Saturday, September 4, 2010

Notes on The Disintegration of Shakespeare

From the work of Stanley Wells, I now turn the clock back to E. K. Chambers' 12 May 1924 lecture "The Disintegration of Shakespeare." I am, of course, reading a printed copy of the lecture he read, but without much indication who he read this to, who published the lecture, when they published it, where it was published, or any of the like information that would be useful in tracking it down as a source. All I can really offer is that Mary Baldwin College owns a copy.

Chambers, you may or may not know, is the man behind The Elizabethan Stage, which is an excellent go to source for just about anything related to... well... the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. Fancy that.

The tradition of ascribing the works of Shakespeare to someone other than Shakespeare can be traced back to Edward Ravenscroft, who printed a post-Restoration adaptation of Titus Andronicus in 1687. He claimed that he had heard from "some anciently conversant with the stage" that Shakespeare had adapted the play from a pre-existing one (3).

If one looks hard enough at statistics and individual stylistic elements, a great number of potential originators, emenders, and contributors, or separate authors can be named as having either a partial or complete hand in the works of Shakespeare. The ascriptions of these stylistic markers have not, however, been consistent among scholars, who can rarely do better than make weak arguments for non-Stratfordian ascriptions of authorship (3-7).

Proponents of multiple authors, emenders, etc have had a tendency to defend themselves as being the preserves of Shakespeare rather than detractors. They tend to ascribe the "chaff" to authors whom they perceive as being of a lesser stature, and thus the choicest bits that remain of the plays are ascribed to Shakespeare.  These scholars, however, display their own biases towards material, and seem to forget that the cannon of Shakespeare can only be determined by the extant body of work ascribed to him. There is no other concrete basis for determining which works belong to Shakespeare and which do not. (7-8). I can't help but think of something Roslyn Knutson said to me in an email: "did you ever notice how Shakespeare is never found to have made a worse revision."

"I come to accept Shakespeare, not to praise him" (8).

Taken as a whole, the canon of Shakespeare's work reveals an author who was open to experimentation and even imitation. If some of Shakespeare's lines feel like Marlowe's or Greene's, it could very plausibly be because Shakespeare experimented with writing in their styles as part of his own development as a writer. Likewise, we need neither pretend that these experiments were always pleasing, nor that Shakespeare wrote every line at the height of his own creative genius (8 - 9).

While some will dismiss certain lays or passages from Shakespeare's canon based on metrical or stylistic variation that does not conform to a projected development curve, these scholars ignore the fact that the development of one in their craft very rarely can be plotted along a perfectly smooth growth curve. General trends in improvement can still be seen across the plays, but specific variations from those trends do not invalidate the overall progression of the man's mastery of his craft, and those lines/passages/plays should not be dismissed as being "inauthentic" simply because they do not conform to an ideal statistical regularity (9 - 10).

It is likewise impossible to ascribe certain uses of words within Shakespeare's works to other authors because we cannot clearly establish a clear vocabulary for other authors. Even if it were possible to do so, it is just as plausible that Shakespeare borrowed words he heard frequently and incorporated into his own work as it is that someone else added them after being brought in to do a "punch-up" of Shakespeare's scripts (11 - 12). Let us not forget that Shakespeare was primarily an actor in a company that operated on a repertory system that would put most modern theatres to shame. He came into contact with the works, and the words of other writers on a daily basis, and needed to have a clever ear for their meanings and pronunciations in order to function in his primary trade. Most of the plays of the period are now lost, and thus it is impossible to say exactly where Shakespeare's expansive vocabulary comes from, but it is possible, probable even, that his regular contact with the work of the most active poets of his generation contributed to his own work.

The Folio cannot be considered a complete record of which plays were written by Shakespeare because, for whatever reason, Heminges and Condell omitted at least nine plays from the Folio that had been previously published under the name (or initials) of Shakespeare (13 - 14).

Pollard proposes that the Thomas Moore manuscript was submitted to the Master of the Revels as it is, but this is unlikely because it exists in a sloppy state. If the Master of the Revels had to concern himself with deciphering foul papers and piecing together how a playwright may have intended a scene to read, he would have never been able to make it through the quantity of plays that would have had to pass through his office (16 - 17). I am once aain reminded of William Proctor Williams' assessment that printers would have insisted on fair copy for type setting because they were in the business of printing books and not of attempting to decipher foul papers. The Revels office would have been interested in its own administrative efficiency over the inconvenience to playing companies of having to have fair copy prepared. Just as printing hourses today insist on "manuscript" submissions in particular file formats for ease of their own house practices.

Henslowe's diary chronicles a process of revision that seems to favor the addition of new material to established plays rather than of re-writing old scenes of new ones. This trend seems to be confirmed by Sir Henry Herbert's notes (19 - 20).


Chambers takes a fairly conservative position at the dawn of the era of seeing the canon of Shakespeare's works as being the products of a process that may have included revision and multiple authors. I take for granted that a play text is a living document because, whether intentional or not, and whether subtly or not, the play text is almost always altered in performance. Whether the extant copies of the plays we have derive from deliberate or accidental emendations in performance, the original text as penned by the playwright, or a text later penned by the playwright (or another playwright) that take these changes into account is unknown. Chambers argues that we ought, in the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, regard the plays we know as Shakespeare's as having been written by Shakespeare, and I agree with him in principle, but I cannot ignore my knowledge of modern theatrical practice.

Still, it is worth considering his calculations from Henslowe's diary. It comes as perfectly logical that the records of most play revision indicate older plays being updated with new scenes. "Newly revised and expanded" can be a money-making tag on any written work. It is perhaps worth considering that, if Shakespeare did revise his plays, it may have been toward this end, which is supported by the evidence of the addition of the fly scene in Titus Andronicus.

Where this all comes to bear on Merry Devil: the play seems to have undergone little alteration across its six quartos. If the extant copy was cut, for whatever reason, why not include some of those scenes that were cut? Unless they were lost. Why not add new scenes, or have the old ones re-written? The answer can only be that the play, even without the additional scenes described in The Life and Death of The Merry Devil of Edmonton, sold well enough without needing to pay for further work to be done on it. If plays were revived in performance when they were re-printed, this may indicate that the published text of Merry Devil could stand alone in performance on the stage of the Globe.

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