margin; Theobald had for the first time systematically consulted the quarto texts of those plays not exclusive to the Folio, and had cited parallel passages from the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to illustrate Elizabethan usage in his explanatory glosses; Warburton had pioneered the use of italics within dialogue to show when characters were quoting; and Hanmer, though comparatively unenterprising as an editor, had at least commissioned posh illustrations and arranged for his edition to be printed on expensive paper.

As a result of all this, Johnson was diffident about offering a new edition at all, as the ‘Proposals’ he drafted in 1756 make clear: ‘When the works of Shakespeare are, after so many editions, again offered to the publick, it will doubtless be enquired, why Shakespeare stands in more need of critical assistance than any other of the English writers, and what are the deficiencies of the late attempts, which another editor may hope to supply.’ If even the belligerent Johnson felt he had to justify producing a new complete Shakespeare in 1756 – an edition aiming to supersede only two or three rivals, which by the time of its appearance would be at least twenty years old – how must Jonathan Bate have felt when he signed up to produce yet another five years ago? If the 1750s and 1760s marked a comparative lull in the Shakespeare-reprinting business, the 1990s and 2000s have not, and The RSC Shakespeare is competing for space in bookshops whose shelves are already straining under the burden of the Arden (1998, revised 2001), the Collins (1994, revised 2006), the Complete Pelican (2002), the Everyman Signet (1992-96), the Norton (1997), the Oxford (1986, revised 2005), the Portable (2007, a boxed set in paperback of an edition first published in 1992 and revised in 1997) and the Riverside (1974, revised 1997).

This last is described by its publishers, Houghton Mifflin, as ‘the beautiful cornerstone of any home library’, and, given that the Shakespeare canon is only just short of a million words in length, the inadvertent suggestion that most of these books are hefty enough to be used as building blocks rather than just as reading matter isn’t far wide of the mark. (For the record, the RSC weighs in at 5lb 12oz, substantially lighter than the 1986 Oxford’s commercially suicidal 8lb 8oz, but noticeably heavier than the 2005 revised Oxford’s 4lb 8oz.) Back in the 1620s it was so expensive to produce the First Folio that a consortium of printers had to combine, and producing and marketing such a substantial book still involves considerable financial outlay and considerable financial risk. The Tonsons, following the practice they had adopted with Pope’s edition, would publish Johnson’s Shakespeare only by subscription, obliging the Great Cham to sell copies well ahead of publication in order to raise an advance on which to live while working on it. This fact has been obscured by the edition’s failure to include, as was customary, the names of these trusting advance purchasers among its preliminaries. ‘I have two very cogent reasons for not printing any list of subscribers,’ Johnson explained prior to publication in 1765: ‘one, that I have lost all the names, the other, that I have spent all the money.’

Macmillan has clearly cut no corners on production – the paper quality and page design are excellent, and the illustrations in the introductory materials are lavish and well reproduced (with the sole exception of the portrait of the Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I following preliminary page 64, a painting which hangs in the Shakespeare Institute and was long rumoured to have been the source for the cut of its former director Stanley Wells’s beard; for some reason this picture looks slightly out of focus, as though seen through the wrong reading glasses). Macmillan’s accountants must be relying on the book selling in large quantities and over a long period in order to recoup their investment, given the level at which it has been priced. The RSC is cheaper than the hardback incarnations of the Riverside (whose fondness for retaining selected Elizabethan spellings – such as ‘apricock’ for ‘apricot’ – now looks quaint), the complete Arden (an anthology of what were originally single-play editions, with texts edited at different times and according to very different textual principles) or the Norton (a transatlantic recycling of the 1986 Oxford text, scandalously sold under its original editors’ noses and supplied with extra critical materials which, squarely aimed at orthodox New Historicist graduate students in North America, are already looking distinctly passé). The only reputable hardback edition cheaper than the RSC is the Collins, at £20, which has small pages and small print and, though provided with new introductions in 1994 and supplementary essays by Peter Ackroyd and Germaine Greer thereafter, is still based on a text prepared by Peter Alexander in 1951. It is surely not a coincidence that the RSC is the same price as the hardbacks of the revised Oxford and the Complete Pelican, although its designers have gone out of their way to ensure that it is immediately distinguishable from them by colour. While in the US it has been published in a muted brick red, in the UK the RSC’s boards, like the spine of its dust jacket, are a violent shade of mustard, liable to be as immediately noticeable in a bookshop or a scholarly library as Malvolio’s stockings in Olivia’s mourning household.

Bate has entered a more crowded Shakespearean marketplace than Johnson, and with rather more confident financial backing, and he must have had to sign a much more elaborate contract. Instead of involving only a publisher and an editor, this edition also has a co-editor (the gifted American textual scholar Eric Rasmussen, brought into the project in 2004), and any contract would have had to cover the publication not just of the book itself but of a virtual comet-tail of supplementary materials, to be found at www.rscshakespeare.co.uk. (The Folios, Rowe’s edition and the rest may have beaten Bate to a lot of important firsts, but the RSC is certainly the first edition of Shakespeare to provide a link to its editor’s blog.) More surprisingly, the contract also involved the corporate participation of a large subsidised arts organisation, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it, rather than the publisher or the editors, holds the copyright in the edition.

In what senses other than this legal one The RSC Shakespeare belongs to the RSC, however, is not entirely clear. Unlike earlier editions produced with the participation of theatre companies – in Johnson’s time Bell’s Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, As they are now performed at the Theatres Royal in London; Regulated from the Prompt Books of each House (1774), and more recently the Henry Irving Shakespeare (1892), or the versions of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Hamlet released by Oberon Books in conjunction with productions by English Touring Theatre (2002-7) – this one does not claim the authority of specific recent performances for the texts it presents. Although its introductory materials include a foreword by Michael Boyd and a splendid collection of photographs showing RSC players in a range of contrasting productions (from Peter Brook’s 1962 King Lear to Gregory Doran’s 2006 Antony and Cleopatra), there is no suggestion that the RSC has ever performed Shakespeare’s plays in the versions given here, or that they ever intend to do so. By comparison with the pocket-sized single-play paperbacks in the New Penguin series, which once carried the plausible endorsement ‘Used and Recommended by the RSC’, this three-inch-thick volume hardly begs to be taken into rehearsal rooms and covered in pencilled underlinings and extra stage directions, despite a ‘User’s Guide’ which includes hints that purport to be aimed at performers: ‘We use the convention of a grave accent to indicate sounding (thus ‘turnèd’ would be two syllables), but would urge actors not to overstress.’ Even now Ian McKellen is performing King Lear in Stratford using a text including the mock-trial scene, here relegated to an appendix.

If by dabbling in the blogosphere and entering a contractual relationship not just with printers but with players Bate has made editorial life more complicated for himself than Johnson did, in other respects The RSC Shakespeare represents Shakespearean editing made simple – or as simple as it is ever likely to be. While Johnson set out to produce a variorum, compiling and summarising the history of Shakespearean emendation and annotation (‘in this edition all that is valuable will be adopted from every commentator, that posterity may consider it as including all the rest’), Bate and Rasmussen’s textual notes credit any post-Renaissance corrections they adopt only to ‘a later editor’. This seems fair enough, given how few readers of Shakespeare nowadays would pick up his collected works in order to find out that it was Lewis Theobald who first decided that in Act II Scene iii of Twelfth Night Sir Andrew Aguecheek has sent sixpence to Feste for his ‘leman’, rather than, as the Folios have it, for his ‘lemon’. (‘But the Clown was neither Pantler, nor Butler,’ Theobald crowed. ‘The Poet’s Word was certainly mistaken by the Ignorance of the Printers. I have restor’d, leman, i.e. I sent thee Sixpence to spend on thy Mistress.’)

More visibly, Bate and Rasmussen have also spared themselves the metrical trouble of deciding when a half-line spoken by one character should be heard as completing the half-line just spoken by another, by numbering all such half-lines as if they were whole: hence in III.i of Twelfth Night Olivia’s ‘That’s a degree to love’ is not indented so as to indicate that its rhythm follows on from Viola’s ‘I pity you,’ and the two utterances are counted as lines 102 and 103 (rather than as two parts of what in the Oxford edition is line 122). It is surprising what an effect this pervasive but apparently minor typographical choice has, hard not to feel, for instance, that there is a slight but important difference in the relationship between Duke Senior and Jaques as typeset by the RSC and by most of its modern competitors at one famous moment in As You Like It:

Duke Senior: Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

Jaques:           All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players …

Duke Senior: Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

Jaques: All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players …

In the former rendering, Jaques’s celebrated monologue is definitely part of a conversation, consciously continuing and elaborating the Duke’s thought; in the RSC’s layout, the Duke’s speech appears to stop, and then Jaques’s more famous speech appears to start, the metrical join between them far less obvious.

In Bate and Rasmussen’s defence, however, their typesetting is much the closer to that of the play’s sole early text, in the Folio, and it is here that The RSC Shakespeare’s central and defining piece of simplification really comes into view. When it comes to deciding what to print as the text of Shakespeare’s plays – half of which exist not only in the 1623 First Folio but in earlier quarto versions which are often complicatedly different – it has had the courage (or ‘nerve’, if you dislike the results) to cut the Gordian knot of Shakespearean textual studies in spectacular fashion. Instead of agonising over the relationship between the quarto and folio texts of any given play, Bate and Rasmussen simply favour the readings provided in the First Folio wherever they can be shown to make any sense at all. Hence the good quarto texts of Hamlet (the basis for the majority of editions of the play) and King Lear (which the Oxford printed separately, becoming the first edition of Shakespeare to offer future Keatses the opportunity to sit down to read King Lear twice again) are here broken up into mere ‘quarto passages that do not appear in the Folio’ and printed after the end of each play. Perhaps Bate and Rasmussen would have preferred McKellen to perform the mock-trial scene in King Lear only as an encore.

The editors’ enthusiasm for the Folio is such, furthermore, that they are prepared to reject an unusual number of famous corrections to its imputed errors, so much so that it’s a wonder that their Feste hasn’t been sent sixpence for a lemon once again. The most famous emendation they have chosen to ignore comes during Mistress Quickly’s account of the death of Falstaff in the second act of Henry V. In the Folio, the passage in question runs as follows:

for after I saw him fumble with the Sheets, and play with Flowers, and smile vpon his fingers end, I knew there was but one way: for his Nose was as sharpe as a Pen, and a Table of greene fields.

The last phrase baffled Pope (who thought it must derive from a misplaced marginal instruction to a props manager called Greenfield), but his arch-rival Theobald produced a more plausible solution: ‘for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’babled of green fields.’ ‘The Conjectural Emendation I have given,’ Theobald declared, ‘is so near to the Traces of the Letters in the corrupted Text; that I have ventur’d to insert it as the genuine Reading,’ and most editors since – much happier with a Falstaff who goes to Arthur’s bosom gibbering about Old England than with one whose nose seems to resemble a pointed Subbuteo pitch – have been prepared to follow him. For those who are comfortable with neither, there is the option of the 1600 quarto text, which avoids the problem:

His nose was as sharpe as a pen:
For when I saw him fumble with the sheetes,
And talk of floures, and smile vpº his fingers ends
I knew there was no way but one.

But Bate and Rasmussen are loyal to the Folio, and instead of following either Theobald or the earlier printing they give the phrase like this: ‘for his nose was as sharp as a pen on a table of green fields.’ This, mind, involves changing the Folio’s ‘and’ to ‘on’, and there are some signs of faltering conviction in the footnote, which not only records the more customary emendation but sounds like a better gloss on it than on the reading the editors have preferred: ‘perhaps alluding to the fields on a green gaming (backgammon) table; also biblical in tone (“he maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” Psalm 23.2); many editors emend to “and a’babbled/talked of green fields”.’ I doubt I will ever hear an actress prefer Bate and Rasmussen’s version to Theobald’s, but it is impossible not to be impressed by the zeal and consistency with which their editorial principles have been applied, even when it is at the expense of printing a less obviously attractive reading.

Bate’s rationale for privileging the Folio, which he sets out both in his general introduction and in a longer essay available on the edition’s website, derives less from his professed role model Johnson (who substituted quarto readings quite frequently where he felt that the Folio’s text was damaged or curtailed) than from the more radical editorial policies of the Oxford edition of 1986. (It is telling that the one controversial emendation Bate and Rasmussen do impose on the Folio – changing the name of the heroine of Cymbeline on the grounds that the hitherto unknown name ‘Imogen’ must have been a misprint for ‘Innogen’, used by Shakespeare elsewhere – is inherited from that edition.) Oxford’s general editors, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, decided that, instead of trying to reproduce Shakespeare’s texts as their author had allegedly and solitarily intended them (the goal of most previous editions), they should acknowledge both the collective nature of Elizabethan drama and the theatrical provenance of most early printings of the plays by confining themselves to trying to reproduce the plays as they were first performed.

Bate has adopted most of their assumptions except the emphasis on the earliest recoverable or partly recoverable performances: in cases where the quartos record the way any given play was performed in the 1590s and the Folio is based on a modified text in use in the 1600s, Bate always prefers the latter, arguing that the snapshot Shakespeare’s theatrical colleagues Hemings and Condell have given us of the way Shakespeare’s scripts looked in the King’s Men’s Jacobean repertory is the one we should accept. In fact Bate’s attitude to the quartos sometimes sounds almost punitive: ‘We have demarcated the non-Folio works (poems, sonnets, quarto-only passages of Hamlet and Lear, together with the two collaborative plays, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen) by setting them in double-column format – a deliberate inversion of the original distinction whereby quartos were single-column and Folio double.’

I have written before in the LRB about the overvaluation of the First Folio on sentimental grounds as the ‘actors’ Shakespeare’,[†] but the chief objection to Bate and Rasmussen’s editorial policy arises not because the Folio’s texts aren’t often based on copies in theatrical use by the King’s Men but because they are. One of the ways in which we can tell that many Folio texts derive from the scripts spoken on the Jacobean stage is that, unlike the earlier quartos, they have been subjected to religious censorship in the form of the 1606 Act to Restrain Abuses of Players. This piece of legislation – which had no jurisdiction over what got printed – was passed by MPs unhappy about public breaches of the Seventh Commandment, and threatened any actor caught taking the name of the Lord in vain with a £10 fine. Most classical actors today would find such a penalty ruinous, but in 1606 it meant the debtors’ prison, and hence the theatre companies were very careful to comply, removing even the harmless-sounding ‘’swounds’ – a potentially offensive abbreviation of ‘God’s wounds’ – from their stocks of scripts and substituting more ecclesiastically correct exclamations for anything else that might conceivably be regarded as blasphemy.

Thanks to its principled loyalty to the Folio, some of the results of this instance of art being made tongue-tied by authority are now enshrined throughout Bate and Rasmussen’s edition. To anyone more accustomed to the uncensored readings provided by the quartos, especially anyone to whom the spectacle of someone saying ‘Heavens!’ to avoid saying ‘God!’ is inescapably reminiscent of curates in sitcoms, one side-effect is a sneaking suspicion that many of the roles in The RSC Shakespeare’s versions of Hamlet and Henry IV Part 1 have unaccountably been given to Derek Nimmo. Hamlet’s ‘O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourned longer!’ (Oxford) becomes ‘O, heaven! A beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourned longer’; his response to the Ghost’s ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love – ’ is not ‘O God!’ (Oxford) but ‘O, heaven!’; in the ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ soliloquy, his desperate ‘’Swounds, I should take it’ (Oxford) becomes ‘Why, I should take it,’ while his furious taunt to Laertes at Ophelia’s graveside, ‘’Swounds, show me what thou’lt do’ (Oxford), becomes the surprisingly reasonable ‘Come, show me what thou’lt do.’ Laertes, exclaiming at the sight of his sister’s madness, becomes an honorary pagan, as his ‘Do you see this, O God?’ is replaced with ‘Do you see this, you gods?’

The damage is if anything more serious in Henry IV Part 1, where the language of the common people and the nobility alike has been reduced to an altogether less heightened state of sensation. Mistress Quickly is repeatedly denied her signature exclamation ‘O Jesu!’ so that her response to Falstaff’s performance as the king in the tavern scene becomes the rather insipid ‘O, rare, he doth it as like one of these harlotry players as ever I see,’ and then, later, she is unidiomatically called ‘a thing to thank heaven on’ rather than ‘a thing to thank God on’; the carrier at Rochester has to complain that the turkeys in his pannier are half-starved without appealing to ‘God’s body’, and he responds to Gadshill’s felonious request for his lantern with a polite ‘Nay, soft, I pray ye; I know a trick worth two of that,’ rather than the more robust ‘Nay, by God, soft. I know a trick worth two of that, i’faith’ in the Oxford version. Even Falstaff is rendered similarly mealy-mouthed, owing heaven a death rather than God, and not only does the king have to be wary of mentioning the Almighty when rebuking his son, but even the plain-spoken Hotspur, the man who complains that his lady swears ‘like a comfit-maker’s wife’ and ought to use ‘a good mouth-filling oath’, cannot declare ‘By God, I cannot flatter.’ This feature may improve this edition’s chances of becoming the set text at small Baptist colleges in the Bible Belt (so long, that is, as their deans don’t look too hard at the explanatory footnotes, which are much more candid about country matters than those of many competitors), but it won’t please those who would rather hear Falstaff speak with the profanity he was allowed in 1596 than with the piety imposed after 1606.

This problem with the texts of works that exist in different early versions, however, doesn’t affect the whole canon. Nor does it in any way detract from Bate’s achievement elsewhere in his edition as an interpreter of and advocate for the plays. His general introduction to Shakespeare’s life, stage and reputation is superb, and the short introductions to individual works, in particular, are among the best of their kind available. Instead of sounding, as such essays often do, like dutiful bringings-up-to-date of a diligent colleague with the received wisdom and current specialist arguments, they manage to speak about what really matters about the plays to readers who wish, whether they are already familiar with them or not, to come to them freshly. (Bate’s two and a half pages on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, would deserve a place in any anthology of writing about the play, and his four equally compelling pages on Hamlet give the impression that even if he has just read two hundred critical essays on the subject he has also this minute seen a really exciting production.) The one depressing aspect of these introductions is the heading that Macmillan has given their short catalogues of statistical and historical information (plot summary, percentage of the play spoken by each major character, percentages of verse and prose, probable date, sources, nature of early texts): these are boxed as ‘Key Facts’. The very words are like a knell: suddenly one begins to wonder whether those yellow boards were designed to co-ordinate with copies of ‘Cliffs Notes’.

Perhaps the task of rendering in print works that can be realised only in performance is always fraught with contradictions, but this edition, with its mixed loyalties to the recording of past performances from the 17th century and the enabling of future ones in the 21st, to the transatlantic mass market artificially created by school and college syllabuses and the mailing list of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to the editorial practices of Samuel Johnson and those of Stanley Wells, gives a sense of being pulled in an even larger number of different directions than is usual. The strain is perhaps most audible in the uncharacteristically overlong penultimate sentence of Bate’s general introduction:

As Johnson drew on the revolutionary textual innovations of his predecessors such as Lewis Theobald, but had a presumption in favour of the authority of the Folio and of explaining rather than emending Shakespeare’s text, so we draw on late-20th-century scholarly innovations but inaugurate the 21st-century editorial tradition by falling back on Johnsonian common sense and gratitude to John Hemings and Henry Condell for their extraordinary work in making Shakespeare available ‘to the great variety of readers’ in a text that keeps his plays anchored in the place from which they came and where they continue to be most alive: the theatre.

Even with the help of a website, it is hard to see how any single edition could achieve all these contradictory ambitions. Being Johnsonian and theatrical at once may be one Unique Selling Point too far. But The RSC Shakespeare packs a critical punch well up to its physical weight, and although I won’t be citing its line numbers in preference to those of the Oxford edition any time soon, its cover deserves to claim its dazzling inches of shelf space well beyond the RSC’s bookstalls in Stratford – where, despite the expansion and complication of the Shakespearean marketplace since 1756, it will presumably enjoy a monopoly on the attentions of theatregoers and school parties which would be envied by the signatories to that little contract on display near Fleet Street.

[*] It’s part of the exhibition Behind the Scenes: The Hidden Life of Georgian Theatre 1737-84, at Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, until 18 September.

[†] 15 November 2001.