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The Library on Shakespeare
Virtual Issue no. 3

Guest Editor: Eric Rasmussen
Eric Rasmussen is Foundation Professor and Chair, Department of English, University of Nevada

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When I was invited to curate this special virtual issue of The Library, which calls from the vasty deep of the journal’s archives the voices of the great Shakespearean bibliographers from times past, I asked some of their living counterparts to help me identify the nine articles that best exemplify The Library’s contribution to Shakespearean textual studies. These distinguished critics, ranging in age from 95 to 35, were George Walton Williams (Duke University), David Bevington (University of Chicago), Paul Werstine (University of Western Ontario), Doug Bruster (University of Texas at Austin), Sonia Massai (King’s College London), and Jonathan Lamb (University of Kansas). I provided this elite panel with a long-list of sixty articles, published in The Library between 1903 and 2016, that I thought might warrant inclusion in such a retrospective. I am deeply grateful to the judges for their assistance, and I am delighted to report that their selections were remarkably uniform—surprisingly so, perhaps, given that Shakespearean textual critics are better known for conflict than for consensus. Each of the nine essays presented here is considered essential reading in the field, each is a classic in its own right, and each enters the dialogue with a bone to pick. The course of Shakespearean bibliographical scholarship in The Library never did run smooth.

The spark that set off the explosive debate surrounding Shakespeare’s texts in the early twentieth century was W. W. Greg’s vituperative response to Sidney Lee’s introductory essay in his Oxford facsimile of the First Folio. In ‘The Bibliographical History of the First Folio’ (1903), Greg warns users of the facsimile edition not to be ‘misled by Mr. Lee’s cheerful confidence of assertion’. Finding the majority of Lee’s claims to be ‘unsatisfactory’ (‘Mr Lee has been drawing upon his imagination: it is a pretty fiction’) and even ‘dangerous’, Greg moves to supplant them with fresh, rigorously detailed analyses of copyright, the printing process, and probable printer’s copy for the First Folio, thus paving the way for all subsequent discussion of these central issues.

In ‘What is Bibliography?’ (1912), Greg continues his clarion call for a more wide-ranging, systematic approach to the field. He describes a ‘dream’ in which a course of lectures on English bibliography will ‘one day be delivered at one of our so-called seats of learning, neither this year nor next year, but perhaps some day’. These lectures—which would address ‘the study of book-making and of the manufacture of the materials of which books are made, the conditions of transcription and reproduction, the methods of printing and binding, the practices of publication and bookselling, the whole of typography and the whole of paleography’—anticipate with extraordinary precision the interest in analytical and enumerative bibliography, the history of the book, and the materiality of the text that would later flourish in university lecture halls very much like those of Greg’s imagination. (Parenthetically, I’ve long wondered whether the essay’s opening observation that the field of bibliography has ‘grown from being an art into being a science’ may have occasioned a riposte from A. E. Housman a decade later in ‘The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism’: ‘textual criticism is a science . . . it is also an art. It is the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it’.)

Alfred W. Pollard’s ‘Authors, Players, and Pirates in Shakespeare’s Day’ (1916), sometimes reductively represented as an argument that pirate actors and unscrupulous printers frequently stole Shakespeare’s play-texts for profit, in fact provides a more nuanced account of intellectual piracy in the Elizabethan period. Pollard finds that the practice was largely confined to appropriating the literary rights of ‘dead authors, or of men whose ranks would have forbidden them to receive payment for their books’. Still, Pollard maintains that ‘pirates existed and were occasionally successful’ in acquiring dramatic manuscripts, possibly encouraged by the number of plays that circulated in manuscript among friends of the actors—a conclusion that Peter Blayney would later reach as well (but decidedly without the ‘pirate’ terminology). 

R. B. McKerrow’s ‘The Elizabethan Printer and Dramatic Manuscripts’ (1931) challenges the then prevailing view of early English printers as ‘utterly careless and incompetent’ by observing that most printed texts were actually quite accurate: ‘on the whole there is extremely little to grumble about’. McKerrow suggests that ‘in the case of plays the printer very often did not get anything like so clean a copy to work from as he did in the case of other books’. He proposes that since acting companies could not risk losing the ‘good, orderly, and legible’ manuscript of the play used by the book-holder in the theatre, they would often release the playwright’s original foul paper manuscript to the printers, and its defects would then be reflected in the printed text. McKerrow’s account and his listing of features that ‘we should expect to find’ in ‘prompt-copy’ were taken as gospel by generations of editors and textual critics until the late 1980s, when they were discredited by Paul Werstine and William B. Long (who observed that the theatrical manuscripts from the period often did not include the characteristics of ‘prompt-copy’ that McKerrow identified). And yet, McKerrow’s narrative continues to appear in some published introductions to Shakespeare’s texts, such as Emma Smith’s The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio (Oxford, 2016).

The emerging importance of examining the earliest textual exemplars was made manifest by Henrietta C. Bartlett’s ‘First Editions of Shakespeare’s Quartos’ (1935), a careful account of the owners and locations of the known extant copies of first quarto editions, published expressly so that ‘scholars working on Shakespeare’s texts . . . may know where to go for the originals’. Although one might imagine that a bibliographic catalogue would be free of the sorts of tensions on display in more polemical articles, there appears to be a touch of chauvinism in a passing reference to ‘the departure of Shakespeare quartos for America’; a syntactic ambiguity could be read as implying that the really fine copies have remained on the sceptered isle: ‘The copies are arranged according to condition; the perfect ones with the British owners preceding the American ones’.

G. K. Hunter’s ‘The Marking of Sententiae in Elizabethan Printed Plays, Poems, and Romances’ (1951) is a seminal work of expressive bibliography that corrects a fundamental misunderstanding—shared by such ‘considerable scholars’ as Edmund Malone, Percy Simpson, and McKerrow—regarding marginal inverted commas, which had been taken to be quotation marks indicating indebtedness. Rather, Hunter demonstrates that these are gnomic marks flagging sententiae. These marks are especially prominent in the works of Jonson, Chapman, and Marston, as well as in publications of other authors intended to be ‘definitive’. Hunter notes that the frequent use of gnomic pointing in presentation manuscripts may have important implications for an understanding of the copy behind printed texts that exhibit this feature, a suggestion that has been fruitfully explored in the present century by scholars such as Peter Stallybrass and Zachary Lesser. 

At first blush, Fredson Bowers’s ‘McKerrow, Greg, and “Substantive Edition”’ (1978) appears to resemble the argument of a strict constructionist interpreting the framers’ intent of the U.S. Constitution: ‘When terms become established in criticism it is important that they be narrowly defined so that later generations will mean by them substantially what the original users intended’. Yet Bowers, ‘with some consciousness of tampering with the course of history’, actually contends that certain bibliographical terms ought to be abandoned. Specifically, Bowers characterizes McKerrow’s definition of a ‘substantive edition’—‘the only authoritative edition not derived from any other edition’—as ‘worse than useless’, since it is not equipped to deal with Shakespearean texts that exist in two substantive editions; he maintains that had McKerrow attempted to edit a multi-text play like Hamlet, ‘he would have needed to face up to the application of his over-simplified definition’.

The application of theory to practice is celebrated in Thomas L. Berger’s ‘Press Variants in Substantive Shakespearian Dramatic Quartos’ (1988): ‘With the New Cambridge Shakespeare, the Oxford Shakespeare, and the New Arden Shakespeare appearing in new and revised editions, a good many of the editorial theories and bibliographical studies that have tested one another in journals such as The Library are, excitingly, seeing themselves realized in Shakespeare’s text itself’. For his part, Berger brilliantly broadens the notion of ‘substantive’ by pointing out that even though the third quarto of Romeo & Juliet is a simple reprint of the second quarto, the fact that Q3 was used as printer’s copy for the First Folio at least opens up the possibility that press variants in Q3 may be the source of substantive variant readings in F1. By this light, Q3 should be considered a substantive edition.

T. H. Howard-Hill’s ‘Modern Textual Theories and the Editing of Plays’ (1989)—with its warning that ‘the theories developed by the great dramatic bibliographers of this century (McKerrow, Greg, and Bowers)’ are so ‘positively harmful’ that modern editors who follow them ‘base their editions on inferior texts’—may be a fitting capstone to this retrospective, which begins with Greg himself warning readers of the dangerously misleading theories in Sidney Lee’s work.

The Shakespearean textual studies that have appeared in The Library over the last century might best be characterized as fiercely intelligent, frustratingly combative, endlessly challenging, and sometimes embarrassingly dismissive, but also infinitely fascinating and gloriously successful in stimulating future scholarship.

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