The publication of Richard III

Richard III, it turns out, plays a uniquely crucial role in the publication history of the canon, but one would never know it from editor Antony Hammond’s introduction to the New Cambridge edition, which is almost entirely devoted to the question of which came first, the 1597 quarto version or the 1623 folio version, which––get this!––”is the most difficult question which presents itself to an editor of Shakespeare” (1).  Peter Davidson, editor of The First Quarto of King Richard III, spends his introduction promoting the same scenario.  What’s with these two?  Well, as it turns out, they represent an entire community of RIII commentators.

As best I can, here’s this world-shaking issue:

According to Hammond and Davidson, the 1597 quarto version was written after the folio version, that is, that the version published in 1597 was based on the version published in 1623 in what they like to call a “memorial reconstruction” by the actors.  This might be understandable if either of them suggested that both versions were based on a now lost original, but that doesn’t seem to be what they’re proposing.  Their scenario holds that the original copy that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men took with them on the road the summer of 1597 got lost, so the entire company pitched in to contribute their parts, someone in the company taking it down (apparently not Shakespeare), and that this was the version that was sold to Andrew Wise, the bookseller who registered the play with the Stationers in October 1597 when the company returned to London.   The reasons for this idea seem to be related to the many changes made in the text in the quartos published in following years, eight altogether.

Since due either to my own stupidity or, what’s often just as bad when it comes to Shakespeare studies, my annoying common sense, I can’t seem to grasp the point of this idea, I’ll quote at length in case some reader might be able to explain it:

It is not easy briefly to summarize the nature of these differences.  The Folio text is longer. It includes some fifty passages of varying length collectively amounting to rather more than two hundred lines which do not appear in the Quarto version.  These passages range from single words or phrases to complete lines, and to longer passages of several lines together, the longest being over fifty lines.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.  If, as seems certain from what Hammond tells us about the timing, the Quarto was a road version, that the Folio was longer (and that it calls for over 50 actors while the Quarto calls for ten) makes sense, doesn’t it?  But then

In Q there are twenty-seven passages not present in F: most of these are very much shorter and they amount in total to only some thirty-seven lines: there is among them one quite extensive passage however (IV.2.97-116).

Nothing out of the ordinary so far.  Still no reason why the Quarto must be a memorial reconstruction of the Folio version.  (How the Folio version could have remained unchanged for some thirty years is never addressed.)  Hammond finds it significant that there are

literally hundreds of variants in the text, freqently taking the form of transposition of words and phrases within speeches, the movement of words and phrases from one speech to another, the extensive use of synonyms and other kinds of near-equivalent expression, changes in tense, number and other grammatical variations, and other, less readily definable changes, which sometimes hardly affect the meaning at all. . . .  (2).

These are accompanied by variations in assignment of speeches to characters, in spelling, punctuation and capitalization, length, presence or lack of stage directions, and so forth, “not only between Q and F generally, but from quarto to quarto as well,” there being an unusual number of editions (eight from 1597 to 1629) for this obviously extremely popular play.  This Hammond feels can only be accounted for by each version being set from different manuscripts (neither of which is extant, of course).  Although they are so similiar that many hold Shakespeare responsible for both, Hammond feels that “Q is in many ways patently inferior to F––less regular metrically, less grammatically correct, often manifestly less verbally effective” (3).  Since what is or isn’t “verbally effective” is a matter of taste, this leaves the issue pretty much where we found it.

In any case, the conclusion arrived at in the 1930s and still holding today (according to Hammond) is that having lost their copy while on tour in 1597, the script was recreated, each actor contributing his remembered part.  Why this was necessary when the author himself was a member of the company (and with the clout of a sharer), as they must assume he was by 1597, is never explained.  That as the creator of the play, he would presumably recall what he’d written better, and faster, than the actors could recite it and some amanuensis take it down, doesn’t seem to mean much to Hammond or the herd of colleagues he finds it necessary to acknowledge.  (The fewer the facts, the more colleagues are required to create a substantial preface.  After all, one can’t just go on saying “we don’t know” for six or seven pages in small type.)

Frankly it’s hard to follow their reasoning, for as far as I can see, of the many examples he offers of such variations between the Quarto and the Folio version, not one requires that they come from the actors rather than the author.  Why on earth, with Shakespeare as a member of the company and presumably taking some of the roles himself, would they not simply stand by while he rewrote it?  In the style that I find so exasperating with academics, Hammond acknowleges this, quoting two dissenters at some length, then, without presenting any argument whatsover to show how they’re wrong, simply reasserts his opinion that Q must be a memorial reconstruction, since it’s “hard indeed to think of any alternative explanation” (5), and “In the century or so since this judgement was made, information and theories concerning the text have burgeoned, but a definitive solution is still to seek” (2); in other words “we don’t know.”

Considering the vast amount of detail they’ve been dealing with all these years, besides the Folio, eight quartos with hundreds of variations among them including the fact that after the author’s death and the deaths of a number of the original actors, the version in the First Folio was probably edited to some extent (Hammond refers in passing to the editors of the First Folio as “the correctors”––but how is it that the editors were in a position to “correct” the author of one of the world’s greatest plays?), it would seem that scholars have been so overwhelmed by this mountain of data that they have simply lost sight of the primary issue: when was the play first written?  According to Hammond, D.L. Patrick, who first promoted this theory in 1936, lists

over two hundred cases of synonymous substitution, over seventy cases of change in number, nearly a hundred of various kinds of paraphrase.  It is hard to argue that a consciously revising author would have introduced such sweeping changes into the texture of his work without altering it in more fundamental ways.

This is absurd.  Every time I go over a text I alter it in just these ways––it’s called “tweaking”–– while the “fundamental structure,” once set, no longer needs altering.  If Shakespeare did alter a play in more fundamental ways, he generally gave it a new name, as it appears he did with The First Part of the Contention,  renaming it Henry the Sixth.  Hammond goes on:

by the same token it is hard to find rational grounds for discriminating between such alternatives as speak/say, kept/held, yet/but, Peers/Lords, fruit/fruits, hand/hands, and so on.  Any convincing theory of the text must find an explanation for these: neither conscious revision, nor careless copying nor any other of the usual explanations for variation in reading are sufficient to account for the sheer number and relative insignificance of these variants” (6).

Is this absurd or what?!  Shakespeare was not only a dramatist, seeking the most natural sequence of words, he was a poet, seeking the smoothest, most appealing flow of sound.  It’s the actors who, having once committed a set of sounds to memory, must then concentrate throughout the performance on physical actions, providing and responding to cues, pausing after laugh lines, etc., and so, once the text is set in memory, are far less likely to make changes than the author, whose mind ever remains on the level of text creation.  What’s the matter with these so-called scholars?  If a chicken farmer was as ignorant of hens and roosters as they are of writers and actors, he’d go broke in no time.

In almost every sitution that Hammond deals with, his conclusions show the same misunderstanding of the writer’s nature versus that of the actor.  What he sees as changes (from the Folio) in the roles of Richard’s evil agents, Catesby and Ratcliffe, made to trim them for a touring company but inconsistent with logic (17), for this he blames the actors.  But isn’t it the actor who, steeped in what he sees as the logic of his role, would grasp the inconsistency much more readily than the author, for whom the two killers are more or less interchangable instruments of the wicked King’s policy, it mattering little to the audience which one committed which crime.

So, with Shakespeare himself a member of the acting company (their scenario, not mine) why on earth leave the writing to the actors?  Second, once the actors memorized their lines and their cues they would have had no need of a script, plus whoever was in charge of entrance cues would have had the whole script memorized.  Actors then and now are trained to hold large amounts of texts in memory; once they have a part memorized they won’t need to read it again.  So why take the time to recreate the so-called lost manuscript?  Paper was expensive and there was the constant danger of the script getting stolen.  Most questionable of all, why the rush to get it published back in London?  That there’s a question here seems never to have occured to the Holofernes whose job it has become to answer such questions, however unsuited for it.

As for the quibbles over the many changes in the many quartos published over time, most writers who care about their work will revise every time they revisit a manuscript.  First you try it one way, then another, then another, then back to the first.  For writers who care about their work, this is simply part of the process.  Of course, once something has been published and is part of the public record (even if that public is very small), it’s impossible to make changes.  However, as a playwright closely involved with the company that performed his plays and that got them published in succeeding quarto editions, Oxford was in a position to revise every time a new edition was printed.  And as Lukas Erne has realized (amazing that such a thing should have to be proven to academics), the playwrights were just as interested in the literary aspect of their work as they were the stage production.  As for allowing the writers to dictate the wording, we know from Hamlet’s pointed comments to the actors in Act II Scene 2 that his author hated it when actors messed with his text.

For a poet seeking the perfect blend of sound and sense, new editions would have meant an ideal opportunity for perfecting a play.  It seems obvious that what we have with Q1 and the Folio are two stages in this process, one showing where it stood in 1597, the other how it was being performed in 1623.

Apparently there are others who see the evidence this way, and although Hammond mentions them, he simply leaves them aside.  For instance, it appears that in 1965 the respected Earnest Honigmann made complaints similar to mine (with a great deal more authority), which Hammond blandly notes, comments on (48), and then proceeds to ignore, announcing in his conclusions that “the evidence that Q originates in a memorial reconstruction has survived the challenges made against it. . . .  Shakespeare could well have been among the people involved in this collective reconstruction, and his personal touch certainly seems present in some aspects of the Q text.”  His personal touch?  Some aspects?

Hammond concludes:  “to distinguish between Shakespeare the solitary artist, scribbling in his garret (as it were), and Shakespeare as the complex of author/book-keeper/actor/prompter and others who actually created the play in the sense of a living performance on the stage is to find oneself on one side or other of a philosophical issue concerning the nature of artistic creativity.”  Scribbling in his garret?  Isn’t it their idea that he was one of the actors and sharers in the company?  In any case, when we’re talking about one of the most brilliant creators who ever lived, I think that––as it were––we should err on the side of creative authority, and not some vapid “attempt at a middle ground,” which is where Hammond has plunked himself down because, lacking all understanding of artistic creativity, that’s where he’s comfortable.

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