Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Not One Clear Item but an Indefinite Thing Which Is in Parts of Uncertain Authenticity"

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Not One Clear Item but an Indefinite Thing Which Is in Parts of Uncertain Authenticity"

Article excerpt

WHY ARE THERE MULTIPLE VERSIONS of SO many (nearly half) of Shakespeare's plays? For me, that is the most intriguing, frustrating, and perplexing question at the heart of any meaningful Shakespearean authorship debate, because it incorporates all the other important questions at a tangible, material, historical, textual level. If we could answer it with any assurance, we would answer so many other questions at the same time. We would understand the nature of the dramatist's relationship with his fellow actors; why he chose not to put his own plays into print; whether he wrote only for performance, or at least in part with a view to being read. There is even a good chance that we could lay to rest, once and for all, the infuriating drone of those who persist in doubting that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was the only begetter, more or less, of the plays accorded by modern scholarship to the dramatist of that name.

Even among literary scholars it is often not appreciated how unique is this multiplicity of Shakespearean texts, and to those outside the field it can be a source of wonder. A professor of mechanics was once pretty much gobsmacked to discover that the phrase "an enginer hoist with his own petard" is not in the First Folio text of Hamlet, indeed that "Hamlet is, or was, not one clear item but an indefinite thing which is in parts of uncertain authenticity." (1) Those of us who are less surprised at this would nevertheless do well to try to retain something of that sense of amazement at what is in fact a unique phenomenon. The very fact that there are multiple versions of the plays--and not least of some of his finest plays, among the greatest plays in the language, including Hamlet, Othello, and Lear--is an utterly distinctive defining characteristic of Shakespeare as an "author." Analogies are sometimes drawn with the endless manuscript variants we find in the texts of such as Sidney and Donne, which were circulated for coterie consumption. But that will not answer for dramatic texts produced by a professional playwright. Among comparable contemporaries, only Jonson has left a trail of early and later versions of most of the plays reprinted in his 1616 Works. But in his case the certainty of Jonson's own hand in all stages of composition, and an apparent purpose--to impose himself on readers as a contemporary classic--leaves little mystery about the fact of revision, and makes it easy for us (at times, perhaps too easy) to discern Jonson's own sense of himself as an author. Or at least such a sense of himself as he wanted to make public. But we have no such pre-scripted narrative of the multiple Shakespeare texts. Nor can we draw analogies with such as Marlowe, Greene, Heywood, or Dekker, none of whom left us with such bibliographic profusion. Shakespeare is unique and sui generis in this, as in so much else.

The fact is that we do not know why there are multiple versions of Shakespeare's plays, or what the relationships between the various versions are. But, in the absence of that knowledge, scholars and mystics of all complexions--especially editors and bibliographers-have imagined the answers for themselves, and have in the process invented a Shakespearean "author" (or rather, a string of Shakespearean "authors") to suit themselves. So the New Bibliographers--McKerrow, Greg, and others--invented tales of textual piracy to explain the baddest of the "bad" quartos, and of adaptations for down-at-heal provincial touring to explain somewhat less bad (but still sadly sullied) versions of the plays. Such scholars were implicitly tied to a romantic or Arnoldian view of the "author" as a genius, whose words were therefore sacred, and it was their job to sift the authentic word of the master from all contaminating dross, whether it derived from the work of pirates or even the professional ministrations of Shakespeare's fellow actors. Tales of "foul papers," of scribal fair copies, and of playhouse prompt copies grew up alongside those of "bad" quartos, to help discriminate the sacred text from lesser witnesses (though few of these mythic beasts have survived to provide us with anything as unsportsmanlike as actual evidence). …

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