The Tortured Signifier: Satire, Censorship, and the Textual History of Troilus and Cressida

By Stritmatter, Roger | Critical Survey, May 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Tortured Signifier: Satire, Censorship, and the Textual History of Troilus and Cressida


Stritmatter, Roger, Critical Survey


[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Why does the 1609 quarto of Troilus and Cressida exist in two states, each with a distinct title page (S1 and S2, Figure One)? Surely this textual doubling is the most conspicuous illustration of W.W. Greg's admonition that Troilus is a 'play of puzzles, in respect of its textual history no less than its interpretation'. (1) Despite more than a century of speculation, contemporary criticism seems no closer to a satisfying solution. Traditionally, answers have focused on hypothetical market-driven preferences of the publishers, Richard Bonian and Henry Whalley: S1's reference to performance at the Globe theatre is false because it was 'unlikely that this play was ever performed to an audience at the Globe' (2) and the preface to S2 constitutes 'an assurance that the play was designed for some private occasion or company'. (3) Or the publishers supposed that having two different states of the title page would incite publicity and 'stimulate sales', (4) or one publisher, for some unidentified reason, preferred one title page, and the other, another. (5) Or 'they decided to avoid a copyright dispute with His Majesty's Servants by leaving them unnamed either in the title or the epistle', (6) or 'they discovered after printing was under way that the play had held the stage only briefly but had attracted a sophisticated following'. (7) No wonder that William Godshalk has recently chastised Troilus critics for substituting unverifiable speculation for sober interpretation of factual evidence, encouraging a disciplined return to a 'facts first, then interpretation' inquiry model. (8)

Hypothetical context--performance venue--has for decades constituted the epicenter of this controversy over the two states of Q. At least since Peter Alexander's influential 1928 study, (9) a dominant tradition has regarded S1's explicit statement that the play was acted at the Globe theatre as a falsehood. By 1970 this view was so well entrenched in the critical literature that Alexander's theory of an original Inns of Court performance had 'almost acquired the status of a fact'. (10) Much debated but never confuted, this line of reasoning culminated in William R. Elton's detailed, comprehensive 2000 argument, based on the play's legal and philosophical erudition, that the play must have been written for an elite audience at one of the Inns of Court. (11)

Notwithstanding the persuasiveness of Elton's premise, it is difficult to understand how internal evidence for the play's intellectual sophistication, however copious, can substantiate his conclusion, without proof of the unlikely proposition that the Inns of Court held a monopoly on intellectual humor. As Greg long ago remarked, 'there is no shred of external evidence with which the conjecture [of an Inns of Court performance] can be supported'; (12) more recently, Jarold W. Ramsey effectively critiques the 'curiously circular logic' (13) by which speculation on the tastes of the Inns of Court audience takes precedence over empirical investigation, and is then used to prove that the play was suitable for such an audience but not for one at the Globe. On the contrary, survey of the surviving Inns of Court repertoire suggests that 'Troilus and Cressida would have been something of an oddity as an Inns of Court play in the first decade of the century'. (14)

As Ramsay also notes, in an argument that I have not seen answered, significant internal evidence (beyond the S1 title page), testifies against the Inns of Court theory: Pandarus twice 'makes clear reference to women in the audience', (15) and both references are insults that 'do not square well with the guests assembled for an Inns of Court Revels', (16) even if women had been in attendance (as they sometimes were) at such a venue. Such references seem better calculated to provoke the amusement of a mixed public audience, including Bankside women of lower social class. (17) Most troubling for the Inns venue theory, however, is S1's unambiguous statement that the play is printed 'As it was acted by the Kings Maiesties servants at the Globe' (Figure One).

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