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.

Punctuation of course affects metrical rhythm and sense. Interestingly, the same Longman editors modernise Milton’s spelling without addressing the metrical issue, but set out to reproduce the ‘old punctuation with diplomatic faithfulness’. Punctuation, they argue, is ‘an organic part of the grammatical system, and as such its mode of operation is subtle and complex’: ‘consequently we ought to be almost as reluctant to alter the punctuation of an old text as we would be to alter its word order.’ So far as the modifying effect of punctuation on metrical rhythm is concerned, it is important to remember that we can hear differences which our received methods of scansional notation are too crude to mark. Ben Jonson saw his 1616 Folio through the press, bestowing unprecedented care even on accidentals. In 19th-century modernised texts his poem ‘To Heaven’ begins ‘Good and great God,’ or even ‘Good and great God!’ Within the poem the goodness of the Father of Mercy and the terrifying greatness of the Judge are opposed from the first: dropping Jonson’s comma after ‘Good’ affects the intonation and delivery, and therefore the meaning, of this great poem’s first couplet, and makes it harder to grasp the problematic relationship between God’s goodness and greatness.

Where Shakespeare is concerned, such issues are especially vexing. As Stanley Wells, the General Editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, engagingly remarks in the title essay of Modernising Shakespeare’s Spelling,[*] they drive an editor to ‘a state of impotent neurosis, or drink, or an early grave’. To take one example from Troilus (and I must not write Troylus, since modernising editors do not allow Shakespeare his play on Troy, Troylus and Troyan), at 2.2.81-3 of the New Arden edition Troilus exclaims:

Why keep we her? – The Grecians keep our aunt.
Is she worth keeping? – Why, she is a pearl
Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships,

and it is perfectly clear that ‘her’ and ‘she’ refer to Helen throughout. If Kenneth Palmer had retained the Folio colon after ‘aunt’, it would be necessary to explain in a note that the first ‘she’ does not refer to Aunty Hesione. It may be argued that this is what notes are for, and that it is best to acquire familiarity with Shakespeare’s punctuation. A counter-argument might have a dual thrust: first, the edition is prepared for general readers (although an elaborate textual introduction gives a different impression); second, the supposedly Shakespearean rhetorical pointing may well be compositorial or scribal (although it would still be of its period).

Thoroughgoing modernisation is one response to this dilemma, and is the response which the Oxford edition favours. But then, as Michael Warren argued in a 1977 article on ‘Repunctuation as Interpretation’, modern punctuation ‘has rhetorical implications, and its intrusion inevitably affects the phrasing and, especially for the actor, the intonation of the speech; the most innocent modernisation may preclude an alternative interpretation, or alter a rhythmic pattern.’ In Modernising Shakespeare’s Spelling – which stands to the present Oxford edition as R.B. McKerrow’s Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare stood to the planned old-spelling edition which never materialised – Stanley Wells both concedes this important objection and disregards it. He manages this by resorting to the argument about compositors and scribes – an argument which has disconcerting force when applied to Shakespeare and almost no force when applied to Jonson’s Workes as printed in the 1616 Folio. And Wells finishes his own discussion of punctuation by suggesting that editors ‘might valuably look for models rather in current literary and dramatic practice than in academic textbooks’.

Here we confront a third paradox. We still have no critical reading edition of Shakespeare which would satisfy Ann Pasternak Slater’s ‘sole criterion’ and could take its place beside the Oxford edition of Jonson or the Twickenham edition of Pope. A facsimile or diplomatic reprint is no substitute, since we are then deprived of the fruits of centuries of textual and critical scholarship. Yet if we were entirely persuaded by Wells’s arguments for modernisation, we would be demanding, not a critical edition of Shakespeare such as McKerrow envisaged, but proper, systematically modernised editions of Jonson and Pope. To press the paradox further is not entirely unfair: if Wells discovered Shakespeare’s manuscript for Hamlet, the principles he so vigorously enunciates would still require that the Oxford Hamlet be presented in modernised form.

The problems confronting an editor of Shakespeare are so onerous and specialised that he may easily fall victim to a species of tunnel vision. The present Oxford edition is to be followed by a new Cambridge edition, supervised by Philip Brockbank, and, it is rumoured, by a revised New Arden. For modern editors the issue of whether to modernise has been replaced, for reasons that are in part commercial and expedient, by the issue of how to modernise. Here Wells has many very valuable suggestions, but the question remains: should we, in the case of our greatest poet, be satisfied with something other and something less than we expect in other critical editions? The fundamental, and traditionally accepted, principle was well stated by Fredson Bowers: ‘In all cases when a definitive edition is proposed for a dramatist, or other author, of no matter what century, we should insist a. that it be critically edited, and b. that in its texture of accidentals, as well as in its words, it conform to the closest approximation to the author’s own linguistic and orthographic characteristics that can be recovered.’

The particular editions under review vary in quality. The Oxford Shrew and the New Arden Troilus are both excellent modernised editions. The Oxford Troilus seems to me much less satisfactory. The Oxford Henry V is impressive and deliberately controversial, and therefore more of a special case. To disregard, instead of sifting, the various editors’ respective achievements on the grounds that they all modernise would of course be fatuous as well as unhelpful. However, it is important to ask how far the weaknesses of the Oxford Troilus suggest any inadequacy in Stanley Wells’s general editorial principles.

As the example of Blake’s ‘London’ suggests, the most learned and well-intentioned editor can never anticipate all of the cases where apparently insignificant ‘accidentals’ may prove significant. In the second scene of Troilus, Pandarus refers to Helen’s ‘marvell’s white hand’. Kenneth Palmer retains this in his New Arden text, but Kenneth Muir substitutes ‘marvellous’. Wanting to preserve ‘marvell’s’ might very well seem whimsical, especially when the passage is in prose. Yet the same bisyllabic form appears in Hamlet 2.1.3, and there the metre requires its retention (although the recent New Arden gives ‘marvellous’). Moreover, since Pandarus and Polonius are both elderly, garrulous addicts to court fashion, this guide to their mannered pronunciation seems a nice characterising touch. We might be irritated with Muir for removing it; Wells’s principles for modernisation require that the word remain if it has a characterising function, but the good principle has arguably failed in practice.

In the Greek council scene which follows, Agamemnon first calls the meeting to order (‘Princes:’), and then launches into regular iambic pentameters in his opening speech. The Folio lineation shows what is happening, and Palmer preserves it; but Muir prefers to follow the Quarto, collapsing the short line, the implied pause and the pentameter line that follows into one ametrical horror:

Princes, what grief hath set the jaundice on your checks?

This would sound even worse if Muir had followed the Quarto in the line’s second half. Many readers will simply assume that Shakespeare writes like this; a few will discover what has happened after consulting Appendix 3, ‘Alterations to Lineation’. In the next example this Appendix does not help.

Aeneas interrupts the council and asks, with blithely insulting courtliness, how he may know Agamemnon’s most imperial looks from eyes of other mortals. The indignant Agamemnon can barely contain himself, and Steevens was the first editor to recognise, in 1793, that at this point another break in the metre marks a dramatically held pause. ‘How?’ asks Agamemnon. ‘Ay’ is Aeneas’s unruffled, insolent reply – which he then allows to sink in, before continuing his suave provocation in a return to courtly blank verse:

I ask, that I might waken reverence
And bid the check be ready with a blush.

     (New Arden)

Again Palmer sees (or hears) what is happening; Muir both obscures the pause and destroys the effect of ‘debonair’ insolence by giving Aeneas the line ‘Ay. I ask, that I might waken reverence.’

Nor is the effect of this local mutilation merely local, since Muir rushes us through a moment with rich dramatic implications. In this play there are many ironies which turn on identification, or on a failure to identify supposedly inherent qualities and values; the held pause after ‘Ay’ emphasises, or in cinematic terms ‘freezes’, a particularly rich irony of this sort. Aeneas’s bland insult is even more devastating than he knows, since Ulysses has just been arguing that ‘degree’ is inherent and absolute, something which might (as philosophers say) be ‘read off’. But Agamemnon’s qualities are evidently ‘attributed’ in the negative rather than positive sense of that ambivalent word.

That this rejection of Steevens’s widely accepted emendation is not recorded, let alone defended, raises an issue of editorial principle. Any departure from a traditionally accepted verbal emendation would at least be discussed: but apparently emendations of lineation do not have the same status, even when they had offered to resolve metrical puzzles which Muir restores without comment. Here as elsewhere, metrical considerations appear to play little or no part in Muir’s thinking about the text. So, for example, at 2.3.174 Palmer gives ‘swol’n’, an acceptable diplomatic compromise which preserves the metre, while the old Arden and the Signet editions give ‘swoln’; but Muir changes ‘swolne’ to ‘swollen’, which produces another apparent irregularity. Rather surprisingly, at 1.3.208 Muir prefers the Quarto ‘finesse’ to the generally accepted Folio ‘fineness’; characteristically, he does not explain how his line should sound.

In Modernising Shakespeare’s Spelling Stanley Wells refers the reader to David Abercrombie’s paper ‘A Phonetician’s View of Verse Structure’ (1961), which is reprinted in Abercrombie’s Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics (Oxford, 1965). Wells follows Abercrombie in arguing that ‘the basis of the structure of English verse’ is the ‘stress-timed’ rhythm of English speech, as opposed to ‘syllable-timed rhythm’. This might furnish an account of accentual verse; Abercrombie’s first example is ‘This is the / house that / Jack / built,’ in which the fixed number of isochronous stress-pulses determines the treatment of an unfixed number of syllables. In syllabic verse only the number of syllables is fixed. The iambic pentameter is accentual-syllabic, having a fixed number of metrical stresses and a fixed number of syllables, which allows the poet a greater control over intonation. That Shakespeare’s lines are, as Dorothy Sipe puts it, ‘overwhelmingly decasyllabic’ is not allowed to impinge on the Abercrombie-Wells theory, and must presumably be regarded as a rather wonderful accident. The theory obliterates any distinction between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse, by demanding that the latter be read like the former.

It follows that an extra syllable or two, or more, can easily be ‘accommodated’ (a word Wells uses a lot); a missing syllable can be made up by a stressed pause, as in the silent medial stresses Wells discovers in The Tempest and I Henry IV. Moreover, the ‘so-called iambic pentameter’ does not merely offer ‘five stresses, some of which may fall on silence’: Abercrombie’s theory also posits a ‘sixth foot’ consisting of a silent final stress, and ‘the silent final stress forming the beginning of the sixth foot must be inserted before the next line can be started.’ Anybody who finds this plausible should try to read Leontes’s ‘Go play, boy’ speech from The Winter’s Tale in the manner demanded by Abercrombie’s theory. Yet Wells adopts and recommends this theory: nor do we need to look further, in wondering why Wells did not question Muir’s judgment and ear in the cases I quoted.

This would not be quite so alarming if the modernising editor’s decisions could be checked against a proper critical edition: but in Shakespeare’s case modernised texts have postponed and supplanted such an edition, instead of being based upon it. This means that Shakespeare’s text now has to be reconstructed from the best modernised editions, which reverses the process required by the best traditions of modern textual criticism. This reversal will be symbolised by the eventual appearance of an original spelling edition, which Wells has promised to provide ‘for those who wish to read the works in their contemporary dress’ – as if mere dressing is involved. Unless this edition also includes a full textual and critical commentary it will always need to be supplemented by the fully annotated editions of single texts which students require, and these are all modernised. I am not attacking modernisation per se: there will always be a demand, and a necessarily ephemeral place, for modernised texts, and there is much to welcome in Wells’s concern for principled, radically consistent modernisation. MY worry – which seems to me important, although I do not expect to see it widely expressed – derives from the present Oxford editors’ abandonment of McKerrow’s principle that an editor’s first concern is to strive to reproduce, ‘without any attempt to improve upon’, the ‘text as the author left it’. Every modernisation is a secondary, expedient ‘improvement’: but this requires us to place more trust in an editor’s judgment. In this, as in other matters, I agree with Verdi that ‘to trust is good, but not to trust is better.’

Setting general reservations aside, I am far more willing to trust Kenneth Palmer or the late H.J. Oliver, whose edition of The Taming of the Shrew illustrates the positive strengths of the Oxford edition. The Oxford volumes are beautifully produced, with attractive typography and wide margins. A critical preference may largely depend on the reader’s particular needs: I admired’ Brian Morris’s New Arden Shrew when it appeared, but Oliver provides a very deft account of textual issues which Morris discusses in exhaustive and exhausting detail. This appears to correspond with an Oxford ‘policy decision’. Muir provides a lucid summary of the textual problems of Troilus, where Palmer enters into a discussion of the order of printing different Quarto sheets. Gary Taylor’s important and challenging arguments about the text of Henry V have been published elsewhere; here he is content to summarise (and on occasion to modify), and I especially admired the way in which he assimilates his textual arguments to a very lively critical discussion, so that the critical consequences of his textual decisions are plain. Some readers will be persuaded that the Quarto corresponds with Shakespeare’s adaptation and abridgement of his play so that it could be performed by a cast of 11, without also being convinced that Bourbon should replace the Dauphin in a performance where larger resources are available, or in a critical edition! But Taylor’s edition is a great advance on the not very distinguished New Arden.

In saying that the curtailed textual discussions are very well adapted to the general reader’s needs, I do not imply any scholarly neglect on the part of the Oxford editors: the reader with specialised needs is provided with judicious summaries and references. I also liked the way in which they occasionally expand on stage directions, marking in square brackets whatever may be disputed: this does help the reader to visualise important and uncontentious details.

In general terms the notes are leaner than those in the New Ardens, in being less cluttered with variorum curiosities about plants, country customs and the like, and concentrating on whatever bears directly on the play. On the other hand, I would welcome more lexicographical information than either the Oxford or New Arden editions tend to provide, so that we can better grasp whether a particular word – say, ‘orgulous’ in the prologue to Troilus – would have startled Shakespeare’s contemporaries as a brilliant coinage or as an affected archaism. I would very much welcome a more systematic and judicious guide to ‘Further Reading’, such as the New Penguin editors so helpfully provide. Perhaps it is ingenuous of me to wish that modern editors would also provide a separate list of emendations and controversial variants: in most cases such a list would not fill one page, although any two editions of the same play may show hundreds of different variations in the method of modernising.

[*] 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.