Sunday, January 2, 2011

Notes on "The Mechanics of Culture"

Speaking of Shakespeare's originals, Kastan writes "no manuscripts survive to compare with and correct the printed editions, and an appeal to their existence can be no more than hypothetical and in fact seems disturbingly circular." A manuscript is imagined based on perceived defects in a printed text (other than purely typographical ones), but while the manuscript does not materially exist (as best as we now know), neither do the defects (147).

No "foul papers" from any author of the period survive, and Paul Werstine argues that the existence of these foul papers is a product of the desire of editors to possess Shakespeare's plays in some unmediated form. The good quartos derive their goodness from their proximity to a collection of papers that does not exist (147).

"Plays always register multiple intentions, often conflicting intentions, as actors, annotators, revisers, collaborators, scribes, compositors, printers, and proofreaders, in addition to the playright, all have a hand in shaping the play-text: but editions of plays tend to idealize the activity of authorship" (147).

The aim of eclectic editing, which seeks to recover authorial intentions by a collation and analysis of a play that he never actually wrote, isolates Shakespeare from the immediate historical context of the professional playhouses of Tudor-Stuart London (148).

"To recognize that authorial intentions not only operate alongside of but in fact demand nonauthorial intentions for their realization is to restore the text to its full historicity" (149).

Even facsimiles represent idealized forms of the printed text; given the printshop practice of binding both corrected and uncorrected sheets into books, it is extremely unlikely that any two copies of a single book would have been identical, but the creation of a facsimile shrouds that variation. It also shrouds the materiality of the printed form itself, occluding the quality of the paper, the ink, and other physical characteristics of the printed book (150).

"If edited versions, then, usually idealize the activity of authorship, facsimile versions work to idealize the printed text" (150).

"In reality there is no other way to engage the play [than in edited form], for from its very first appearance as text it has been edited, mediated by agents other than the author, and intended for the convenience of its readers" (151).

"The text is always constructed, and its making and remaking are not evidence of its contamination but are the enabling conditions of its being. This is not to say that it makes no difference in what form the play appears, only that no specific form of the play represents (what can only be a fantasy of) the true original" (151).


Kastan's argument seems to run along the lines of you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't, so why worry about it? If the idea of recovering authorial intentions beyond the materiality of the printed texts we have is based more on wishful thinking than on fact, so is the idea of the purity of the material object. Far from encouraging an attitude of "can't win, don't try," Kastan seems to advocate the creation of text of the most utility to the intended audience, with the caution that we remember the ephemerality of the materials with which we work.


Kastan, David Scott. "The Mechanics of Culture: Editing Shakespeare Today." Shakespeare: The Critical Context. Stephen Orgel and Sean Keilen Ed. New York: Garland Publishing. 1999. . 144 - 151. Print. Dual pagination is given for all works in this volume, but since the table of contents follows the pagination running at the bottom center of each page, this is the pagination that I have followed in my citations.

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