Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Post-Theory Problems in Shakespeare Editing

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Post-Theory Problems in Shakespeare Editing

Article excerpt

Now that theory has transformed the field of literary study, editors of early modern drama may need to reexamine their method. My essay begins such a reexamination by addressing the question of precisely what has counted as evidence and what has not, and the question of how data have been constituted as evidence in the formation of one prominent editorial grand narrative.[1] This grand narrative, first told by W. W. Greg, represents early modern plays as being transmitted onto the stage and into print through a sequence of integral operations.[2] According to the narrative, each operation issues in a distinctive kind of document whose features may even today be visible to the expert editorial eye through the alleged transparency of print. First in this putative series of separable operations was the playwright's inscription of the play in the form of a document called 'foul papers'. Secondly, this manuscript was deposited in the playhouse where it was transcribed as a 'prompt-book', the document shaped by the acting company to guide performance.[3] The 'foul papers' were then kept in the playhouse as a safeguard against appropriation of the play by either a rival company or a publisher until such time as the company put the play into print.[4] Then it was the 'foul papers', rather than the more valuable 'prompt-book', that were ordinarily provided to the publisher. According to this grand narrative, then, some of the earliest printed forms of the 'world's greatest drama' are based directly upon manuscripts in Shakespeare's own hand, with few or no intrusions by any other agent. This grand narrative thus has as one of its chief effects the conservation of the Romantic view that the greatest art we have was produced by the individual genius working in splendid isolation from the rest of his culture.

Current editorial method usually takes for granted the validity of this grand narrative and concerns itself with displaying from the early printed texts those features that allegedly identify whether the texts were printed from 'foul papers' or from 'prompt-books'. Before considering these features, I need to emphasize that they can only be constituted as 'evidence' of 'foul papers' or of a 'prompt-book' when they are emplotted (to borrow another word from Hayden White)5 within the grand narrative; outside of it they have no evidential value. Crucially for the editorial identification of printer's copy, the grand narrative limits the possibilities to either the 'foul papers' or the 'prompt-book', thereby making editorial discrimination between these possibilities meaningful. Were editors to allow that printer's copy for plays could have been any of the great variety of kinds of dramatic manuscripts that actually survive from the period (sampled later in this paper), there would be no point to the current editorial practice of discriminating between just two kinds of possible printer's copy.

What is supposed to be the distinctive mark of transcription from 'foul papers' to 'prompt-book'? According to Gary Taylor, who is a disciple of Greg in these matters if not in others, it is regularization:

[In prompt-books] stage directions tend to be more systematically supplied, in order to help regulate (directly or indirectly) offstage sounds, to ensure the readiness of actors backstage so that they can enter on cue, and to call attention to necessary properties.[. . .] [Directions] tend to be more practically, and laconically worded.[. . .] Characters tend to be more consistently identified in speech-prefixes.[6]

Whether there are data in extant dramatic manuscripts that can be constituted as evidence of the tendencies that Taylor here adduces is an issue I will address later, but even if there are such data, it would be difficult to distinguish a play printed from a 'prompt-book' from one printed from 'foul papers' if all that divided one from the other were tendencies. Taylor cites this difficulty only to deny it: 'It might be impossible to distinguish between the two categories of text when we can only see them through the filter of an intervening printed edition. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.