Textual Performances: The Modern Reproduction of Shakespeare's Drama

By Walsh, Brian | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Textual Performances: The Modern Reproduction of Shakespeare's Drama


Walsh, Brian, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Textual Performances: The Modern Reproduction of Shakespeare's Drama, Lukas Erne and Margaret Jane Kidnie, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xv + 229. Cloth $70.00.

Reviewer: Brian Walsh

The history of the book has been a hot subject in literary studies for several years now, and its popularity among early modern scholars shows no sign of diminishing. The 2006 MLA convention, for instance, featured no less than three sessions devoted to the topic courtesy of the Renaissance literature division. The new collection Textual Performances, edited by Lukas Erne and Margaret Jane Kidnie, deals mainly with one of the perhaps less happening corners of textual criticism: editorial practice. Nonetheless, it is as timely as any of the more cutting edge work being done on book history. This volume should be of interest to anyone who teaches Shakespeare or Renaissance drama on a regular basis, or who cares about how this drama circulates in the world today. Its most pressing questions concern the material traces of these plays as they have come down to us in printed, and more rarely manuscript sources, and how we convert those traces to editions for students, scholars, performers, and general readers. The collection admirably serves as both a primer on the development of what might be called "meta-editorial" scholarship in Renaissance drama, as well as an example of some of the most current thinking on editorial decisions.

The thirteen essays in Textual Performances cover a range of topics, from the production of electronic editions of early modern plays to the loaded issue of inferring and inserting stage directions in play texts. With the exception of Leah S. Marcus's essay on editing Othello, there are few if any truly controversial arguments to be found in Textual Performances. Most of the essays seek merely to highlight and de-familiarize some particular aspect of editorial practice, and perhaps offer alternatives to choices that have hardened into critical orthodoxy. The collection is willing to pose questions and offer solutions without being programmatic. The essays tend to call for a more openended approach to editing texts, an approach that cedes authority from editors to readers, or, as some of the essays prefer to term the consumers of play texts, "users."

Essays by H. R. Woudhuysen, Paul Werstine, and Ernst Honigmann nicely survey some of the major figures whose editing practices and philosophies continue to shape the production of texts today, such as W W Greg, A. E. Houseman, R. B. McKerrow, and A. W Pollard. Such mapping of the history of editing the Renaissance allows great insight into many features of edited texts we might assume to be "natural." For instance, Werstine critiques instances where early editors assumed that repetition in a text meant corruption, and therefore found it necessary to determine which lines should be eliminated and which preserved. Michael Warren also usefully takes issue with a tradition of perceived textual corruption and subsequent editorial intervention in the specific case of Coriolanus and its unnamed citizens. The sum idea of this group of essays points to the need for continual révaluation of the criteria by which editors determine which available texts are "good" and which are "bad," decisions that provide the foundations for the editions they produce.

Sonia Massai brings us into the electronic age with her excellent essay on an Internet Shakespeare Edition of Edward III she recently prepared. Massai is optimistic about the possibilities for editing that electronic media allow, such as the use of animated types to show textual variants with greater flexibility than would be possible in a print edition. A fascinating counter point to Massai' s piece comes toward the end of the volume in John Lavagnino's more skeptical take on editing in the digital age. Lavagnino airs fundamental but easily overlooked concerns about, for instance, the display on computer screens, and concludes that "the highly developed technology of the book is not easy to improve upon" (203).

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