The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.139  Saturday, 31 March 2012


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

Date:         March 30, 2012 2:05:44 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: Shakespearean Originals King Lear


After replying to my note on Holderness’s “Originals” King Lear, Steve Urkowitz is “likely not try to engage in more polemic with the MR folks,” among whom he may include me. Nevertheless, I will address some remarks and questions to him (and others) based on the reply and his 1980 Revision. Though for a discussion group there aren’t many ‘engaging folks’ here anyhow, I am willing to discuss Lear textual issues of importance (Shakespeare-wise). With much extant opinion there is no choice but to disagree. The choice is rather when, and how to respond.


>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.


Offhand comments are often “thought free” when answers take thought and time. While McMillin (Othello), Erne (R&J) and others seriously propose whole-cast MR (by dictation) to explain memorial error, I see the concept as highly unlikely (as I argue elsewhere); alternatively, shorthand theatrical reporting is much better.


Competent stenographers don’t scribble. Wordings like this might be examples of what Urkowitz’s critics call ‘valorized language’ (or some such) that may influence the impressionable or be—to more able critics—red flags indicating substitutes for argument, or simply bias.


For example, I’ve reported a review of Duthie’s 1949 argument against Willis’s system by shorthand expert William Matthews, who observes that Duthie’s objections “bespeak unfamiliarity with stenographic practice, e.g. the arguments that attached big and little characters might be confused, that memorizing the lists of arbitrary characters would be an onerous task, that small dots and strokes might be misplaced, that angles might become curves in rapid writing. Even tyros take such things in stride in present-day shorthands, and they should have given Elizabethan reporters no difficulty.” Further, Willis himself suggests that shorthand notes may be read “without stopping or staying at any one word.”


The text of John of Bordeaux, phonetically transcribed throughout, is remarkably accurate. Some object that readers must agree with my conclusion that the play is a shorthand report before they can accept the implications I describe; that’s true. But I’m willing to put my arguments and the textual evidence to the test. As for the “magically script-bereft acting company whip[ping] up a temporary script,” the facts are there in browns and white: known theatrical hands annotate the text with entrances (two in an actor’s name), sound, and speech headings; Henry Chettle adds a speech. The script is not whipped up, but reddi-whipped and accepted for what it is—a bargain, temporary or not.


>(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!)


Word has it that two versions of Orlando were held by different playing companies. Are we to suppose the players were deterred by modern imaginations? It may not be coincidence that Orlando is a bad quarto. The players preparing Bordox had no real familiarity with it, but they weren’t deterred either. I might discuss any of these matters, provided we give the “Go-o-o-o” the go-by.


>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.


Robert Clare quotes Honigmann in a similar vein before observing that it is typical of revisionists “in the way that it masks its essential subjectivity by deploying a weighted vocabulary—one that involves here a general sense of authoritative intervention and theatrical craftsmanship without actually telling us very much. ‘Strategies of revision’, ‘awareness of the minutiae of characterization’ . . . and ‘dramatic thinking at this level’ are all impressive-sounding phrases, but . . .” Clare also quotes Urkowitz, on Lear 4.7:


“Lear’s ingenuous surprise when he awakens to discover Cordelia before him in 4.7 argues against his having any prior knowledge of her arrival from France. And the clear, humble humanity Lear expresses sounds in no way like ‘shame’ (Revision, 53).


Clare objects that Lear believes he has waked from the dead and that Cordelia is a spirit. He notes that Lear thinks he might be in France (which can hardly indicate any knowledge of Cordelia’s whereabouts); and that his later offer to drink poison and his asking forgiveness do sound like shame. Who is Salooniotic here?


>Without being too grumpy about it, I still think that the

>“revision hypothesis” leaves us with one tougher, smarter,

>and more interesting William Shakespeare,


All beside the point. Is the hypothesis true? Never mind the Shakespeare it creates, which probably results from someone else’s corrupted revision. But we can see the driving force—it’s behind the cart.


>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).


Again the concept insists that the evidence conform. It’s supposed to be the other way round. If texts were reconstructed and pirated those circumstances would say little about the author, especially his own revisions. Remember, F Lear is revised on top of a very corrupt Q1. I’m not at all opposed to the idea that long plays were staged, and Hirrel’s SQ article rearguing the possibility is well done. But who can realistically deny that plays were regularly shortened?


As for protection, virtually all of the dramatic canon shows that Shakespeare—for some unknown reasons—exercised no control over the publication of his playtexts. Erne’s case for a participating ‘literary author’ is another imaginary appeal to the credulous. The evidence says otherwise.


>Gerald Downs says his ideas depend on “the historical

>condition of reproduction from memory (rather than from

>an unbroken line of transcriptions).” . . . But “the historical

>condition” has the same tangible thingness as the historical

>condition of the Unicorn, or the Green Knight or . . . . Just

>because something is believed in doesn’t mean that it actually



Can’t say I grasp the ridicule, but I could have been more clear. Scholars (Greg, Kirschbaum, Werstine, etc., etc.,) have historically approached a definition of bad quarto by including the condition that memorial transmission is necessary to the concept. In other words, bad quartos are not produced by mere copying or revision of written text. Much of the confusion surrounding reporting is caused by a general failure to keep this distinction in mind. And the distinction is tangible enough. A text arriving via memorial transmission is a report (if printed, a bad quarto); if transcribed only, it is not ‘reported.’ The question is how to tell. You can’t do that by stirring the muddy water. 


>I wrote a book about the Lear texts that still reads pretty well.


Steve’s “dog in this fight” got chewed up pretty well by Clare, Edwards, Knowles, and Werstine. I won’t rehash the criticism since the evidence is better seen from the corruption angle than a naive “no-naif” point of view that doesn’t acknowledge the textual problems of Q1 and F.


>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

>which have all those embarrassing aspects of early drafts.


Of course there is no reason why a later-printed book could not be more authoritative than an earlier edition. I don’t know how Urkowitz has missed all the evidence showing later, better texts. And the “aspects of early drafts” usually cited are imaginary, as Werstine has taken so much trouble to show.


Incidentally, Gabriel Egan’s new book names the allies in the latest lines of battle over Shakespearean revision, where he seems intent on pushing Urkowitz out of the ‘Wells, Taylor, and Jowett’ revision camp and into the domain of Paul Werstine. But when speaking of critics who “apparently believed that, out of a whole culture, only the author could make a difference in the play,” Werstine observes, “Urkowitz shares with the Oxford editors the view that printed texts can be read virtually as if they were authorial manuscripts—the variants between printed versions wholly explicable as authorial changes of mind” (“Editing After . . .” 51). Surely Egan is mistaken, given Steve’s restatement of the tough reviser.


I’ve got some excerpts from Urkowitz’s Chapter 6, which I hadn’t read in a long while. I’ll comment on some of it later. I don’t expect to get Steve’s dog away from the vet, but “best in don’t-show” isn’t much of a claim.


Gerald E. Downs 


Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.