The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.206 Friday, 24 April 2015
Date: April 23, 2015 at 8:32:46 PM EDT
Subject: Erne redux re-ducks
Happily granting that Lukas Erne is a gentleman, yes; nevertheless, he may still be completely (albeit mannerly) wrong about the literary-more-than-theatrical or literary-unto-ANTI-theatrical derivations of Shakespeare’s long scripts. One big chunk of his case depends on there being a two-hour-or-so constraint on play length operating in Shakespeare’s company. Michael Hirrel argues in Shakespeare Quarterly that Shakespeare’s long plays could easily fit into the likely four-plus hours given to an afternoon’s entertainment-session in a playhouse, simply by the company expanding or contracting the opening and closing auxiliary chunks of tumbling, stand-up comedy, rope-dancing and jigs that passed the rest of the time. Gabriel Egan (?) suggests that Erne refutes Hirrel in a prefatory essay affixed to the 2nd edition of Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2013). Alas, the Good Lukas only points to some minor disagreements but fails to address Hirrel’s basic claims about the enwrapping entertainment sessions. My own essay (in Shakespeare Bulletin 2012) shows that “two-hours traffic” was a metaphor, not “120 minutes” in a city where church clocks had no minute hands, and every “hour-glass” kept its own time varying even by the day’s humidity, and portable watches were rare treasures, and King James himself greatly enjoyed university plays running five to seven hours. Some “lunch hours” are 40 minutes, some go on ‘til quitting time.
Meanwhile, that Fabulous Fisher in Archives, Tiffany Stern (my source for the horological lore in the paragraph above), has uncovered many references to the widespread presence of printed books and pamphlets being held, consulted, and even read aloud by audience-members in playhouses before and even during performances. [Tiffany Stern, “Watching and Reading: The Audience and Written Text in Shakespeare’s Playhouse,” in How to Do Things with Shakespeare: New Approaches, New Essays, ed. Laurie Maguire (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 136-59.]
Imagine, then, that the imperfect but generally serviceable Q1 text (claimed by Erne and others as at least an approximation of what was performed in a playhouse) was available to audiences in the Theater in just this way from the time it was published in 1597. Stern tells us that peripatetic “chapmen,” “hawkers,” and female “Mercuries” would find in the playhouses a ready market for such texts. But imagine further, then, what might happen if Shakespeare and his company, perhaps prompted by the burgeoning histrionic skills of a leading boy actor, prepared the already-popular Romeo and Juliet in a “Newly corrected, augmented, and amended” script for a freshly-imagined production. The earlier edition from 1597 would no longer match the augmented play as presented. A holder of the old version would be stumped if she tried to follow along a performance in the playhouse which was playing the new version. What a great opportunity for publisher and acting company to bring out a new edition, more "authorized" this time, updated, accurate, and offered for sale in the newly corrected, augmented and amended Globe playhouse! Welcome to Q2,1599.
But let’s go back in imagination to 1599 and propose a little mind-experiment, mostly to twit my scholarly textual-buddies like Lukas Erne and Andrew Gurr and Stephen Orgel. Imagine for the while that Erne is correct, and the Q1 text does indeed reign onstage, clipping along at a two-hour pace. What if our imagined literate theater-goer purchased the 1599 text and brought it to the playhouse where, according to Orgel and Gurr and Erne, she would see and hear only a text the size and shape of the earlier 1597 text, even unto some performance late in 1599, or 1600, or 1601, etc. “Whoa up, you Players,” she calls out from her place. “You’re skipping all the juicy parts!” she objects to the players, since the title page of her book says “As it hath bene sundry times publiquely acted, by the right Honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his Servants.” Does Richard Burbage, who we know plays Romeo, lean over to say, “Oh, no, my Lady! Here in the Theater we play only The Viewer’s Digest Condensed Book version. Put away that ‘literary’ text for now. That one is for the privacy of your study at home. And in a few years, my dear, when we’re rebuilt across the river at the Globe, we’ll do the same kinds of cutting and then later printing of another long text to replace the short one that we’ll actually be playing, for our next planned blockbuster, Hamlet.” Glug! Pull the plug on that one. Experiment over! But likely lots of souls will go on believing with Lukas that R&J as Shakespeare wrote it was just too long.
Part of the great fun of having studied the sciences as an undergraduate was in testing and then tossing out lots of theories that just didn’t fit the evidence. The practical course after the first 10 credits of calculus was “ordinary differential equations,” where you did just about nothing other than testing one theory, one way of getting at a problem, after another. Bing, bang, boom. That one don’t fit. Must be one in our tool-box somewhere. Try, try again. The ghastly aspect of becoming a literature student was when I observed so many theories being enshrined by the simple process of ejecting the evidence that failed to fit the favorite theory. Lukas, I love your passion for the subject. But we have here a classic instance of “confirmation bias.” Chucking out the “evidence-babies” instead of the “theory-bathwater.” That ain’t evil; it’s very, very human. I know from being wrong, I see it over and over in my very own mirror. But we all in the traveling band of happy Shakespeareans do have to look clear-eyed at one another’s evidence as well as those o-so-attractive theories.
Steve Urquartowitz, from the back o’ th’ groundling spaces
Trustee, American Shakespeare Center, Staunton VA,
And home, home, on the wide open Lobster Ranges of Maine