Saturday, January 24, 2009

'William Shakespeare: Complete Works' edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

One of the great myths perpetuated about the audience reaction in the original Globe Theatre is that the groundlings, the peasants standing just in front of the stage were like a modern football terrace, shouting loudly through the action, cheering and jeering with equal measure, the gentry sitting in the rafters taking in the linguistic and artistic brilliance of the verse and the allegorical details of the storytelling. In fact, as Jonathan Bate’s sublime general introduction to William Shakespeare: Complete Works explains those groundings would look up in silence awed by the sounds and language they were hearing, oh so otherworldly whilst it was the apparent nobility who would be criticizing and analyzing the quality of the words.

Lord knows what they would make of this edition of the canon, the so-called First Folio edited for the first time since its fourth edition over three centuries ago. The first edition was published posthumously by two of his friends as a way of commemorating the work of their friend. It’s on its shoulders that the legacy sits, fulfilling Ben Johnson’s famous expectation from his introduction that ‘he was not of an age, but for all time’ and were it not for their endeavor there are a raft of plays which we simply wouldn’t have in any form (and indeed there are couple which have been lost because they weren’t included).

There have been reprints and facsimiles in the meantime but what Bate, Eric Rasmussen and their team of editors have set out to do is present a modernised version of that original text as close as possible to what Shakespeare intended, correcting the work of the sometimes flaky printers and offering finally a sense of the state the plays were in at the time of his death. As they note, it’s impossible to have a definitive version of any play since like many play writes he would be rewriting and correcting throughout the life of the work which, along with poor handling of publication during his lifetime, some of the plays particularly King Lear and Hamlet appear with varying structures and lengths.

The plays that were included in the Folios are presented in a single column with fidelity to the acts and scenes but ignoring the locations and most of the stage directions which have been added to some editions in more recent years. The five act structure was an invention that occurred during Shakespeare’s time when productions moved inside to intimate locations and time was required to relight the candles and so those plays in which these were a later addition also include a note as to were the original breaks were. Since this is a complete works, those plays which didn’t make the cut way back when – the collaborations Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles are supplemented at the end followed by the poems and sonnets, all given the same care and attention.

Despite appearing as it should at the front of the book, the centrepiece is the general introduction which even to this fan is a revelation. Most of the dozens of biographies I’ve read or watched cover the main points of his life: son of a glove maker, decent schooling, goes to London, acts, writes, becomes a theatre owner, acts, writes some more with the backing of the Queen then King, goes into semi-retirement, maybe has a few too many to drink and dies, with plagues, theatres closures, a family and potential mistresses or boys weaving in and out. Bate includes some of this, but spends much of his time teasing out exactly what it was like for Shakespeare starting out in the business and working his way up to celebrity and unlike most of those other life stories, isn’t afraid to diminish some of the idolatry.

Comparison is made, for example, with the Hollywood scripting process, in which more often than not the text is passed amongst many hands often to the point of not resembling the original intent at all. In Shakespeare’s day it wasn’t unknown for plays already in the reparatory to be passed to some new writer in the company for a sprucing up and indeed there’s an implication here that some of his earlier plays are really just that. What set Shakespeare apart is that it was fairly rare for an actor to be carrying out this work and with an ability which would eventually lead to him authoring his own work. The aging writers of the original plays were none to happy with that actor who would presume to improve their work (especially since they wouldn’t profit from it) and even published a pamphlet to say so.

This then naturally flows into one of the best arguments I’ve seen about lone authorship; I’ve always found the suggestions that some other person could have written Shakespeare’s plays a bit specious, especially since much of it seems to stem from his ‘background’, even though the education he had as a boy filled with Latin and the like was probably far more complex than you’d find in some universities these days. As Bate notes the overwhelming evidence is that Shakespeare has to have written the plays simply because there were too many people watching him and as the number of eyewitness sources increases there would have to be a massive conspiracy at foot simply designed to cheat future scholars. It’s not unknown for people to be fronts to other writers (as portrayed in relation to the Hollywood black list in the Woody Allen film The Front) but how would it have worked in the collaborations in which the two writers must have spoken about the work and indeed rewritten each other?

Each of the plays is prefaced with a similar introduction, crucially considering a range of topics but often concentrating on a single aspect of the work rather than futily trying to create a rounded picture (there’s the excellent Rough Guide available for that kind of thing). That completes the impression that this is as much an authored as edited book, which offers the viewpoints of two scholars more interested in presenting a cohesive vision than a confusion in completeness. Although an extract from Sir Thomas Moore is here, they don’t include the newly canonised (by some) Edward III because they’re not convinced by the evidence that Shakespeare was a co-author and Arden of Faversham is similarly only given lip-service. Such material is available elsewhere (including the excellent website which accompanies the book) and would muddy what is being accomplished here – a modern edition of one of, if not the greatest book in the English language.

Even as an object this is special. It comes in a box and though the pages are thin, they’re sturdy. There's an amazing selection of stills of various RSC productions contrasting the different approaches. The impression is of a family bible but instead of the word of a god this is drama from the mind of one man (plus his sources and collaborators). You can’t help yourself – you just have to sit and hold it, turning the pages watching the verse pass by. The cover eskews the usual clichés of a late painting of the man or of Elizabethan London to tastefully give the impression of the original publication may have looked. On the shelf, nestled next to countless other complete works I’ve collected, it stands out, definitive and authoritative in contrast to the brown and black of the others. I’ll glance up at the yellow of the cover and as you might a nice car or stereo and wonder how I could possibly own it. If you don’t have a complete works in the house, this is the one to have.