The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.3783 Friday, 28 August 2015
Date: August 27, 2015 at 7:32:50 PM EDT
Subject: Predicting the Past of Bad Quartos
Testing a theory by its predictive power is the scientific method’s backbone. Predicting textual history’s past seems contradictory; yet dozens of early modern playtexts may serve as experiments because they haven’t been explained (and no one is seriously trying); all one needs is a hypothesis with some evidence and deductions of its own. My guess (and that of many long-gone advocates): problematic texts are theatrical, shorthand reports. I’ll note two late, offhand predictions and list other kinds.
In Determining the Shakespeare Canon, Mac Jackson points several times to signs of reporting in Arden of Faversham, though he mentions only memorial reconstruction (and then only to discount MR probability). He cites Martin Wiggins (2008), who claims that with the stage direction, ‘Then Shakebag falls into a ditch’, the Arden author “is evidently thinking in terms of a real location, a Kentish marsh” because “stages were not . . . equipped with ditches.” I guessed the phrasing is in the dialogue. Sure enough, Jackson observes that the “Ferryman’s ‘Who is this that’s in the ditch?’ would have created a ditch” (107). Wiggins must either have missed the line or failed to understand that “authorial thinking” is not the best explanation of dopey set directions in corrupt, printed plays. Further, he was obviously not on the lookout for characteristics of suspect texts suggested by the shorthand hypothesis.
Scribes and compositors are responsible for s.d.’s in theatrical reports; they get them from the text, often merely to elucidate it. The derivations are predictable (as a class), as are their often blunted purposes. I noted the same error in Tiffany Stern’s “Watching as Reading” (2003, inexplicably commended by Steven UrQuartowitz):
“Surviving information is minimal, but when Marius, in Thomas Lodge’s Wounds of Civil War, is instructed to “enter . . . solus from the Numidian mountaines” . . . he can hardly enter from the mountains themselves [or from a ditch!] . . . . Perhaps Lodge, while writing the text, has simply become engrossed with the fiction he is creating . . . . But maybe the stage direction embodies a knowledge of the way the play will be (or was) performed. If that is the case, then ‘mountaines,’ which here are associated with a door . . . would need to be depicted in images or words around the door itself” (150).
Stern habitually takes as evidence of her imaginings anything remotely supportive (while ignoring alternative causes). She assumes the printed Wounds is authorial throughout. But neither of her guesses makes sense; actors need no mountains, no sandwich boards, no pre-entry itinerary. Nor does an audience, literate or not. I thought, “$5 says the ‘evidence of mountains’ is in the dialogue.”
And just 16 lines after the “travel directions,” Marius complains that ‘Hunger in these Numidian mountaines dwells’. Stern fails to inform her watching readers of this evidence. But the question is not about an engrossed author or an alpine stage door: why was it necessary to conjure up a set direction in the first place?
Shorthand reports don’t have authorial set directions. We know that from other texts (John of Bordeaux, above all). But it’s easy to deduce and to predict of a suspect text. That’s not to say that s.d. examples taken from the text prove reporting. But if enough such expectations are met it’s a different story. That’s especially true when predicted features are difficult to explain otherwise. Here’s a list of things for “reading watchers” to be ready for (in original editions), in no particular order:
1) Speech assignments: theatrical reporting infers them from the text, often mistakenly, especially when speakers abound. The errors are hard to explain by way of authorship and transcription. Because mix-ups are common they are assumed to be matter-of-course; yet correct prefixes are necessary to production. The evidence bespeaks a cause more common than supposed. The fact that errors are both easy and difficult to correct emphasizes the point. Even the casual reader should watch for instances and trust to judgment.
2) Bad punctuation. Shorthand reports first and punctuates later, if at all. Supposing Shakespeare didn’t care for pointing is a huge mistake caused by the tail wagging the dog; stop trying to fit Shakespeare to corrupt text. I just read of Pericles that commas were added to line-ends for no apparent reason. In Q1 Lear Blayney calls the practice “do-it-yourself punctuation”; here’s a comma, put it where you like. Is that Shakespeare? As F and editors attest, bad punctuation is very troublesome.
3) Bad verse-lining. Shorthand reporting insures botched verse. Authors cared about their poetry; but again, wide corruption has us supposing they didn’t.
4) Interpolations. Meter-spoiling vocatives, for example, are part and parcel of performance. “Good” editions help to identify bad additions, inversions, transpositions, repetitions, and whatnot; but shorthand can’t quite predict texts from better sources. It does predict edited reports, like F Lear.
5) Spelling. Standard treatment of printed spellings is mostly worthless. However, corrupt place names and personal names are expected of shorthand reporting. Sometimes spelling derives from shorthand itself (e.g. the p/b mix-ups in Bordox) but it may not be wise to rely on unclear data. Still, when other traits of reporting are present, the odds go up.
6) Nonsense. Then as now, actors try to memorize lines they don’t understand; as a result one may not only misremember but do so unintelligibly. Shorthand captures the errors but that is not to say they can be identified correctly.
7) Botched Foreign Languages. It happens a lot; editors don’t seem to ask why. But when good text demands careful transcription of other tongues corrupt renderings are suspicious. They’re also to be expected in reports.
8) Publishers and printers. Anything to make a buck, but ethics had little to do with the motive that Shakespeare was the cream of the crop. His plays play a disproportionate role because they were better. They were hard to come by, but where there’s a Will, there’s a stenographer.
I’ve read a large number (for me) of unfamiliar playtexts as if they are reports. That many of them show these traits came as no surprise. However, to others, their frequency makes them seem less like evidence than they are.
Gerald E. Downs