The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.111 Friday, 15 March 2012
Date: March 14, 2012 8:51:40 PM EDT
Subject: Re: Gerald Downs on the LEARs
I guess I do have a dog in that fight. Gerald Downs seems to like the possibilities of other Lear texts out behind or prior to the Q1 version. Thought indeed is free. It’s fun to imagine the actors sitting around trying to recall their parts while someone wrote it all down. Or maybe some shorthand scribe scribbled in the theater and then met with the magically script-bereft acting company so they could all whip up a temporary script. (But what service it might provide, without a proper seal attesting to its authorization is hard to figure. But, hey, Go-o-o-o Free Thought!) Or maybe those great memorizing Spaniards came over to pirate an English(!) script to pick up a little spare change in Protestant England.
My sense of the real costs, though, of all this free thought is that we have to avert our eyes from the theatrical craftsmanship that becomes visible when we look at the alternative texts unvarnished by the fairy tale Pirates and the rapacious Printers. Let me suggest to our buddies here in SHAKSPER-land that you look at my book, say for instance the chapter about the textual variants in LEAR 3.1. I may have been much younger back in 1980 when my Shakespeare's Revision of King Lear came out, but, hey, those two texts offer a grand set of lessons on how a craftsman can shape dialogue and action to make it work and then economically reshape the same moment to make it work differently, better, sharper, more poignantly, more caught up with the issues of loyalty and kindness and trust in an imagined storm in a collapsing kingdom.
Without being too grumpy about it, I still think that the “revision hypothesis” leaves us with one tougher, smarter, and more interesting William Shakespeare, and the various memorial reconstruction and piracy and shortened text theories leave us with a sense of Shakespeare as a naif who couldn’t hang onto or protect or even re-think what he produced, or who along with his fellow actors chose to field on stage diminished versions of his long plays (pace Alfred Hart, Stephen Orgel, Andrew Gurr, and Lukas Erne). Gerald Downs says his ideas depend on “the historical condition of reproduction from memory (rather than from an unbroken line of transcriptions).” Right on! But “the historical condition” has the same tangible thingness as the historical condition of the Unicorn, or the Green Knight, or the undeniable overarching ever-presence of the Great Chain of Being. Just because something is believed in doesn’t mean that it actually happened.
I wrote a book about the Lear texts that still reads pretty well. I’m still at work on Shakespeare’s Revision of Everything Else, and to date no memorial reconstructor has ever shown me how like a crab those later printed versions walked backwards in time to become the progenitors of their earlier printed off-spring (on-spring?) which have all those embarrassing aspects of early drafts. (Nor, if Shakespeare was REALLY interested in the long literary texts rather than those performed shorties, why he didn’t manage to get so many of them into print until all those years after he was stone dead. Ah, those mysterious artists. )
Floating around the Internet is a wonderful essay by Stephen Leacock called “Saloonio.” Rather than snarl through many of the o-so-grim bibliographic essays that litter the multi-textual playground, track down “Saloonio” and have a good laugh about the urgencies of textual scholarship.
Tell me if you like it. But I’ll likely not try to engage in more polemic with the MR folks. It’s those of us who can laugh with Leacock’s “Saloonio” who I like to talk with. Laughter matters.
[Editor’s Note: I took Steve’s suggestion and looked up “Saloonio.” Stephen Leacock in 1920 published a collection of his pieces in Literary Lapses, which can be downloaded or read at the Internet Archive and Google Books. “Saloonio” can also be read at a number of sites.
I have scanned "Saloonio" into a pdf file that readers may download from here: pdf Saloonio