The Arden Research Handbook of Shakespeare and Textual Studies.

Shakespeare   Not having met anyone with the same fannish zeal about Shakespeare as your blogger does, on a par with Doctor Who, films and whatever new album Taylor Swift has released that week, I've no idea if we share the same interests or what's in vogue.  Is it the production history or a connection with a particular playhouse?  Is it the language of the plays, the sheer level of poetry beaming out of every page?  A particular play which seems to contain all of life's answers for better or worse?  Or is it the textual history, the inquiry into how a play's been transmitted, from the hand of Shakespeare and his collaborators, through the first printshops, to successive editors to the Arden Shakespeare currently to hand.  How much what we're reading or watching is by the man himself or a corruption which has inevitably cropped up across the centuries?

It's all of the above, of course it is, at least for me.  But it's the latter on which I'm particularly laser focused, the impossible search for the complete authorial voice, because there's a huge gap between what's generally known about the canon and how much of it was written by Shakespeare and the actually, that at least a dozen or so of the plays in the canon have been filtered through other hands and yet more anonymous plays for which he may have contributed.  Not to mention how mis-readings of manuscripts by weary "hands" in the print shops have led to some lines losing all sense, compounded by subsequent editors trying to rationalise what was originally meant creating yet more misunderstandings.

You can imagine the excitement (yes, excitement) with which I greeted the news of The Arden Research Handbook of Shakespeare and Textual Studies, a guide to current research related to the plays on the page from the book trade within which they originally found publication, through a history of canonical studies to plays are edited and attributed in the modern age.  After seeing the press release from Arden, I put in a request, expecting perhaps a watermarked pdf but a couple of weeks later a hardback academic edition arrived by courier.  Even after all these years, it's still quite thrilling to have a book which would otherwise be on the shelf of an academic library all to myself, especially considering the price.

For the most part, this is a fully accessible read at least for this amateur with a pretty strong working knowledge of the subject.  As the preface explains, this new series of handbooks is designed to "provide researchers and graduate students with both cutting-edge perspectives on perennial questions and authoritative overviews on the history of research" or other words in this case, the state of play for textual studies in 2021.  It's to be used as a companion to material that appear in standard Shakespeare editions, some of which may be reprints of materials originally prepared twenty years ago, if not decades earlier and demonstrate that the discussion continues, that the publication of a play is a comma, not a full stop.

The book is split into four sections.  The introduction and first part set the scenes on textual studies, what they encompass and how they'll be investigated further as the book progresses.  Part Two offers the protein of this protean effort covering Shakespeare's manuscripts, the status of the earliest printed texts, how they fit within the early modern publishing industry, canonical studies and a history of editing from Rowe onwards.  Computerised processes are covered by part three, from algorithmic attribution studies to internet editions of the plays.  The final section offers a chronological publication history, a glossary of key terms, a full bibliography and list of resources.

As expected the key takeaway is that nothing is settled.  Everything I'd read to this point seemed to imply that Shakespeare's identity as hand D on the manuscript copy of Sir Thomas More held at the British Library was boiler-plated but the opening pages of the essay on manuscripts casts doubt on the methodology which has led to that attribution, suggesting that even if they're Shakespeare's words, there's no proof that it's his handwriting.  This logical, if emotionally dispiriting approach pervades the whole book, which lays bare the fallibility of academics and how even with decades of study behind them, that they're more than likely to bend the evidence around a misty-eyed fantasy of this genius and reflect that in their books.

There are two Shakespeares.  There's the working playwright who did well enough in his career to retire to Stratford and leave some money and property to his family on his death and a legendary being who's developed since,  Starting with the promotional material that preceded the collection of plays the publishers of the First Folio had the rights to, this transmogrification continued through Alexander Pope's edition which relegated to footnotes the sections he thought were unworthy of the writer to the proliferation of collected and individual editions in the twentieth century developed by editors with their own mission to find the platonic ideal of these plays either my conflating them together or publishing different versions as separate entities.

Except such things are impossible.  Everything is guesswork.  In his chapter on early printed texts, John Jowett demonstrates by printing them as a list how the single line from 1 Henry IV, "This matcht with other did, my gratious L." as originally printed in the first quarto in 1598 had by the seventh publication in 1632 become "This match with other like, my Gracious Lord," which is more readable to contemporary eyes but changes the underlying sense of what the line means (noting in the endnotes that Q1 itself is a reprint, Q0 only surviving as a few odd pages).  A modern editor has to somehow rationalise these differences and then make these value judgements a thousand times across the whole play.

But as the book demonstrates, as facsimiles of particular editions become much more widely accessible through digitisation, with online databases set up collecting such vagaries as contemporaneous margin notes, editors are no longer just at the mercy of the surviving printing of a play.  There's a much wider context of materials across the theatre and publishing industry of the time which can illuminate how inconsistencies within the text could be as a result of a barely legible original manuscript being worked from because we have the publications and the handwritten papers upon which they were based.  Editing a play may be guesswork, but the process is more educated than its ever been.

All of which leaves me in the condition of looking at an edition of any play with Shakespeare's name on it and thinking "well, yes, possibly".  My assumption is most schools work from a standard edition and certainly when I was at school we were given copies of the Arden 2 to work from.  But I also owned the Penguin editions of both, little appreciating that the texts in each were either subtly or significantly different.  How do university students writing about the plays from a critical perspective navigate this, especially a play like Hamlet and its three versions.  Do they find themselves having to constantly compare and contrast a given characters motives across all three?

But the fact of me asking those questions is the point and why the book succeeds in its aims, to demonstrate that textual studies is much more than whatever end point an editor proposes their new edition to be.  There's no doubt that this will be of use to students who're interested in delving deeper into the texts they're studying but there's enough here to be of interest to a wider audience so I'd certainly recommend you put in a reservation or request at your library to get your eyes on a copy, assuming Arden don't release it in a cheaper paperback format somewhere along the line.  This is important work, at least in the sphere of literature and deserves the widest audience possible.

The Arden Research Handbook of Shakespeare and Textual Studies edited by Lukas Erne is published by Bloomsbury. £117.00 hardback. ISBN: 9781350080645. Review copy supplied.

1 comment: