Return to the Totem

Frank Kermode

  • William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery
    Oxford, 671 pp, £60.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 19 812914 9
  • Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare by Stanley Cavell
    Cambridge, 226 pp, £25.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 521 33032 7
  • A History of English Literature by Alastair Fowler
    Blackwell, 395 pp, £17.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 631 12731 3

This Textual Companion is described by the publisher as ‘an indispensable companion to The Complete Oxford Shakespeare’, which indeed it is, and it was reasonable to complain, when The Complete Works and The Complete Works: Original Spelling Edition appeared in 1986 and 1987, that they were badly in need of this third to walk beside them. The Companion is a very fine thing, and the publisher is again within his rights to call it ‘probably the most comprehensive reference work on Shakespearian textual problems ever assembled in a single volume’.

Its practical disadvantages are too obvious to dwell upon for more than a moment. Weighing about half a stone, it brings the total of pages in this Collected Edition to something over 3500, and the total cost to £170. Not many readers will have desks large enough to do as the editors pleasantly imagine they might, and have all the volumes open at once. The notes, incidentally, are keyed to the text of the Original Spelling edition, not the cheaper modernised version. Moreover, the annotation is purely textual, and explanatory only when the editors need to justify a reading; so anybody who craves the sort of help to be had from, say, the Arden Shakespeare, or the single-play editions of the Oxford, or even from some rival collected editions, will need an even larger desk. And we learn from the Preface, with mixed feelings, that the editors have compiled ‘a glossarial commentary (at present unpublished)’ which will no doubt in due course create further demands on pocket and space.

A rather tetchy review of the Companion-less volumes of the Complete Works (LRB, 21 May 1987) complained at some length about the Original Spelling edition, partly because it represented what I took to be an unexplained change of editorial policy (there are arguments against such an edition, some of which the senior editor had quite recently endorsed); and partly because justification for some of its readings – ‘fake antiques’, as they were unkindly dubbed – was to be withheld until the appearance of this ancillary volume, only a few scraps of which had been sent to reviewers.

As one would expect, the Companion learnedly defends its choices in these and the hundreds of other places where choice is an editorial necessity; and emendations for an ‘original spelling’ edition require some imaginative exercises in Jacobean spelling. Still, it is a fair guess that the principal reason for having an original-spelling edition after all was precisely that it made the business of explaining and defending editorial choices and emendations rather less clumsy for the editor, though at the cost of making the edition as a whole much harder to use by the reader.

However, it seems right to stop carping, for a while at any rate. The editors have thought hard about their policies and, conscious of their many arrogant and intemperate predecessors, explicitly disclaim infallibility. They point out that successful as well as erroneous work in this field almost invariably calls for correction, and, though quite firm in their treatment of other scholars, they avoid what Johnson called ‘the acrimony of a scholiast’ and generally preserve a civil tone. ‘No edition of Shakespeare can or should be definitive ... Our own edition ... is inevitably not only fallible but arbitrary.’ Gary Taylor’s General Introduction carefully explains why this is so.

It does a great deal more than that, tracing with learning and amenity the history of editorial interferences from the moment when Shakespeare’s ‘plot’ and his ‘foul papers’ were transcribed for the prompt book, licensed by the Master of the Revels as the Lord Chamberlain’s deputy, annotated by the prompter, and divided into actors’ parts. Publication, whether in authorised or unauthorised editions, or in the Folio collection of 1623, involved further interference, sometimes by scribes and always by compositors. Modern editors have to consider not only the work of all their learned predecessors but, much more importantly, the probable character of the lost manuscript material, a ghostly presence behind the early printed versions. To this end, they study with extraordinary minuteness the habits of particular scribes and compositors – journeymen now known and even loved for their idiosyncrasies, though for the most part named only by letters of the alphabet. To edit Shakespeare you need to know a great deal about contemporary conditions in the theatre and in the printing-house. And then you must make and defend firm decisions.

The Oxford editors do so. For example, they have decided that when they think they have detected an original of theatrical provenance (for instance, a text printed from a prompt book), they should choose it as their control-text. So they choose the Folio rather than the Second Quarto text of Hamlet: which is why, in their text, they omit the last of Hamlet’s soliloquies, ‘How all occasions do inform against me,’ and some other well-loved lines. ‘We do not wish to pretend,’ they demurely admit, ‘that this is the only rational choice; but we do insist that a choice has to be made, and that editors and readers must live with the consequences.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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