Friday, September 4, 2009

Last Things: The Problem of the Text

So that's my first play, all wrapped up. Mostly. You might have noticed that the frame narrative doesn't have the backside of its frame--i.e, that we don't return to the Christopher Sly story before the end of the play. That's because the Folio version--the canonical, accepted version of Will's plays--doesn't include anything more about Sly. The Sly story does continue in a later version of the play called The Taming of a Shrew--that's a not the--a play that was probably a revision of the one we've been reading here. All this brings up the whole murky issue of the textual sources of Will's plays. First, there is no "master text" of the plays--a single document that reflected the author's final "intentions" about his work. The plays themselves were written to be performed, not read as literature. Elizabethan actors ad-libbed quite a bit; some of those impromptu revisions made it into printed versions of the plays, and some presumably didn't. The earliest printed versions of the plays exist in two forms: individual "quartos", or the so-called "First Folio." Quartos are sort of like periodical versions of individual plays, so called because each sheet of paper was folded twice, making four leaves or eight pages front to back. Folio sheets were folded once, making two leaves or four pages front to back. The First Folio contains thirty-six plays, eighteen of which had been printed in quarto versions as well.

Bored yet? I am. Basically, this is the kind of thing that Real Shakespearean Scholars argue about. Which version is the "true" one? Is the play "finished" as it exists now? Answers: we'll never know, and no, we can't consider any of the plays "finished." A dramatic text was meant to be acted, to be edited, to be changed over time. It's not War and Peace or The DaVinci Code. (Not that I am equating these two qualitatively, mind you. I know the difference between a Timeless Work of Literary Truth and A Cash Cow with Literary Pretensions.) My point is that editors have to make choices, and amateur bloggers have to pick an edition and go with it. I picked The Norton Shakespeare because it was my teaching text, and has all my excellent notes in it. The Norton was based on the (somewhat controversial) Oxford Shakespeare of 1988, which restores some of the original titles to the plays. The play we call Henry VIII, for example, was called All Is True; 2 Henry VI was called The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster. (Try getting that up on a marquee.) For my purposes here, however, we'll use the more familiar titles.

Which brings me to a more pressing issue--how to change my game plan. I guess I could go back and edit/revise my foolish stated intention to blog all the plays chronologically. A blog is, like Will's acting scripts, infinitely flexible, after all. (It goes without saying that digital media would have been wholeheartedly embraced by medieval and early modern writers. They were much less invested in the idea of a static text than we are). But I won't do that, because a blog is also the record of a thought process, and those aren't static unless you're some kind of ideologue.

Having finished Taming, I'm now faced with a dilemma. If I adhere to my stated intention, I have to read/blog the Henry VI plays next. There are three of them, and I've never read a single one. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to. They burn Joan of Arc in one of them: according to Will, she was a witch, not a saint. I've never read a version of that story from the English perspective, and it seems interesting. But for the most part, these plays--like King John, Henry VIII, Titus Andronicus and a few others--are only read by grad students planning on becoming Shakespeare professors. Who will then only teach them to grad students planning on becoming Shakeapeare professors, and so on. Yes, I know there have been a few attempts to perform these works, but I've never seen any of them, and I don't know anyone who has.

Still, I'd like to take a crack at them. Later.

So, I'm going to violate my own script again and skip over the three Henries and Titus, going straight to one of my all-time faves, Richard III. Blogging the plays this way makes a mess of historical chronology as well as Will's own--I do plan to read Richard II, the two Henry IV plays, and the fabulous Henry V; all of those guys ruled before Richard III. But as a culture, we Americans have never been sticklers for historical accuracy. For that matter, neither was Will. His history plays are little more than beautifully-written propaganda--and none more so than Richard III, which doesn't even pretend to be objective about its subject.

If you hate politicians, this is the play for you. Richard is like a vaudeville villain with a hunchback instead of a waxed moustache. He's got some great speeches, and the play includes one of my favorite queens, Margaret. She really knows how to craft an insult, a skill I greatly admire.

So, for the future, this is how it's going to be: I'll try to be roughly chronological, unless I get stuck in a genre. I'd rather mix it up than read a bunch of tragedies or comedies in a row. I'll reserve the right to throw in one of these lesser-known plays when I feel up to it.

So now, let's go read some revisionist fables--because that's what the history plays are, pure and simple.


  1. Life's too short to get stuck in a genre. :-) I think that's been my problem for most of my 40's. Looking forward to Richard. and PS--I wasn't bored--didn't really think about these plays being written not to be written--er read. Interesting.

  2. As a long time member of the RIII Society I think I'm going to enjoy following you through this play even more than I did the last.