Editing Shakespeare – Ben Reed

Editing Shakespeare

by Benjamin Reed

PhD Student

UNL Department of English

One of the most striking discoveries made while working on this project occurs within the first lines of the Introduction. According to the Authors of the DRAMATIC CENSOR, Timon of Athens “can never been interesting on stage” due to a variety of “insipid or trifling” side characters, “flimzy (sic)” scenes, and an underwhelming catastrophe (79). Furthermore, we learn that the printed version of the text is provided “greatly and properly reduced from the original” of which there are then further cuts made by hand (79; emphasis added). It is this second set of cuts and alterations that this project has sought to identify and explore.

As we see in these lines of the introduction, the editing of Shakespeare is not a foreign practice even in the earliest points of its publication history. Grace Ioppolo identifies a number reasons that redactions could take place including censorship of oaths (78-81), accomodations for smaller acting companies (81-86) or to strengthen areas where the meter is less effective (90). Some of these edits occurred by Shakespeare’s hand, such as the Quatro 1 of Romeo and Juliet (89)  but often times it was the involvement of other authors and editors.

One of the most infamous examples of editing is The Family Shakespeare, edited by Henrietta and Thomas Bowlder in 1807, which sought to remove “everything that could give offense to the religious and virtuous mind” (vii). These edits, so notorious they coined their own term of “Bowlderizing” (phonetically similar, noticeably, to “bastardizing”) were a moment when, astutely observed by David Scott Kastan “decency, rather than authenticity, would be the principle that would most powerfully determine the English enthusiasm for Shakespeare” (134, 110). Even today we can see the Bowlder’s influence in readers’ exposure to Shakespeare, such as when high schools cut out the more-suggestive and “queer” content from the bawdy Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (Ressler 53).

While removing content via outsider censorship is likely to be frowned upon by many modern academics, revisions by the author’s own hand or efforts to change archaic spellings and overall standardize the text become a trickier territory to negotiate. Such revisions and edits return to the concept of the “copy-text” as discussed by scholars such as W.W. Greg and G. Thomas Tanselle.  In an attempt to create a text that best represents the assumed author’s intent, Greg identifies two specific types of “substantives . . . those namely that affect the author’s meaning or the essence of his expression” and “accidentals” which largely affect the text’s “formal presentation” in terms of “spelling, punctuation, word-division, and the like” (21). Censoring, therefore, would fall more under the category of a substantive change while removing the long-S of early modern type would fall under accidentals. Each form of edit, however, does have important impacts on the authority of the copy-text. While the long-S removal might seem like a surface-level correction, it risks a slippery slope of denying historical aspects of the publishing features available at the time. It is for this reason we have maintained uses of the long-S, original spellings, and not included standard line numbers, to capture some elements of how the text is presented within the prompt book.

So what is the editing history of Timon of Athens up to our text? Stanley T. Williams identifies “at least fifteen different English versions of the play” and that its influences can be found in other countries including Germany and even Japan (101). One of the first major revisions occurred in 1678 by Thomas Shadwell and was entitled Timon of Athens, or The Man-Hater which, unlike the Introduction of our text would lead one to believe, was a play received quite well by audiences and frequently performed (101-103). Major changes to the play included the addition of two mistresses to Timon of which one, Evandra, joins him in death at the play’s conclusion  (102). Because this character does not appear, we can confidently assume we are not in fact reading The Man-Hater for this prompt book.

The next major version, published in 1868 by James Love(Dance), served as “a composite of both Shadwell and Shakespeare” (103). Changes included the omission of characters from Shadwell, reassigning dialogue between characters such as Evandra and Flavius, and rearranging the order of scenes from the Shakespeare text (103-104). The next edition of note is Richard Cumberland’s from 1771, given that it is praised in our versions Introduction as “much the best” (79). Other contemporary commentators on this “typically eighteenth-century version of Timon of Athens” (Williams 104) had differing opinions, saying that Cumberland had “caught the manners and diction of the original so exactly” that it was “Full as bad a play as it was before he corrected it” (qtd. In Williams 104).

Our text by Mr. Hopkins, meanwhile, occupies a unique space between the “age of alterations” and the attempt to restore the original play back to the stage (104-105). According to the authors of the Introduction, “Shakespeare, properly pared,” is better than any of the alternate editions popular at the time. Our text, therefore, values brevity over creativity. Comparisons with the digital Folgers edition do confirm that Hopkins did remove portions of the dialogue, such as further embellishments made by the Poet and Painter in Act V. Unfortunately the editorial notes do not provide much in the way of context for these redactions, other than they fall in the theme of placing emphasis on the scenes and dialogue connected to stronger characters such as Timon.

Our handwritten editor, meanwhile, bares no such respect for Timon, who is slashed away with the Poet and Painter in entire pages worth of cuts (see pages 140 and 141). Other edits include the reassigning of roles (see page 144) and also the removal of some characters such as Cupid (Dramatis Personae), which likely served the needs of the available acting company as discussed earlier by Ioppolo. From what we can see in Act V’s edits, the redactor is trying to reach the catastrophe as quickly as possible following his interaction with his faithful steward Flavius. In essence they have taken the editing philosophy of Mr. Hopkins to the next level.

As editors it is a worthwhile question to ask if we provide any sort of distinction between Mr. Hopkins printed edits and our handwritten cuts? Afterall it is not an uncommon practice for a director to make these adjustments as part of the performance process. Because of the physical marks on the text, our group treats them now as inherent to the content, much in the same way we would treat marginalia or changes to an author’s manuscript. The removal of the Poet and Painter interaction in Act V, for example, removes a significant portion of the political commentary, as well as the tragic theming where Timon learns too late on who he should trust (4.iii.571-574), serving as a substantive change if we follow Greg’s definition.

By performing these edits, each of the involved authors is placing themselves into an authoritative(authoritarian?) role over the text. While they take steps in the right direction to return to Shakespeare’s original work, there is still the underlying attempt to undermine his authorial power by, according to the Introduction, providing a “properly” reduced version (79; emphasis added). Had the markouts been a little darker and this the only surviving copy of Timon of Athens for study, much would have risked being lost for our future readings of the play.

Thus, in an effort to build upon the existing genealogy of editing surrounding the works of Shakespeare, we provide this digital edition in progress. In addition to providing exciting insights to how Shakespeare could be performed in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we also can begin to see how editorial authority interacts with that of the original author/editor and their contemporaries. Such a contribution, we hope, helps expand the possibilities of reading this particular play.

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