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Home :: Archive :: 2013 :: May ::
Knocking Pechter, Pt. 2

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0209  Saturday, 4 May 2013

 

From:        Gerald E. Downs < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         April 26, 2013 9:04:59 PM EDT

Subject:     Knocking Pechter, Pt. 2

 

In Romanticism Lost, Pechter repeatedly asserts little will be gained by further examining the era’s textual evidence: “Given the inadequacy of the material, too much unresolvable uncertainty about too few surviving manuscripts, ‘an objective survey [. . .]’ will not by itself—that is, without evidence-exceeding hypotheses from which to proceed deductively—get us any closer to interpretive conclusions” (133). The knock on New Bibliography is that conclusions of “foul papers provenance” do exceed the evidence, whereby deduction is not yet validated. Werstine’s new book resolves quite a number of uncertainties and none of his results bode well for foul papers provenance. When Pechter approvingly cites Greg’s opinion that “plausible guessing is about all we can hope for,” he dismisses continued study of the evidence (never mind that plausible guessing often turns into insistence, such as the foul papers ‘construct,’ for which there is no worthy backing). Pechter defends a priori opinion as a kind of absolute not liable to disproof. He cites “no finite number of observations can ever justify a generalization,” which might just show McKenzie misunderstood induction and probability. Similarly, Pechter defends the New Bibliography’s much criticized “binarism” as “useful" and “necessary” (133), and he claims “there is no way to sort out the textual markings deposited by the many diverse agents . . .” (135).

 

All the foregoing seems to deny fundamentals of inquiry. Evidence and continued interpretation matter; skepticism is essential; and alternative hypotheses must be given a fair hearing. “Binary” isn’t really the best characterization of New Bibliography theory; “ternary” is better, in that the early texts of Shakespeare were supposed to be practically limited to authorized theatrical playbooks; or to Shakespeare’s working drafts (or their unguided derivatives); or to reconstructions from memory by actors (and thus removed from continued authorial influence). By these routes Shakespeare’s intentions were recoverable (observable, even), or utterly remote. They have all been subjected to meaningful criticism. Pechter voices one of the criticisms of the criticism, that

 

> “the hypothetical risk . . . seems to be realized:

> materialism as pure negativity, propelled by nothing

> beyond the desire to reiterate its own disaffection

> from literary power . . . . This extraordinary motivation,

> so I want to argue . . . has managed to install itself in

> some of the most influential centers of Shakespearean

> critical practice . . .” (84)

 

Since Werstine and McMillin are the targets of the following chapters, presumably he is speaking of them. Now if the empirical evidence has been misused someone should say so; it would be helpful at the same time to offer a better explanation of the evidence—but “purely negative” criticism is not devalued for lack of alternatives. Those can come later. Given the problems, there may be better explanations than foul papers, promptbooks, and memorial reconstructions. Werstine himself offers no specific alternatives (as I remember); maybe next time.

 

Evidence, if we take the hint, suggests transmission of Shakespeare’s plays was often radical (bad quartos are by definition memorial). Yet Pechter approvingly paraphrases Bowers on bibliographical method, “by which current editors could claim to locate authorial intentions at the start of relatively short lines of transmission” (127). We have no “starts” to analyze and problematic text indicates something other than a mere “short line” of transcription. The printed text (all the Shakespeare we got) more often than not indicates a mess at the end of the line. Scott McMillin, hardly a purely negative type in my book, takes these things into account as editor of Q1 Othello to propose a solution other than foul-paper printer’s copy. Pechter acknowledges that features of Q1 suggest (in part from F variance) a need for explanation beyond foul papers (119), and that McMillin’s hypothesis has “a marginal increase in explanatory power” (120). Yet Pechter ultimately rates it as no better than the standard assumption and by the rules of the New Bibliography, ties go to foul papers. Despite his suggestion (mistaken, in my opinion) that “wishful thinking . . . is the only kind of thinking we’ve got” (125), he does offer some real argument against McMillin. Not that he cites Q1; his is not that kind of book. I've made these arguments myself; in that sense I agree with Pechter. But there is more to the matter than wishful thinking. I’ll retrace the points to show how we may get somewhere on these doubtful cases.

 

McMillin proposes that Q1 Othello is printed from copy dictated to a scribe by a whole cast shortly after learning their lines to formulate an additional text for use as a promptbook. In my hit-and-miss manner I wrote up a shorthand hypothesis without having heard of McMillin’s edition. (I try to avoid the more difficult textual mysteries; Philaster, a cut-and-dried shorthand report, led me to revisit Othello.) But his Q1 case is far less likely than theatrical reporting. All we need to see this is to substitute “shorthand report of performance” (a la John of Bordeaux) for “whole-cast dictation” in the following Pechter criticisms (120-22). That will show how stepping away from foul papers to test alternatives can work.

 

1) “McMillin himself acknowledges one [unlikely element]: ‘I do not think scribes would have preferred working this way. They were trained to copy from manuscript.’”

 

Dictation is what stenographers are all about.

 

2) “What about the actors’ preferences”?

 

They would hate it, of course. No money, no horseplay, no breaks, identifying their characters (for which there is no tell-tale sign), etc. All theatrical reporting needs is a handy performance--what actors did.

 

3) “If Q1 Othello is not [a bad quarto] or pirated text . . . why didn’t the actors use [a scribal copy]”?

 

A dictated text in print is a bad quarto and probably pirated. Otherwise this is a good question. Copying good text is preferable in every way but Blackbeard’s. But for the artisan pirate the potential is good pay.

 

4) “McMillin’s scenario asks us to believe that the company lost all the transcripts ever in its possession—the author’s first draft, the fair copy, the prompt books produced for previous revivals, even the copy licensed for the Master of the Revels . . .”

 

Pechter assumes (believes, actually) that the company kept numerous play copies but that begs all the questions. Alternatively, transcriptions meant nothing to a stenographer who was in the business of making his own copies, just like the camera-toting dude at the movie premier.

 

5) “Editors conclude that the scribe who prepared the text for the Folio had access to an independent . . . copy: what was . . . lost was . . . found.”

 

And yet much of the mystery revolves around the differences between Q1 and F. If Q1 is a report it is no surprise that a copy independent from the report was ultimately available; that happened time and again. In that case there’s no mystery, except in the details.

 

6) “McMillin . . . summons up his own ‘fictions . . . to suit the changing needs of a hypothesis for which there is no documentary evidence in the first place.’”

 

Neither McMillin nor Pechter consider shorthand reporting, for which there is considerable evidence. The reporting of sermons is not denied; Heywood and Buc vouch for shorthand; but the best evidence is the manuscript playtext John of Bordeaux, inarguably transcribed from a phonetic shorthand report of performance (I say “inarguably” because no one currently argues against it).

 

7) “The issue, then, comes down to how much mediation exists—how many transcriptions intervene—between the author’s draft and the text we have . . .”

 

Between bad and good quartos and between Q1 and F Othello, “how many transcripts” won’t account for the variants. We have to ask how the text is transmitted. Pechter repeatedly asserts (and seems to take comfort from) his belief that the evidence can never get us anywhere: “Both New Bibliographers and New Textualists [Werstine & McMillin] . . . make do with what they’ve got—‘circumstantial’ rather than ‘veridical evidence’ . . .” (124). I don’t agree; good evidence has been there all along that had not been properly examined.

 

8) Pechter first quotes H. R. Woudhuysen on McMillin’s dictation hypothesis: “If this practice went on often, its effect on theories about the copy-text for printed plays would be devastating”; he then adds,

 

> “Much virtue in ‘if’; although nothing corresponding

> to this practice ‘has been identified’ in any single

> instance, McMillin is undeterred from his ‘impression’

> that this procedure occurred not just once but ‘rather

> often.’ This is the New Textualism working to catch

> sight of its desired objects, manuscripts proliferating

> in such abundance that any putatively Shakespearean

> draft is bound to be lost in the shuffle” (124).

 

I don’t know that “devastating” is exactly the word for discovering the truth--at least not for everyone; but I think shorthand reporting occurred a lot. John of Bordeaux corresponds so closely to the concept that it demonstrates aspects of the practice that hadn’t been suspected (that is, before shorthand was dismissed as a method of transmission). The evidence is strong and of different kinds, such that this single instance in manuscript suggests theatrical reporting was widespread. The scribe achieved his aim; presumably he (and others) could do it again. This is borne out by many bad quartos.

 

One of the most telling features of Bordeaux is its obvious accuracy, both phonetically and verbally. (The nature of the accuracy adds to the case; the play is not merely a transcription). The performance itself is often faulty, but that isn’t the reporter’s fault. He could have recorded the rare perfect performance; might a stenographer then have reported the play that became Q1 Othello? That could at once explain many of the differences between Q & F, just as shorthand explains bad quartos.

 

Bordeaux is (no doubt) a stolen text in preparation for production (with “signs of foul papers,” no less). It was valuable property not just to the players, but to a stenographer, whose compensation surely motivated a few hour’s work (if not countless hours of training). Pechter cites Peter Blayney (as have others) to downgrade the printed play as a valuable commodity. But the hard fact is that many plays were purchased and published to make money. Some of them are memorial reports, and bad ones at that. Even so, a shorthand reporter would have been paid relatively well for his piracy.

 

The method of transmitting Bordeaux is clear. The play isn’t one of my desired objects, that’s for sure, and there’s no “putative authorial draft” to lose. Because McMillin approached a theatrical reporting solution without sufficiently noting Bordeaux I can better appreciate his scholarly attitude; he was following the evidence and he was getting warm.

 

One of Pechter’s techniques when confronted with terms of criticism of the New Bibliography is to reverse the charges: binary, wishful thinking, imaginary, a priori? The same to you.

 

I think this argumentation fails on Bordeaux. In Werstine’s interesting “Appendix A,” Characteristics of Gregian “foul papers” in playhouse texts (whereby texts have been “identified” as authorial drafts in the past), Bordeaux has many, if not the most, entries in more categories than other texts. It is listed as by an “apparently non-theatrical scribe,” or one whose activity ended with his initial transcription; the scribe is not the author, despite contributing mightily to the lists. What mountains of evidence show is not politics, desire, binary, foul papers, imaginary, a priori, or other distractions. It’s a shorthand report of a performance; not how someone dreams it was done, but how it was done. It explains bad quartos and some of the good ones. That’s why it has elicited so much comment. Besides mine, it’s true, there’s only “this is too long.”

 

Gerald E. Downs

 
 

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