Blog Post

readability the sequel

So the funny thing about Shakespeare, you will have noticed, is that there are a lot of editions of his plays. A lot. A LOT.

There are, incredibly, even quite a few editions of Shakespeare poems (despite the open secret that many Shakespeareans hate poetry). If the obvious reason for all these editions (which are almost never really very different) is that Shakespeare sells, a colleague of mine suggested another, and I think truer, possibility: it is the secret dream of all Shakespeareans to edit their very own edition of the plays.

In a related vein—the relation is what I want to think about here—until this year I was inordinately fussy about what edition of a play students used in my class. Part of the reason for this was simply practical: it is a pain to wait for everyone to find where the passage is (“do you see where I am”?), to have a student say, again, “what line number?” and then to have to explain (again—wait, you missed class last week?) that the line numbers are probably different. I also worried about students (it is surprising how often this happens) who were using a giant collected works of Shakespeare that their grandmother gave them as a graduation gift which was a very bad reprint of a very bad nineteenth-century edition (the Shakespeare book, not the grandmother).

But in the interests of honesty (and a slog should always be honest), I have to admit that I also wanted them to use an edition whose introduction and notes I approved of. I hate notes that tell you something is “beautiful”; I hate notes that try to exclude possible readings of a line, rather than noting that, well, the line is sort of unclear, and that’s why there is a note here at all. I do love the Signet Shakespeare’s “bawdy quibble,” a phrase that will never, ever be improved upon. In other words, I always picked editions that came as close as possible to the edition that I would have edited: despite not being a Shakespearean, I suppose it was also my secret dream to have my very own edition (“The Warley Shakespeare: a radically new and innovative text that offers beautifully written and pithy glosses that guide students to a lifetime of learning and pleasure.” Does anyone have W.W. Norton’s phone number?)

But I have changed my mind. I no longer care what edition people use. Really—not at all. If they want to check out an eighteenth century Shakespeare from the library and subordinate themselves to the Enlightenment (and the University of Toronto library is such a mess that I would not be surprised if you could do that—the checking out, I mean: subordinate yourself to the Enlightenment on your own time), great! If they want to blow out their backs lugging around the Riverside, fabulous! If they just like the sewn bindings of the Oxford, terrific! If they want to melt their eyes reading their grandmother’s graduation gift—hey, ophthalmologists need the work! The more possibilities the better. I now love the moments when people say “but my book says something different,” because it is at those moments that reading becomes possible.

(As Paul Krugman sometimes says: warning! a bit wonkish) But in what sense might you say “reading becomes possible” when you are looking at, say, five different versions of some soliloquy (Arden, Pelican, Norton, Oxford, Grandma)? One obvious answer would be—well, it’s a celebration of diversity. Instead of the evil old vision of Shakespeare the genius communicating universal truths, we (whoever “we” is) now have lots of Shakespeares who say different things. It’s a Shakespeare rainbow. A play points in a lot of directions. And this celebration of diversity, certainly, is part of the thinking behind Arden’s decision to break up Hamlet into three texts (Q1, Q2, F1), rather than producing another conflated text. A diverse Shakespeare, not an ontological Shakespeare: that is what gets expressed in multiple editions.

But, again in truth, I don’t think this is true. Diversity is not the reason I find using multiple editions of a play so handy, nor the reason I find that using multiple editions makes reading possible. For it seems to me that the discrete edition of Shakespeare, with notes and apparatus, is always belying any claim to diversity (as Derrida might put it, the one thing diversity cannot be is diverse). For lurking in the heart of every Shakespeare edition is, well, an essentialism that current Shakespeare editions claim to get rid of (usually via "historicism"). For if an edition wants to displace the author-centeredness of, say, the Signet Shakespeare and replace it with, say, a stress on the theatrical company or performance (“Economic realities determined the theatrical world in which Shakespeare’s plays were written, performed, and received” says the general introduction to the New Pelican)—in either case, the apparatus of the edition is claiming, tacitly or explicitly, to direct your reading: that is, after all, what an edition is supposed to do. The fantasy of every Shakespearean is to have their own edition because the fantasy is that the edition will determine how everyone reads the play (The Warley Shakespeare, for instance, always stresses that lines can mean as many things as possible, except for when I think a particular interpretation is really stupid). It would seem impossible, in this light, to read the old Pelican Shakespeare from the 1950s and do a deconstructive or performance reading. Everyone knows that edition is for author-centered or Freudian readings! And conversely, who could read the Arden 3 Hamlet(s) and decide that the play is really about the birth of individuality?

What happens when you put multiple editions of Shakespeare together in a classroom, in other words, is not a celebration of diversity, but rather the possibility to diagnose (not escape) the essentialism that always sits at the heart of any argument for difference. Here is the possibility of reading: reading the belief that an edition will “guide” how you read. Editions can celebrate diversity (there are three Hamlets), but not with other editions that deny the validity of their position (there is one Hamlet). It is a lot like the conundrum that Milton gets himself into in Areopagitica: free speech for all, except Catholics, Muslims, and atheists, because, well, those people are crazy. (“The Warley Shakespeare helps readers to start to make sense of the aporias of liberalism by showing that Milton says everything that Shakespeare says, only louder”).

But readability, in the lower case sense, means that the material book, the editorial apparatus, does not force you to read in a particular way (another fantasy of transparent communication). If lurking in the heart of every Shakespearean is the desire to have their own edition, that desire itself betrays a secret longing that materiality, the “book itself,” will determine, in the final instance, the meaning of everything. [r]eadability appears, though, as you see how editors, even editors celebrating different Shakespeares, of necessity become essentialists.

A final truth: I don’t entirely believe this argument. I recently taught More’s Utopia, and repeated my new mantra—I don’t care what edition you use. It turns out, maybe I do. The Penguin Utopia is terrible: Raphael Hythloday becomes “Raphael Nonsenso.” That is just wrong. The Warley Edition of the Works of Thomas More will fix it, though. Whom might I contact at Oxford UP?

Christopher Warley's picture
Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.