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.

Conflicts of opinion naturally get sharper when the decisions that have to be made involve the substance of Othello, Lear or Hamlet. They call for delicate apprehensions and tactful demonstration, and occasionally some polemical vigour. For what it is worth, my opinion is that Jones is rarely wrong in his sense of what is Shakespearean; he recognises a quality he calls ‘poise’, and repeatedly displays a sense of what I can only call the presiding personality: nobody else would have done precisely that. For all his scrupulous documentation it is on this kind of perception that he has to rely, and it is on the authority of such perceptions that the reader in turn comes to depend.

He starts his detailed enquiry with the sole extended passage of writing that is almost certainly in Shakespeare’s own hand: namely, three pages, 147 lines, in the manuscript play Sir Thomas More. This play, never printed or performed, was mainly the work of two or three minor dramatists of the period – it was not at all unusual to patch plays together in this way. Their first attempt ran into censorship difficulties and at some point the manuscript was revised (though, curiously, not in ways calculated to appease the censor) and Shakespeare seems to have been one of the revisers.

Nobody can say why he took on this job at a time when he must already have had a heavy workload, but there is unusual unanimity among the experts that the lines are in his hand as it is known from other sources, and that some idiosyncratic spellings, strange even in that age of ‘spell-as-you-please’, as Jones puts it, support the attribution. Moreover the crowd scene, with More restoring a potentially dangerous mob to order, is very much in Shakespeare’s line. So the manuscript offers a picture of Shakespeare ‘composing fluently, making the slips that go with speed’. His text suffered some alteration by another hand that was perhaps preparing the play for the stage, and occasionally got muddled by the untidiness, and the already existing changes and insertions made by Shakespeare. Here is a unique piece of evidence – a longish passage of Shakespeare seen in its transition from first thoughts to theatrical text.

Everywhere else it is more a matter of tactful conjecture. Sometimes one can be fairly sure what has happened; for example, in the Quarto of Richard II we read the line ‘Cry woe, destruction, ruin and decay,’ which though perfectly serviceable, is replaced in the Folio by ‘Cry woe, destruction, ruin, loss, decay’, and Jones feels sure that the change, by which ‘the line’s rhythm grows more subtle and more grand,’ is by Shakespeare. On the other hand, he explains the Folio deletion of a passage in Act III.ii of the same play by describing the four cut lines as ‘dramatically inert’, which they aren’t, since (in my opinion) the next speech plainly follows directly from them and not from the line that precedes the cut:

BISHOP: Fear not my lord. The power that made you king

Hath power to keep you king in spite of all.

The means that heavens yield must be embraced

And not neglected; else heaven would,

And we will not; heaven’s offer we refuse,

The proffer’d means of succour and redress.

AUMERLE: He means, my lord, that we are too remiss,

Whilst Bolingbroke, through our security,

Grows strong and great in substance and in friends.

Whether or not the italicised lines, found only in the Quarto, are so much flatter than the verse on either side of them, the Bishop is saying that although heaven has the power to keep Richard king it’s up to him to do something to help. This, and not the suggestion that heaven will do it all on its own, is the point Aumerle is summarising. So whoever made it, and for whatever reason, the cut is inept. It could have been the work of a ruthless prompter rather than a dramatist weeding out dull lines.

On the whole Jones avoids idolatry, sensibly remarking that not all authorial revision need be for the better, and also allowing for the fact that the pen that alters one thing is likely, redundantly, to alter others in its vicinity; but here and in some other places, he does seem to give the Bard the benefit of any doubt. (Excepted from this rule of charity is Troilus and Cressida, a play with which Jones is uncharacteristically and unfairly impatient, dismissing it as a ‘lofty romp’.)

The bulk of the book is devoted to Hamlet, a play that is a paradise to bibliographers but a nightmare to many editors. There are three versions: a Quarto of 1603, a second Quarto of 1604/5, and the Folio of 1623. The first, based on memorial reporting, is without authority, though in several ways useful. From the Thirties until recently it was assumed that Q2 ought to be the copy-text, as closest to Shakespeare’s autograph. The view now taken is that Q2 represents a draft, quite close to final but later revised for performance, so that the differences between Q2 and F, which are considerable, ought usually to be resolved in favour of F. The texts of the play most of us grew up with tend to insert bits of F into Q2, so providing a composite version which was never performed. Jones is, of course, a Folio man. Strictly speaking, the great soliloquy ‘How all occasions do inform against me,’ which is not in F, should be omitted from modern editions (as indeed it is from the recent Oxford versions, for which Jones has a not uncritical fondness). Incidentally, it is also absent from Q1, which offers, though unreliably, an idea of what was performed in the first years of the play’s existence.

Jones argues that it was cut because there has already been quite enough of Hamlet lamenting his procrastination, especially in the earlier soliloquy ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ ‘Having written these two soliloquies, Shakespeare saw that he had made a mistake,’ so he threw out the final soliloquy (which is in any case oddly placed: Hamlet says he has ‘will and strength and means’ to kill the King when he is on his way to England, under guard and for the first time quite unable to get at Claudius). To make up far the loss, and give the play a better balance, he inserted in the already enormous and wonderful Act II.ii a long and remarkable passage of dialogue about Denmark being a prison.

His reasons are interesting in their way, but reasons in these cases are as plentiful as blackberries, and I think Jones works best not on large conjectures about the dramatist’s concern for balance and so forth, but on small details, like the difference between ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to her?’ and ‘What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?’ preferring the second (F) which he regards as a revision, though editors often think it a corruption. Another instance is his admiring acceptance of the F revision in the following passage, at the end of the play-within-the-play:

OPHELIA: The King rises.

HAMLET: What, frighted with false fire?

GERTRUDE: How fares my lord?

POLONIUS: Give o’er the play

where Hamlet’s line is not in Q2. Jones believes that this change was made between the writing of the scene and its performance (the ‘pirates’ of Q1 remembered it, so it must have been there by 1603). Of course it could simply have been left out of Q2 by a compositor; Jones cannot insure against that possibility, so that his praise for this ‘afterthought’ could conceivably be misplaced. But as he remarks, he is always dealing with probabilities rather than certainties. He approaches certainty, however, in some subtle readings, as in his comment on the passage where F inserts the words ‘lawful espials’ into a speech of Polonius, thereby disturbing a perfectly good iambic pentameter and making necessary a short line which isn’t filled out. Here it is necessary to explain why the addition was worth the disturbance, and Jones explains it.

What gives one confidence is Jones’s well-expressed sense of the general mood of the play as ‘flecked with high spirits and a vastly intelligent, piercing levity … the play is in a state of revolt against the more obvious of its own decorums.’ It is this mood that is served by ‘lawful espials’, and it is his understanding of it that makes everything Jones says about the play so absorbing, whether or not he is right to treat Q2 as a provisional version, subject to the corrections recorded in whatever was the principal copy for F, presumed to be of theatrical provenance.

The case of Lear, at present the subject of much throwing about of bibliographical brains, is different. Current expert opinion prefers to think the Quarto of 1608 not a working draft but a distinct version of the play, and F a complete reworking, which is why the Oxford Shakespeare sets out both texts in full. Jones compares them to the distinct versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude of 1805 and 1850. He does consider the possibility of a lost original behind both versions but dismisses it. I have doubts about the rightness of this, and am not convinced that the revision thesis necessarily rules out the lost archetype; but there is perhaps not enough readerly patience to argue the point here.

Possibly these doubts explain why I feel more sceptical about Jones’s Lear than about his Hamlet. Consider these famous lines:

               Men must endure
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all.

Edgar has parked his blind father under a tree and gone off to battle, promising that if he returns he will bring comfort. But the battle is lost, he returns without being able to offer any comfort at all, except for the sententia recorded above. The Folio completes the concluding line by making Gloucester answer, ‘And that’s true too,’ which Jones, unable this time to think of a reason why Shakespeare might have added these words himself, calls ‘a pointless enfeeblement’, perhaps the work of a compositor needing to ‘stretch’ his copy.[*] But this bibliographical conjecture seems to be necessary only because Jones happens not to approve of the additional words. Can this be out of misplaced reverence for the wisdom of Edgar’s remark, ‘Ripeness is all,’ and indeed for the wisdom of the Bard? Edgar then says; ‘Come on!’ He’s in a hurry, uttering not great truths but a perfunctorily consoling commonplace; Gloucester, wearily and reluctantly following his son, recognises it as such, no doubt feeling quite ripe enough already. To read this extraordinary little scene otherwise is, I think, to risk devaluing the play. This seems true also of a rather far-fetched idea that in cutting the scene (IV.iii) in which Cordelia is described in rapt tones, rather like a heroine of romance – or, as some have said, like the Virgin Mary – Shakespeare was acknowledging that his romance period was to come later in his career, not just yet; as if he was already, like Dowden, dividing his life into phases, and didn’t want to get ‘On the Heights’ too soon. But such lapses (as I think them) are invariably engaging.

The two versions of Othello present different problems; the play was published in a Quarto in 1622, very shortly before it appeared in the Folio. Jones thinks the version performed for James I at the Banqueting House in 1604 was substantially the Quarto text. In 1606 Parliament passed an Act restraining profanity and blasphemy in the theatre, so that thereafter existing plays had to be revised to eliminate oaths and other language that might be called blasphemous or profane. The Quarto of Othello contains 52 oaths, such as ‘’Sblood’ or ‘Zouns’, while the Folio has none. The argument is that in going through the play to clean it up in this respect, the reviser made a good many other changes as well. This person was Shakespeare, and Jones thinks that some time after May 1606, when the Act of Parliament became law, he wrote out the whole play afresh. On this view the Othello Quarto, unlike Hamlet (Q2), represents a satisfactory version that had already been acted; and the Folio offers a complete reworking of it. There are many small changes, on which Jones is very acute, and one large one, the addition of the Willow Song (the alternative explanation, that it had existed but was for some reason left out of the Quarto version, is, I agree, less probable). Following a hint of Nevill Coghill’s, Jones takes this notable addition as part of a rethinking of the role of Emilia, who is also given, at the end of Act IV, a striking new 18-line speech (‘But I do think it is their husbands’ faults / When wives do fall’) which is even more plausibly part of such a plan. Here, as elsewhere on Othello, the argument seems very convincing, and it seems a shame that Boito and Verdi, to whom the added Willow Song passage was such a godsend, should have cut the role of Emilia so heavily.

Anyway, Jones is right that the 160 lines of F that are missing in Q make a deal of difference. And about such differences this book, which is a work of literary criticism in its detective mode, has more of interest to say than any other I know. Few readers, glancing past the sigla in the foot-notes of their copies, can ever have expected that so much delight and wisdom might be got from them, and many rewards in the forms of both agreement and dissent. And how rare a pleasure it is actually to admire a book on Shakespeare!

[*] 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.