Sunday, June 27, 2010

A New Edition of an Old Manuscript Play

The Malone Society was founded in 1906 with a mission to make rare and unique materials essential to the study of English Renaissance drama more accessible to scholars and the public. Its history is one of prestigious and superlative scholarly research. Every year for the past century the Society publishes anywhere from one to six editions of manuscript or obscure printed plays, theatrical records, and other relevant documents. In order to ensure the material is as useful as possible for scholarly purposes, these editions always avoid heavy editorial intrusions: a brief (anywhere from one page to twenty or so) textual introduction is followed by a record of collations of extant copies and then the text itself, either as a diplomatic reprint (for manuscript plays and for printed plays up until the past few decades) or as a photographic facsimile (for most printed plays published by the Society in the past few decades). The books’ familiar tan cloth binding, plain and unadorned but for black lettered titles on the spine, should be immediately familiar to anyone in my field; they are a staple and necessity for studying English dramatic literature and theatre history.

This week’s book is the Malone Society’s centennial edition for the years 2007-2008. It is volume 172 in the Malone Society Reprints series and presents a full-color, 1:1-scale photographic reproduction of the elegant scribal-copy manuscript of John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed (1611) held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC (MS J.b.3). The edition was attentively prepared by Meg Powers Livingston and checked for accuracy by two of the Society’s most prestigious elder scholars, G. Richard Proudfoot and Henry R. Woudhuysen. The book was published for the Malone Society by Manchester University Press and printed by Alden HenDi of Oxfordshire.

Fletcher’s play is a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but in it the tables are turned: following the death of his first wife, Katherine, Petruchio marries Maria, who “tames” her brat of a husband by -- Lysistrata-like -- leading the women of the play in withholding sex from their husbands until the men change their ways. It was likely written in 1611, but it underwent quite a bit of revision and changes due to censorship; in 1633, after first having performance of the play blocked by the Master of the Revels (the government official responsible for censoring and licensing all public plays) because of perceived indecencies in it, the King’s Men were finally allowed to stage it and The Taming of the Shrew together before King Charles and the queen at St. James’s Palace. According to the Master of the Revels, Shrew was “liked”; Tamer was “well liked”.

The play was quite popular on the Jacobean and Caroline stage and was also frequently performed on the Restoration stage as well, often in repertory with Taming of the Shrew (in 1667, in fact, John Lacy revised Shakespeare’s play to make it a better fit with Fletcher’s). After a prolonged absence from the stage, it was most recently performed (again, in repertory with Shrew) by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2004.

Livingston dates the manuscript of the play to anytime between 1611 and 1623. It differs from the 1647 folio in several ways, including in textual changes that were no doubt due to the 1633 revisions demanded by the Master of the Revels. The hand is an elegant, clear, and rather large italic, making it much easier to read than most early modern play manuscripts (which are usually scribbled in English secretary hand). Care has been taken with this copy and the scribe (probably a professional) has dutifully corrected mistakes as he worked. Later hands have also made some annotations and changes as well. The dignity and beauty of the work suggests that the fair copy was made as a presentation gift for someone of importance. Livingston demonstrates that the cuts and wording in the stage directions point to a playhouse manuscript as the scribe’s copy-text (that is, the scribe copied his work from a manuscript that had been actually used for performance).

The contents of the Malone Society edition begin with Livingston’s introduction (p. v-xxviii), which includes: information on the manuscript’s modern provenance (v-vi), the play’s authorship (vi-vii) and date (vii-viii), the manuscript’s physical characteristics (viii-x) and its corrections and annotations (x-xiii), a comparison to the printed folio versions of the play in 1647 and 1679 (xiii-xx), dating of the manuscript itself (xx-xxi), and a statement of editorial conventions and acknowledgements (xxi). Following the introduction are several appendices: a list of corrections made by the original scribe of the manuscript (xxiii), a list of differences between the manuscript and the 1647 folio that can be attributed to censorship imposed on the play’s oaths, ribaldry, and profanity by Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, in 1633 (xxiv-xxv), and a table cross-referencing the through-line numbering system of the edition to the page numbers and signatures of the 1647 folio and the act/scene/line marks of Fredson Bowers’s modernized edition of 1966.

Each page of the facsimile provides the full-color image of the manuscript page in the center, with through-line numbers marked every ten lines printed in the inner margin and the folio pagination centered in the bottom margin. The manuscript is a total of 52 folio leaves (103 pages; the verso of the final leaf is blank, but Livingston includes it in the reproduction anyway; one leaf, no. 22, is interleaved and pasted in, perhaps to replace a gross error in the transcription [left]) measuring 19.7cm x 29.5cm. The paper in the book is a very high-quality glossy stock; the pages measure 26.5cm x 35.5cm. The binding is the usual Malone Society tan buckram publisher’s cloth, with the title of the play in black letters on the spine.

As a member of the Malone Society, I receive the annual publications directly from the publisher. Inserted into my copy is a letter from the then-newly installed U.S. Secretary-Treasurer for the Society, Professor Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada, Reno. The letter briefly introduces the volume and indicates Rasmussen’s pleasure that distributing the volume to the U.S. members is his “first act as incoming U.S. Secretary-Treasurer”.

The edition has been received very enthusiastically by scholars in the field. The following notice is from the Malone Society website:

[The edition has been] enthusiastically reviewed in the TLS by Laurie Maguire, who noted that 'The reader can enjoy flicking back and forth from Powers's descriptions and analysis to the high-quality pictorial evidence' and predicted that the continuing adaptability of the Society in the digital age 'points towards several more Society centenaries'. William Proctor Williams has also praised this volume (‘a magnificent facsimile') and the work of the Society: ‘So where does the Malone Society stand in the age of the pixel? … I submit that no matter how good the resolution is on your computer screen, … the Malone Society Reprint is a superior and more scholarly useful item than the digital form. … I trust that some reviewer a hundred years from now will get the same pleasure from reviewing the Society's bicentennial volume as I had reviewing The Woman's Prize ' (Notes and Queries , 57 (2010), 136-8).

The enthusiasm for high-quality photographic editions of manuscript plays is not an understatement. With the wide-spread use of digital resources such as Early English Books Online and Literature Online it has become relatively easy for scholars around the world to access and work with rare printed materials from the early modern period. To work with manuscripts however -- which are, by definition, unique -- it has always been necessary to either travel to the library holding the document (almost always in the UK, though the Folger and the Huntington in California have some) or rely on a diplomatic transcript (nearly always from the Malone Society). Photographic reproductions of manuscripts from the period have suffered from camera technologies insufficiently subtle and sophisticated to capture the nuances of color, tone, impression, texture, etc. that embed important material evidence into the physical object of the text. High-resolution digital photography is beginning to make those problems obsolete, and the ability to zoom and navigate those images on a computer screen should revolutionize the study of early manuscripts: not only does it democratize scholarship by making those unique materials accessible to thousands, if not millions, of users, but it also helps ensure the preservation and longevity of the materials themselves by reducing the need for users to actually handle the document.

Williams’s suggestion that Malone Society reprints, in book form, will always be “superior and more scholarly useful” than digital facsimiles seems purely optative -- conservative thinking from a scholar very firmly (and professionally) entrenched in print culture. Certainly there is a need for full-color, scale reproductions of manuscript plays in print; there is a permanence to the book-form of the edition that digital technologies -- so often changing and going out of date -- have yet to successfully replicate. But as the next generation of scholars begins to populate academia -- a generation of scholars who are intensely digital natives -- the use of digital media to advance the centuries’ old mission of critical inquiry and analysis will evolve and improve. The goals of the scholarship will change little; the tools that make the realization of those goals possible, however, will change radically.

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