Thursday, February 10, 2011

Vast Shakespearean Dumping Ground

Merry Wives of Windsor (Added 2/16/11)

In 1978, Teh 'Mom turned 50 and, she having spent a lifetime persistently lamenting the fact that she never got to go anywhere or do anything because she was so busy working and raising the seven of us Heisenbrats1, we self-same Heisenbrats somehow managed, secretly, to raise the money that year to send her, for her 50th birthday, to Europe, where she'd never been before but longed to go, for a week or two — I can't remember how long, exactly. We bought the tickets and arranged the whole thing; and by "we", I mean my siblings. I was, of course, "involved", but only peripherally. Let's just say that when you want something practical accomplished, I am not exactly your "go-to" Heisenberg. I assume Teh 'Dad was in on this, too, but he, like me, is not what you would call "an accomplisher of things"; he was probably more the bagman, the main raiser of funds. We didn't send Teh 'Dad along with Teh 'Mom because his attitude was, "Pffffttt! Europe? Been there; bombed that." (I assume he meant during WWII; if not, possibly the reason he didn't want to go had something to do with outstanding warrants for firebombing.)

I mention this because, while Teh 'Mom was is England on that trip, she visited with her younger brother, my Uncle Joe (an Anglophile who went to John Bull's Isle pert-near every year), and he took her to see a performance of Teh Merry Wives of Windsor. Which, amazingly, Teh 'Mom loved, thought was extremely funny. This is surprising because Teh 'Mom, unlike Teh 'Dad, was not a fan of slapstick or physical comedy, but she thought TMWoW was just wonderful.

The other reason I mention this is, having just finished reading TMWoW, I can think of nothing more interesting to say about it. The play isn't bad. And I'm sure seeing it performed would probably be a genuine hoot. But it's just not that remarkable a play, is all. There are interesting peripheral things about it, such as the apocryphal story that it was written at the command of Queen Elizabeth who wanted a play about the character Falstaff in love.

There are four problems with that story that I can think of offhand:
  1. Though Sir John is a major character in the play, the play itself is not about Falstaff in love; it's more Sir John IS Jack Tripper in "Three's Company"! It's kinda just sit-com-y.
  2. The Falstaff of this play is nowhere near as entertaining a character as the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. (TMWoW is entertaining despite its inferior Falstaff.)
  3. The Falstaff of the HIV plays lived circa 1400; but TMWoW is set in Shakespeare's own time, circa 1597 (the only play of his that is set in Elizabethan England, a fact that is remarkable in and of itself). So in that sense, this play is more Sir John Falstaff IS time-traveling Dr. Who in "Teh Merry Wives of Windsor"!
  4. The story that the play was written at royal command did not surface until 100 years after the play was performed, which puts that story right up there, in terms of veracity, with the Teh 'Dad's favorite fable about Teh Bard, viz., the claim by Richard Davies (chaplain of Corpus Christi College) that Shakespeare "died a papist". (Teh 'Dad prefers to think of Shxpr as a closet Catholic.) That claim, also, did not surface until the seventeenth century and has no basis in (extant) fact. Shakespeare may have been a secret Catholic; he may have been a secret Muslim, like our current President. We have an equal amount of convincing evidence for either claim, i.e., none.
That said, TMWoW was an okay read. 
But it's another play that I think would be much better if seen performed rather than merely read.

1 Teh 'Dad could have wailed a similar lamentation but did not because he was always a homebody and, if it weren't for Teh 'Mom, probably wouldn't have ever left the house except to go to work or accomplish small errands. When home life got too hectic for him, Teh 'Dad would announce he had to mail a letter — possibly an "important bill" that had to be taken straight to the post office — and he would get up and go out alone and we knew we wouldn't see him again for three hours or more. No, he wasn't out drinking. He was a salesman who spent much of his time on the road and so, when he went out and disappeared, he spent his time at one of around 1500 diners that he knew of in the tri-state area. Teh 'Dad was bucking for sainthood at around 49 or 50 — when he gave up both drinking and smoking the stinkiest cigars on earth (he would start little bonfires in his ashtray with the cellophane that his cheap cigars came wrapped in, spewing what had to be toxic fumes into the playroom's atmosphere while you were trying to watch a Phillies game, which was painful enough because the Phils truly sucked back in those daze; and the cigars themselves were cheap and would have stunk the room up sufficiently on their own, but that just wasn't stinky enough for Teh 'Dad, who evidently secretly longed to be a Factory Smokestack/Human Superfund Site) — and so by that time in his life the only vice he had left was eating and so he had quite the belly on him by the time he was 50 and would refer to his own body-type "like a bug's".

 Love's Labour's Lost (Added 2/10/11)

Love's Labour's Lost — yet another Shakespeare comedy that I had not read before —  has got to be one of the most mannered and self-conscious of Shakespeare's plays. Just about all of Shakespeare's play are about language to one extent on another, but LLL seems almost more about language than it comprised of it, made up of it. The three-word alliterative title itself, with its two opening possessive nouns, smack of self-conscious poetical artifice: it is difficult even to pronounce without tripping up. Much of the language in the play is like that and I assume this play must be especially difficult for actors to perform for that reason. Whether or not you enjoy LLL or consider it a successful play will probably hinge on your attitude toward a nearly post-modern self-awareness regarding language.

The language is peculiarly poetic, including a lot of rhyming, which necessarily strains the syntax of the dialog and makes it often difficult to parse, but yet doesn't make the plot, such as it is, any more difficult to follow. Because the plot is extremely thin: The King of Navarre decides that he and three of his lords will dedicate themselves to scholarship in order to ensure their "fame" so he and the three lords — Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine — forswear women for three years' time in order to dedicate themselves entirely to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. This adumbration of the first few score lines of the play pretty much telegraphs the rest of the play. What do you think might happen — nay, must happen — to four men who forswear love? You wouldn't even need to know that this is a Shakespeare comedy to see where the plot must go.

Which is exactly where the plot goes.

The female characters of the play are perfect foils for the male characters; essentially, the women call the men on their artifice and artificiality. Are the men in love, as they claim, or just in love with the language of love, the idea of love? As far as I know, this is the only more-or-less conventional Shakespeare comedy that ends not with marriage, or even the promise of marriage, but rather with four separate year-long trial periods for the men. The women require the men to experience the "real world" for a year before they, the women, will even consider their suits.

The artifice in LLL extends to self-consciousness about the play's own status as play. As in most Shakespeare plays, there are scenes in which characters in the play secretly watch other characters as if the former were an audience watching a play being performed by the latter. But in Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare pushes this conceit to the limit, especially in IV, iii, in which Berowne confesses he is forsworn because, in contravention of the agreement he made with the king in the first scene, he has fallen in love. Berowne then hides as the king enters and confesses the same thing; then the king hides as as Longaville enters and confesses the same; than he hides as Dumaine enters and also confesses that he has fallen in love and is therefore forsworn. This scene unravels itself in reverse order as Lonagville reveals himself to Dumaine, chiding the latter for his transgression; after which, the king does the same to both Longaville and Dumaine; then, of course, Berowne tells them that they have all been pwned by him. It is significant that no one, when he reveals himself as secret spectator, admits the relevant fact that he himself is also in love and therefore as guilty as the transgressor he chides. When Berowne reveals himself, he says "Now step I forth to whip hypocrisy" — everyone's, that is, but his own, because he does not confess, as he chides the others, that he himself is forsworn and as guilty as they. Berowne, of course, is in due time exposed by the fortuitous revelation of a love letter he wrote to Rosaline.

It is little wonder that the female characters are mistrustful of their suitors.

Act IV, scene iii was my favorite in LLL because it could have gone horribly wrong, but manages, somehow, to be amusing and inventive, even if self-referential in the extreme. LLL itself — though contrived, even by Shakespeare comedy standards — is, on the whole, an enjoyable play, but a difficult read.

That's what this post — when I decide to upload it — will be: A Vast and Possibly Otiose Shakespearean Dumping Ground.

When I decided last year to announce that I intended to read all 38 of Shakespeare's plays and blog about each, I knew that it was unlikely that people would read the posts. But, as I said at the time, I need to write about what I read in order to retain anything meaningful from the experience. I don't have an eidetic memory, or even anything approaching it — and it's questionable whether that type of memory would even be useful in a situation such as this — and any thoughts I have while reading something never progress past inchoate if they remain only in my head, no matter how coherent and fully-formed they may seem at the time. All I need to do to see how confusedly jumbled they truly are is to try to express them orally, which merely serves to remind me that I probably don't think in actual words, or that, if I do, I don't think in rational and fully-formed sentences, much less paragraphs; any rational linearity in my thoughts is a later imposition on them as I attempt to verbalize them. Thus, my stabs at oral verbalization are without exception exercises in inarticulateness; it is impossible for me to say what I mean the first time I try to say it. W.B. Yeats once described a dinner he attended at which Oscar Wilde was one of the guests, and Yeats marveled at Wilde's conversational skills, saying, in essence, that one would have thought Wilde had written out and memorized his banter the night before because his conversation was infallibly amusing and his thoughts cogent, to the point, lapidary even; but, Yeats conceded, Wilde couldn't have memorized his words beforehand because Wilde was witty and pithy no matter where the conversation wandered, and no matter who steered it in that direction.

That ability to extemporize is a skill I do not possess.

But along with the process of writing comes the ability to change, revise and even delete the words as they emerge; you might even write a perfectly understandable, cohesive and thoughtful sentence and realize after it has become verbally reified that you don't really believe what you just wrote — perhaps even believe the exact opposite of what it says. But writing down those "wrong" words is a necessary part of the process that gets you to an approximation of the right ones, or a combination of them that might give form to the idea you are trying to communicate. And in my own case, one of the people I am trying to communicate with is me. I never truly know what I think until I write it down because writing forces me to think, a process that doesn't come naturally or easily to me.

So all of this is to say that the reason I am writing about each play is that it is my way of trying not just to understand them, which is probably a forlorn hope, but also just to remember them in some marginally meaningful way. As I wrote when I originally posted about my intentions to read and write about Shakespeare's plays, I spent one summer back when I was a kid reading the whole Bible — Old and New Testament — and because I didn't write about the experience, did not go through the process of clarifying my thoughts and giving expression to them, I took nothing meaningful away from the experience, and might just as well not have done it; because I learned next to nothing. The reading part was less than half the work I needed to do to make the experience meaningful and therefore worthwhile.

Hence, this vast dumping ground, where, from now on, I will dump my thoughts on each Shakespeare play as I finish reading it. This already-long post will become longer, ever-growing, as I add to it until I finish reading all of the plays and writing something about each. That's fine; because I know almost no one reads these posts anyway. This Vast Dumping Ground will make the posts easier to avoid for you, the non-reader.

After finishing King John the other day, I started reading The Riverside Shakespeare's essay on the editing of Shakespeare's writings; like all of the essays in TRS, I found this one pretty riveting and insightful.

When I was in graduate school, I took some "interdisciplinary" courses that were not themselves required to get my degree; but there was a requirement to take a certain number of credits in these interdisciplinary courses, one of which was a course on scholarly editing, which I'm sure I took only because it was held at a time and place that was convenient for me. The instructor (whose name — G. Thomas Tanselle — I still remember lo these 25 years since) was a real authority in the field of scholarly editing, though I neither knew this nor cared at the time. Of course, this course, which I was certain was going to be an excruciating bore, turned out to be pretty fascinating and made me think about things I had no clue even needed to be thought about by me or anyone else. When I had to buy, e.g., a novel for one of my literature classes, my only criterion for selection was that it be as inexpensive as possible. What other consideration could there be?

Well, suppose you were buying a Henry James novel. James famously revised many of his early works later in his career for the New York Editions; a scholarly editor endeavoring to compile a new edition of, say, James's The American has to decide, first of all, which version of that novel he wants to take as his main text: the early one? or the later one? And what is the editing philosophy behind the choice? Do you as editor pick the later version because your philosophy is that a writer is always evolving and so as editor it is your duty to have your edition reflect the writer's last known vision of the work? Or do you believe that the work is frozen in amber upon first publication and any later meddling, even by the author himself, is in some sense a violation of the work's integrity by, essentially, a different person? Or do you believe something that falls in between those extremes? Or possibly outside of them? Should author's intent (assuming it can even be known; as the James example illustrates, an author's "intention" is rarely a static thing) be the ultimate criterion?

So there can be truly vast differences in variant editions of the "same" work.

Scholarly arguments have been made that the author's intention should not be the primary criterion (although it obviously should be a large factor). For example: The typescript for the William Faulkner story "Go Down, Moses" seemingly contains the phrase "the valley rose, bled a river ..." —  a very Faulknerian-sounding choice of wording. But in fact, what the typescript says is "the valley rese,bled a river ..." and the editor decided that this obvious error should be corrected to read as above — "rese" changed to "rose" and a space inserted between the comma and "bled" ; all of which seems reasonable. Until another editor, reexamining all of the evidence for his new edition, noticed that the comma on a typical keyboard is right next to the "m" and reckoned Faulkner intended to type "resembled" not "rese,bled"; thus, the revised phrasing: "the valley resembled a river ..." — which is almost certainly what Faulkner intended. But there is still a choice to be made: the phrase "the valley rose, bled a river ..." had been what readers had been seeing in "Go Down. Moses" for years ... and it sounds better, more Faulknerian even, than "the valley resembled a river ...". Do you keep the former because it is, in your scholarly judgment, better? Even if you concede that it is not what W. Faulkner intended?

These are the kinds of issues that arise when editors deal with modern authors. Imagine the myriad dilemmas and quandaries an editor of a Shakespeare play faces!

With a Shakespeare play, there may exist, e.g., an early, pirated "bad" quarto publication, typically based on an actor's memory of the play (often called a "reported" text); along with a later "good" quarto, based on the author's foul papers (rough copy) or possibly even based on the author's "fair copy"; along with an edition from the First Folio of 1623, which may or may not be more authoritative than the "good" quarto. But even the "bad" quarto could have manifestly authoritative lines or possibly even whole scenes that the "good" quarto and First Folio lack. As a scholarly editor, you must pick one of these editions as your base text ... to which any change you make based on the other editions must be absolutely compelling. Obviously, you as editor can and will incorporate changes; but they must be defensible and philosophically consistent. You can't assert that your purpose is to get as close to the author's intent as possible then keep a phrase or a scene that is less authoritative because you happen to like it. You must have principles and you must stand by them.

The philosophy adopted by the editors of The Riverside Edition is to try to compile texts that are as close as humanly possible to what Shakespeare intended. The essay describing how they go about doing so is very compelling, and I have been reading that in bed for the past two nights instead of moving on to a new play.

Tonight, I must move on ... probably to a comedy.


  1. I LOVE the awesome purple gothic font in the blog header!

    I am not witty by nature, and thus the rare moments in which I am, by some inspiration, able to generate a clever comment have become as precious gems to me. I can remember each one individually and with much love.

  2. I would love to read your take on Will's stuff. Especially the plays that I've been putting off reading, e.g. Titus Andronicus.

  3. I tried to rent a copy of filmed stage version of "Titus Andronicus." Damned voice recognition software got me "Tight-Ass Androgynous." Good film, nonetheless.

  4. I'd never put any kind of thought into the process of editing, other than simple editing for grammar, punctuation, etc. This was really interesting.

  5. I agree that reading a play is like studying a goldfish's behavior when you've taken it out of its tank and put it in the microwave instead, i.e. it's not in its natural setting. (No, really. The microwave is for fake food.)
    On the other fin, if you watch Branagh's or Gibson's or Olivier's Hamlet, you're seeing the director/actor's view of the play.
    Ex: I saw Taming of the Shrew performed right after Tonya Harding whacked that other Olympic skater. Kate and Bianca came on stage dressed in ice skating outfits. Pretty sure that wasn't in the original script.
    At least with reading the plays, you're as close to the writer's intention as you can get, even with all the changes made with each portfolio.