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Most contemporary audiences know that films need stars and money; directors, producers and script writers also play some sort of a part. But how many audiences actually know or care what the 'best boy' does or even how long it takes to make a film? In late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century England, general or popular knowledge of how plays reached the stage may well have been just as limited. It is probably a mistake to suppose that audiences or readers had a strong sense of the processes by which plays came into existence, were licensed and realized on the stage, and under what circumstances they were transmitted to the page: these may have been matters of relative or of complete indifference to them.
Like any mass-market commercial enterprise, the pre-Civil War theatre was not static: it sprang to life in the later 1580s and continued developing and changing right up to the closing of the theatres in 1642. This makes generalizing about writing and theatrical and publishing practices particularly difficult: what happened in the 1590s, say, may well have borne no relation to what went on in the 1630s and vice versa. Similarly, the surviving evidence is very limited, and it is dangerous to draw firm conclusions about one part of it from another. For example, the entrepreneur Philip Henslowe's 'diary', an enormously important and valuable set of accounts for 1592-1603 that survives with a mass of associated documentary material at Dulwich College in south London, reveals a great deal about what went on in his theatrical empire at the Rose theatre and elsewhere.
When considering some of the editions and textual studies published in the last year or so, it is hard not to be reminded of the Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ On the one hand, the theories and certainties of the New Bibliography seem to be coming under more and more pressure with the beginnings of a movement proclaiming the death of the editor and the arrival of the New Textualism. On the other hand, the well-disciplined advance of the Oxford and Cambridge series continues, producing high-quality scholarly editions which stand firm against some of the most pressing current doubts and questionings. Editors and anti-editors lob brickbats over the parapet at their enemies (or simply ignore one another), and what Shakespeare did or did not write continues to receive detailed attention. All categories are questioned – but not at the same time, for that way, and this is what makes the times so worrying, madness lies.
It was Christmas Eve in The Times Literary Supplement and under the heading 'Hamlet by Dogberry' Brian Vickers effectively laid into Graham Holderness's and Bryan Loughrey's edition of Hamlet q1 in the Harvester 'Shakespearean Originals: First Editions' series. Vickers attacked their grasp of textual history and scholarship, dismissing their 'fiction that the pirated Quarto makes sense on its own' and concluded that the 'Harvester editors have presented the texts in an ideologically predetermined frame, denying editorial responsibilities while performing some of them sloppily.' Vickers's powerful polemic was perhaps aimed not just at Holderness's and Loughrey's slim volume, but at the growing trend which in addition to questioning what 'bad quartos' are, also believes (to put it crudely) that the editor's task is to make the textual materials available in an unmediated form so that the reader is allowed to construct whatever sort of edition he or she wants or needs.
Well then; the promised hour is come at last; The present Age of Wit obscures the past:
It may seem a little extravagant to use Dryden’s lines on Congreve to introduce a fully annotated text of King Lear based on the Folio alone, but after so much talk and work, it is a moment of some interest. One question worth asking about recent textual work on Shakespeare is whether the past ten or so years have witnessed an editorial revolution or, less dramatically, a publishing one. Of course, some important matters have been valuably addressed, from the difficulties posed by modernization to the relationship between literary and theatrical texts. But the steady flow of impressive volumes from Cambridge and Oxford may make the reader occasionally pause to wonder how different in practice these editions are from those of a decade or more ago.
Jay L. Halio's edition of what has been called 'the bibliographer's Everest', King Lear? is large and generous, with a lengthy critical and historical introduction and over eighty pages devoted to textual matters, including detailed comparisons of Q/F parallel passages and fully edited versions of Q-only passages. Halio takes a modest view of the editor's role; he is clear sighted and level headed, accurate and in control of his material. The result is an edition of the play which consolidates much recent Lear scholarship and brings aspects of its textual and theatrical history into sharp focus. It allows the reader to reconstruct most of the story - or at least one version of it - and gain access to the materials behind the play's two texts.
Five more volumes from the New Cambridge Shakespeare bring the series past the half-way mark. All the editions are worth having and represent an enormous amount of valuable editorial and critical work: some can for the moment claim their place as the best available edition. The introductions are on the whole useful, even if some contain material which would be better suited to a periodical article rather than to an edition which undergraduates will buy and use. The textual introductions are rather good, but the handling of questions such as date and occasion is very patchy. Some editors go to great lengths to investigate the history of their play in the theatre, often turning up new and diverting information, but only Hattaway manages to use the history to illuminate the play itself.
The series also contains a number of minor but still irritating inconsistencies. The asterisk in the commentary, used to indicate editorial emendation, appears to have been silently dropped: it is present in 2 Henry VI but not in Measure for Measure (both published in 1991) nor in The Poems or Henry V. Use of the Oxford edition of the complete works is still sporadic. Relined verse, verse set as prose, and prose as verse, are sometimes recorded fully and sometimes only occasionally: the same is true for the recording of stage directions and of spelling variants. In the note on 2.4.186 Gibbons reports the sententiae marked by the Folio in Measure for Measure, but Roe ignores their presence in his collations and commentary to Lucrece.