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The Strip of (Textual) Terror

08.24.10 | 2 Comments


CATEGORIES actors, audiences, directors, dramaturgy, education, ideas, the process

Collation line.  Apparatus.  Strip of terror.  Whatever you call it, it’s that somewhat inscrutable line or two of apparently Enigma code between the text and the annotations, particularly in a modern edition of, say, Shakespeare.  It might seem irrelevant or irretrievably geeky, but there are all kinds of important, dramatically compelling questions lurking amid the hieroglyphics of Q2; not in F, Q1.

Modern editors of Shakespeare make a lot of decisions about, dare I say, what to print or not to print.  And while there is a growing awareness of the performative in the scholarly community, editors are still rarely, if ever, practitioners.  It behooves us as practitioners to understand what our editorial brethren are up to so that we can make informed and theatrically viable choices about precisely what story we want to tell.

There is a philosophical approach that the ‘text is sacred’ for some actors and directors working on Shakespeare.  Whenever someone says that to me, I want to know which text, exactly, they perceive to be sacred.  Because, in many instances, the play isn’t the thing; it is several things, with lots of fingerprints on it, identifiable and otherwise.  In addition to Shakespeare himself and the members of his theatre company, the King’s Men, there were also scribes, such as Ralph Crane, who prepared copy that was used in printing the plays.  Crane had his own set of preferences about how the text should be laid out, from entrances (he tended to list everyone who would eventually enter the scene at the beginning, instead of wherever the actual entrance might occur in the playing) to punctuation.  There were also the men, known as compositors, who set the type in the printing house; the last time I checked, scholars have identified as many as eight different compositors who set some portion of the First Folio.  A couple of them were very good at their work, although they each had their own ideas about spelling and punctuation, and a couple of them were sloppy; one of them was probably an apprentice.  Sacred indeed.

Many times, we have only one copy of a play, such as Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure or The Winter’s Tale, which were printed for the first time in the First Folio (the eponymous ‘F’ of the collation line).  The Folio, if you are unfamiliar, was a collection of most of Shakespeare’s plays in one large volume; the project was engineered by John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow players in the King’s Men.  Collecting a bunch of plays in an expensive volume was nearly without precedent at the time, but we should be grateful that they took the time to do it, because we’d be without such stuff had they decided it was too much effort.

Sometimes we have a play that appeared in quarto (essentially, the Elizabethan equivalent of a paperback) at some point during Shakespeare’s lifetime; if there was only one quarto, we might just call it ‘Q’.  If, as in the case of Hamlet, there is more than one, scholars will refer to them as Q1 (published in 1603) and Q2 (published in 1604).  And here’s the thing: there are variations from text to text of the same play.  In some cases, there is one word here or there which is different, and that is called a textual crux. An example of this is in the line “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt”: in Q1 and Q2, the line reads, “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt,” and in F, we find, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt.”  So actually, it doesn’t appear anywhere as “sullied flesh,” but many editors have decided that this is most likely what was intended, and that, essentially, a typo occurred when the type was being set for Q1 and Q2.  However, Q1 and Q2 are wildly different texts , so it is surprising that the same typo would occur twice, even if the folks in the printing house were working from a marked up copy of Q1 when they set Q2.  (There is a book-length study lurking in this sentence, possibly two.)  My point is that “sullied” and “solid” mean different things; one suggests that Hamlet is filled with loathing, either for himself or for all of humanity; the other reflects the durability of the human body.  If the actor explores each option in rehearsal, he’ll find that one or the other is more dramatically compelling for him, gives his iteration of Hamlet an extra degree of specificity.  So if you know how to read the collation line, you can make more informed choices about the text.

Textual cruces are significant mile markers of which to beware.  Also important are occasions when two authoritative texts of the same play are very different from one another, with whole chunks of dialogue added or subtracted.  This happens with Hamlet, as I have mentioned, and also King Lear, among others.  The modern editor makes a choice about which text she will use to create her edition, and while that information is always recorded somewhere, many actors and directors don’t know to look for it, and wouldn’t know what it means if they found it.

Several years ago, a friend of mine was playing Albany in Lear and he told me he was having a hard time figuring the character out.  I asked which text the production was using.  He said the director has selected the Arden, second edition.  I told him that the editors of the second edition had conflated the text, which essentially means that they had taken the best bits from the 1608 Q and the best bits from the 1623 Folio and mashed them together.  Okay.  Mash is inelegant, and the editors were thoughtful in their work, but the prevailing notion was ‘we don’t want to miss out anything that Shakespeare actually wrote, so let’s combine them’ without giving practitioners guidance on how the two versions of the play are different from one another.  The best scholarship on offer now suggests that King Lear was thoughtfully revised, probably by Shakespeare, but possibly by someone else in the company, between the printing of the play in 1608 and the printing of the play in 1623.  The character of Albany is one of a few who are purposefully altered from one script to the other, and if one combines both texts, one will end up with a character who is at sixes and sevens with himself.  As John Jowett, one of my tutors at the Shakespeare Institute, has written, “The two-text King Lear revealed editing itself as a variable and perhaps even arbitrary activity.”  When I explained this to my friend, he said he’d rather keep all the lines than have a character he could discern.  Oi.  Woe betide the audience that sat through that production!

The Arden third edition is now publishing each extant text. If you understand what they are, you can look at the Arden editions of Hamlet Q1, Q2 and F, and decide for yourself what story you want to tell; you can look at Lear and give poor Albany a deeper consideration.

I am nearly all out of blog post and I haven’t even started on editors adding stage directions to the text; I’ll just recommend here that one consider stage directions with a thoughtfully jaundiced eye.  In that same Arden, second edition, a stage direction read Lear draws his sword.  He does? According to whom?  Drawing a weapon really changes the energy in the room, kids.  This stage direction isn’t in the Folio; it isn’t in the quarto and, in that edition, the only way you would know that is if you took the time to read the collation line.  If the stage direction is simply what that particular editor imagined might happen, he is inadvertently reducing the possibilities.  In the Arden, third edition, the general editors have started to signpost these kind of editorial interventions more clearly, so a stage direction that is not authoritative, but which seems like a frightfully good idea to the editor will usually find itself encased [in square brackets].  Again, though, if one is not aware of that, one might give it undue weight or importance in staging the scene.  It’s in full-sized type right there in the middle of the scene whereas the collation line is in that tiny font at the bottom of the page; that stage direction is psychologically so much more available, so apparently the thing to do, in its large type.

Actor and directors perform ephemeral acts of criticism and interpretation through their productions of Shakespeare’s plays, so learn how the editors have, intentionally or otherwise, interpreted the text before you got there.  Call them on the worn library carpet.  Make your own, informed, dramatically compelling choices when it comes to textual cruces, stage directions and performance scripts.

If you want to delve more deeply into the world of editorial intervention (as indeed, who does not?), I recommend Fredson Bowers’ article “Why Apparatus?”, which appeared in the journal Text 6, pages 11-19;  Stanley Wells’ Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader; and Michael J. Warren’s “Repunctuation as Interpretation in Editions of Shakespeare,” which appeared in the journal English Literary Renaissance 7, p. 155-169.  Also helpful is John Jowett’s “After Oxford: Recent developments in textual studies,” in International Yearbook 1, pages 65-86.

For a good overview of all matter of early modern printing issues and the ways in which the plays suffered interference within and immediately following Shakespeare’s lifetime, you might start with Richard Proudfoot’s Shakespeare: Text, Stage and Canon or with Stanley Wells, et al’s amazingly comprehensive William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion.

Kate Powers

Shakespeare girl, teller of good stories, fan of social justice, prison reform, mindfulness and all that is righteous on E Street

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  • Oh, Kate! Thank you, thank you, for such a concise and profound introductory summary of some of the issues with Shakespeare source material. I’m nodding my head in enthusiastic agreement and recovering from geekgasm! I bet you and Neil Freeman would get on like … like … Mamet and Bill Macy!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Kris! I was wondering if all eyes would glaze over before getting to end of the first paragraph. This is one of those little intersections between the scholarly and the performative that seems fundamental to me, and I would love to help performers understand how it can help them to tell the most compelling story that they can.


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