Following William Proctor Williams' advice to treat anonymous play quartos like Hamlet, I continue my quest to formulate a cogent editorial theory that will serve the product of this process: a new edition of The Merry Devil of Edmonton. At the forefront of my reading list is Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader by none other than Stanley Wells, one of the men most responsible for the ground-shaking Oxford Complete Works.
From the first page of the introduction, I'm feeling good about this book. Wells distinguishes himself as an editor, and says that he has prepared the lectures contained within from an editorial rather than a bibliographic perspective. Where W.W. Greg's approach was primarily as a textual critic, and McKerrow and Bowers concerned themselves primarily with producing diplomatic editions (i.e. facsimile reproductions of a certain text), Wells has devoted himself to not only understanding textual problems, but also providing workable solutions to these problems in application (1).
"None of us can avoid error; all judgment is both subjective and fallible" (1).
New editions of already available plays do not immediately deprecate older editions, nor should every new interpretation of a passage or proposed emendation dictate the publication of a new edition. A new edition is the result of a cumulative process of scholarship, and thus not every new edition need be radically different from those that came before. While texts will be re-examined periodically in light of new scholarship, it should also be expected that some new editions will simply re-package older texts in order to reach a new or larger market (2 - 3).
Editors must think conservatively in their process. When an editor is tempted to set aside primary evidence, he should consider whether he is motivated by reason, or by "a lazy-minded reluctance to disturb the status quo" (4). Of course, the opposite must also be true, and an editor must be conscious of whether nor not they are motivated by an emotional impulse to disturb the status quo as well.
Wells' agenda is pretty clear. The Oxford Complete Works deliberately challenged long held notions of textual accuracy. The facing-text presentation of King Lear introduced a new paradigm in the presentation of texts, which is grounded in a distinctly different flavor of editorial conservativism than John Dover Wilson had practiced in his earlier Cambridge Complete Works.
Returning for a moment to some previous discussion about versions as utterances and utterances of texts as participating in the larger story of a text, Wells seems more clearly interested in presenting a reconstruction of something more closely approximating an utterance of the text that Shakespeare himself may have heard. Still, this is only his reconstruction of that utterance, and it is both a product of Shakespeare's time and our own.
Lingering question: is the approximation of a 400 year old utterance the best one for the modern stage?