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Knocking Pechter, Pt. 1

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0201  Wednesday, 24 April 2013

 

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

Date:         April 23, 2013 6:29:16 PM EDT

Subject:     Knocking Pechter, Pt. 1

 

Before seeing Paul Werstine’s examination of the extant early modern play manuscripts I read Edward Pechter’s Romanticism Lost (2011), which (with other recent publications) defends the methods and textual opinions of the Shakespeare-oriented “New Bibliography” (the dominant twentieth-century movement headed by Sir Walter Greg). Pechter aims to bolster “foul papers” theories holding that authorial rough drafts were printer’s copy for large numbers of early Shakespeare editions.

 

By that hypothetical route “foul papers” somehow account for many and varied problems through the canon while allowing peeks at the working Shakespeare and justifications for recovering his intentions from texts that otherwise might include corruptions by non-authorial agents. Foul papers notions held sway until Werstine’s assertions that the evidence won’t back them up. For decades scholarship has been uncomfortable with his insistence and with once undoubted citations of provenance, as with John Jowett’s late mention in Arden3 STM of “quartos thought best in allowing glimpses of Shakespeare’s practices in the printer’s copy,” and “three different substantive Shakespeare texts, all thought to be reliable” (438, 442). How does one reliably think “best” if not allowed reliably to think “foul papers”?

 

Werstine’s arguments might be countered, yet empirically speaking, he occupies the high ground and it’s hard to argue without evidence. I’ll examine Pechter’s arguments and offer a limited response. Although Werstine cites Pechter only once he contrasts their methods:

 

> “One way to present some of the prominent contradictions

> in Greg’s writing is by exploring Edward Pechter’s recent

> claim that ‘foul papers and promptbooks [are] heuristic

> rather than empirical categories’ (2011, 132). Since the

> purpose of my book is to demonstrate from empirical

> evidence that these categories are invalid, I can hardly

> altogether disagree with Pechter that they are not

> empirical. . . .” (Werstine 2013, 6).

 

Pechter doesn’t depend on evidence: “Even the richest data base and all the time in the world would never let us reach the threshold Werstine evidently requires. We would be going slowly and methodically on a path to nowhere” (133). But a valid “heuristic category” has to achieve something supportable or it has to be empirically supported itself. Pechter claims that “Shakespeare the Writer . . . is not so much a historical as a heuristic construction, assembled out of textual qualities and effects, the inferences we draw from them and the values we attribute to them. It serves to acknowledge the interpretive interest produced by the ‘good’ quarto and Folio versions . . . as attested by a long tradition of critical commentary and theatrical production” (111). Pechter hasn’t much truck with contrary evidence but interpretive interest and tradition don’t preclude error or determine just what a good quarto is.

 

Pechter follows with a questionable statement: “The very different characters substituted for the lead role in current historical narratives—Shakespeare the Trimmer . . . the anonymous ‘play doctor’ or ‘adapter’ or ‘actors themselves’ . . .” (111). Whatever “current narrative” supplies, the lead role is still Shakespeare’s. The issue is what happened to the texts between authorial intention and corruption. Alternatives to foul papers should be properly weighed, tradition notwithstanding. Pechter overreaches elsewhere, not that I kept a list, but one instance brings up a point in more ways than one:

 

> “To be sure, theatrical production often requires the

> abridgment of texts. . . . Moreover, a clearly defined

> and uninterrupted dramatic action is often a good thing

> . . . . But to claim that brevity and straight-ahead simplicity

> constitute the essence or totality of theatrical value seems

> to mistake . . . . What then does it mean that a critical mass

> of Shakespeareans, including the most influential senior

> scholars, are (sic) making such a claim? How is it that the

> arguments based on such a claim manage to be sustained?

> The question invites us in the first instance to focus on

> rhetorical technique—the means by which arguments

> establish and maintain their persuasive power . . .” (103-04)

 

I’m not familiar enough with the literature to know where anyone claims that brevity and simplicity “constitute the essence or totality of theatrical value.” This might seem a rhetorical overstatement but one of my rules-of-thumb is to trust rhetoric-focusers themselves not to over-indulge in its use. For example, when Pechter observes that “these days . . . liking Shakespeare seems to belong to an increasingly inconsequential constituency among academic Shakespeareans. Consider Scott McMillin’s 2001 edition of Othello . . .” (93), I concede that McMillin didn’t like Shakespeare (he won’t deny it anyhow) and that mention of his failing serves a legitimate argument, even if I can’t pin it down. So I’ll not focus on what may be misconstrued only as rhetorical or fallacious.

 

There’s no harm in second-guessing cuts; yet we can’t share players’ sensibilities on that account very well so argument can’t mean much. Further, a play shortens by any cut; claims of theatrical effectiveness always seem overblown. Nonetheless, if a manuscript playtext is cut, that’s theatrical; and when printed texts differ in length, that’s evidence of theatrical probability too.

 

Pechter argues extensively against McMillin’s Q1 Othello hypothesis. I agree with Pechter as far as he goes on the specifics; he doesn’t go far enough, however. All told, McMillin was on the right track and his work will ultimately be seen as progress. On the other hand, Pechter’s attitude is not right for inquiry. I’ll go into the matter next post, in 500 words or more, as the essaying goes.

 

Gerald E. Downs

 
 

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