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"What is not collaborative about early modern drama in performance and print?" by Gabriel Egan

Abstract This paper is concerned with the idea that Shakespeare's plays are inherently collaborative because drama is a collective artform and that the processes of transmission by which the texts come down to us--scribal copying and printing--constitute additional layers of collaboration. On the assumption that Shakespeare welcomed or at least acquiesced to changes to his plays made by actors during rehearsal, the 1986 Oxford Complete Works edition attempted, where a choice existed, to reflect the plays as they were first performed rather than as first written. This paper reconsiders the extent to which Shakespeare's plays may have been reshaped in the theatre, finding that it has recently been overstated and that his authority over his words is probably greater than usually supposed. The idea that textual transmission was thoroughly collaborative rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s as the sociology-of-texts movement reached Shakespeare studies. This approach stressed that writers do not produce books on their own, and that a constellation of other individuals and institutions constitutes the necessary condition that enables publication. The collaborative nature of publication also appears to have been overstated and editors ought to focus on undoing the effects of scribes and compositors to recover the authorial labour.


    The dominant editorial theory of all but the last decade of the twentieth century was the New Bibliography. Changes made to a Shakespeare play during rehearsal and in performance were, for the most part, characterized by New Bibliographers as unauthorized interference rather than collective shaping. Despite occasional public acknowledgements that the collaborative nature of performance gives a post-rehearsal text a collective authority of its own (Wilson 1935a; Wilson 1935b; Wilson 1935c; Greg 1935), the New Bibliographers generally privileged the author's intentions prior to rehearsal, which they treated as an activity that could only corrupt the text. New Bibliographical editors preferred as their copy text an early printed edition based on authorial papers rather than one based on a promptbook, although they derived complex rules for admitting into the modern edition readings from editions other than the copy text. In his Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare, however, R. B. McKerrow frankly acknowledged the editorial consequences of the changes to Shakespeare's scripts in the theatre:

Such alterations may have been made by the author himself or, if he was not available, they may have been made by others. He may, or may not, have regarded them as improvements: he probably merely accepted them as necessary changes, and it is quite likely that he never bothered about whether they introduced inconsistencies into what was originally conceived as a consistent whole. We must not expect to find a definitive text in the sense in which the published version of the plays of a modern dramatist is definitive. (McKerrow 1939, 6)

It remained editorially respectable, however, to treat the theatre as a wholly corrupting influence. A notorious late example is Philip Edwards's "At this point what one can only call degeneration began, and . . . the nearer we get to the stage, the further we are getting from Shakespeare" (Shakespeare 1985, 32). At the same time, McKerrow's successor as editor of the proposed Oxford Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, adapted New Bibliography to accommodate the increasing respect that theatrical practice had been afforded within post-war Shakespeare studies (Egan 2010, 167-89). Wells saw promptbook-derived early printed editions as having their own authority and when choosing the moment for a "snapshot" of a play to be represented in the modern edition (Wells 1985), his 'new' New Bibliography favoured--where there was a choice to be made--the script not as it left Shakespeare's hand but as it was first performed.

    The acknowledgement that a Shakespeare script was subject to authorized change has, in the past fifteen years, been exaggerated into a claim that it was forever in motion. In Tiffany Stern's model of theatrical production, the place of the single authorized manuscript of the play has been taken by a play decomposed not only into actors' parts, but also songs (written out separately to be sent off to a composer for setting to music), prologues and epilogues (held on separate manuscripts and reused for different plays), and property documents such as letters to be read aloud during a performance (Stern 2009). All these documents were also 'the play' yet they circulated beyond the bounds of the authorized manuscript. The result is that we must consider a play not as a unified and coherent original creation but rather as a patch-work compilation forever being reworked into new patterns of combination:

The suggestion then is that a play is a collection of fragments taken from elsewhere and loosely held together . . . . there was something 'patch-like' in the very way a play was written in the first place . . . . the very method of creating the play seems to be, somehow, 'patchy'. . . . There was a sense at the time that plays were not whole art-works in the way that poems were. Plays had the bit, the fragment, the patch in their very natures. (Stern 2004, 154-55)

Stern's method "'deconstructs' the text along certain lines and then, up to a certain point, 'de-authors' it" (Stern 2004, 171). In fact, the evidence of early modern licensing points in precisely the opposite direction, since to be approved the play had to be presented as a single, complete manuscript (Egan forthcoming). Scripts were occasionally revised, but not routinely and seldom repeatedly, and revision required the script again to take a unified, singular form in order to be reassessed by the censor for a substantial fee.

    In a study of the various kinds of revision that might be undertaken, Eric Rasmussen noted that "Along with adding new material to a finished script before the first production, playwrights might write additions for later revivals (see Knutson, 'Henslowe's')" (Rasmussen 1997, 448). Where the reviser(s) was/were not the original dramatist(s), revision for revival would add a further layer of collaboration to the play. Rasmussen discussed some famous examples, but the essay by Roslyn L. Knutson he cited concluded from the evidence in Henslowe's Diary covering the period 1592-1603 that this was rare: ". . . revision for the occasion of revival was neither commonplace nor economically necessary" and "under normal circumstances companies did not pay for revisions of old playbooks" (Knutson 1985, 1). In a classic work on Shakespearian revision, John Kerrigan argued that we can tell authorial changes from non-authorial ones because the former tend to be "small additions, small cuts and indifferent word substitutions" as well as larger changes, while authors revising another's work tend to insert or remove sizeable sections of text without touching the surrounding material (Kerrigan 1983, 195). Rasmussen denied this distinction in different revisers' interventions and he overstated the general prevalence of revision, ignoring an economic disincentive that limited it.

    Almost as soon as he took office, the Master of the Revels Henry Herbert established that plays licensed by his predecessors would need relicensing for revival under his tenure. On 19 August 1623 he recorded in his office book the relicensing of "An ould play", now lost, called The Peaceable King, or the Lord Mendall (previously allowed by George Buc) "& because <itt was free from adition> or reformation I tooke no fee", and another "olde play", Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (also previously allowed by Buc), for which "the allowed book was missinge" but "on Mr. Hemmings his worde that there was nothing profane added or reformed" Herbert relicensed it and "returned it without a fee" (Bawcutt 1996, 142). On 21 August 1623 Herbert took no fee for relicensing "An Old Play", Thomas Dekker's Match Me in London, first performed c.1611-c.1613 and formerly allowed by Buc, presumably because it was unaltered (Bawcutt 1996, 143). On 7 July 1624 Herbert took ten shillings for relicensing Dekker and Philip Massinger's The Virgin Martyr, performed in 1620, with an additional scene and he took the same amount on 13 May 1629 for relicensing an unnamed old play with "a new act" (Bawcutt 1996, 153, 168). Herbert appears to have charged ten shillings for relicensing revised plays until the 1630s when the fee jumped to £1.

    In 1622-5 Herbert's standard fee for licensing a new play for performance was £1, for 1626-31 we have no evidence, and from 1632 it was £2 (Bawcutt 1996, 39-40). Thus Herbert's fees for relicensing plays revised for revival, ten shillings and £1, are substantial and must have discouraged routine minor alteration ("re-patching") of plays when they were being revived. For plays licensed under Herbert's tenure, then, there was a powerful economic disincentive to revision, and if it was deemed desirable it might as well be substantial revision to justify the additional cost of relicensing. What about previous Masters of the Revels? We have no direct evidence, but we should not assume they forewent the opportunity to earn extra fees that would follow from insisting that revivals-with-revision were relicensed. There is no evidence that plays would have been endlessly and haphazardly re-patched in the way that Stern supposes. Revision was costly and for that reason orderly and rare.

    There are other reasons to temper the recent enthusiasm for treating Shakespeare's plays entirely as collaborations made in the theatre. Andrew Gurr's knowledge of just how theatre companies turned scripts into performances might be expected to make him scathing of the New Bibliographical preference for the authorial text over the promptbook that had been 'corrupted' by rehearsal and performance. In fact Gurr could see merit in the New Bibliographical view, at least in the case of Shakespeare:

. . . he, as a player in the company for which he was writing, knew exactly what he wanted to be put on stage, and that therefore his original version should prevail over the company's product after much rehearsal and modification. That suggests, though the case is not usually made that way, absolute primacy for the authorial text before the company got its hands on it and changed it. . . . aiming at the author's own version must be a target unique to Shakespeare's plays, since no other writer had the same inside role in his company or financial interest in its playhouses. (Gurr 2004, 72)

That is to say, it is precisely because, as extensive theatre historiographical research has established, Shakespeare was thoroughly a man of the theatre his pre-rehearsal texts had rather more theatrical authority than those of other dramatists, and the promptbook--whose differences from the authorial papers reflected Shakespeare's wishes being overruled--rather less. Paradoxically, much the same conclusion arises from Lukas Erne's argument, which has nowhere been effectively refuted, that Shakespeare wrote with at least half an eye on his print readership and hence was not in fact exclusively a man a theatre (Erne 2004).


    With the exception of several pages of Sir Thomas More in Shakespeare's handwriting, our sole access to his output is in the form of early printed editions, and since the 1980s there has emerged an argument that, like performance, publication is an inherently collaborative process. Just as the dramatist expected the actors to complete his play by adding their own labour in rehearsal and performance, so, the argument goes, he expected the printshop workers to complete his text by adding their labour in finalizing, editing and polishing it. In Principles of Textual Criticism James Thorpe wrote that "In many cases, probably in most cases, he [the writer] expected the printer to perfect his accidentals; and thus the changes introduced by the printer can be properly thought of as fulfilling the writer's intentions" (Thorpe 1972, 165). Philip Gaskell agreed: "Most authors, in fact, expect their spelling, capitalization, and punctuation to be corrected or supplied by the printer, relying on the process to dress the text suitably for publication, implicitly endorsing it (with or without further amendment) when correcting proofs" (Gaskell 1972, 339). D. F. McKenzie and Jerome J. McGann took this argument beyond details of punctuation, spelling and layout to argue that a printed book is entirely a collaborative (and hence in their terminology, a socialized) object (McKenzie 1981; McGann 1983).

    The socialized model of publication does not, however, reflect how early modern printers thought of their work. It is often cited that in his handbook on printing Joseph Moxon characterized punctuation as the compositor's responsibility: "As he Sets on, he considers how to Point his Work, viz. when to Set , where ; where : and where . where to make ( ) and where [ ] ? ! and when a Break" (Moxon 1683, Hh2v). The same assumption about the final decisions regarding punctuation is witnessed seven decades earlier by James Binns in a study of the evidence for printshop practice surviving in books written in Latin. In 1617 an edition of Marco Antonio De Dominis's De Republica Ecclesiastica contained a note to any printer considering reprinting the book from this one, alerting them to its printing errors and remarking that "They themselves can better punctuate with full stops and commas according to their own judgement" (Binns 1977, 7). However, neither of these documents suggests that the authority for punctuation rested entirely with the compositors. The way Moxon put the matter is exactly how we think of it today, which is that printers do well to correct error but responsibility lies with the author and is embodied in the supplied copy:

Nor (as afore was hinted) is a Compositor bound to all these Circumstances and Punctilio's, because in a strict sense, the Author is to discharge him of them in his Copy:Yet it is necessary the Compositers Judgment should know where the Author has been deficient, that so his care may not suffer such Work to go out of his Hands as may bring Scandal upon himself, and Scandal and prejudice upon the Master Printer. (Moxon 1683, Hh4v)

The crucial distinction, then, is between agents in the chain of transmission trying to eliminate error (their own and the author's) and true collaboration.

    As well as altering punctuation, spelling and styling, it appears from the limited studies so far undertaken that compositors might change Shakespeare's words too. For the most part, individual compositor's habits have not been established with the statistical rigour that is now rightly demanded when computational stylistics is used to establish and delimit collaborative authorship. Confidence in the methodology plummets when independent studies of the compositorial labour in one book produce wildly different divisions of stints, as has happened with the 1598 edition of Love's Labours Lost (Price 1978; Werstine 1984). McKenzie demonstrated that one of the so-called psycho-mechanical tests for discriminating compositors--based on choices for spacing around punctuation--is virtually worthless on its own because one compositor's practice in this regard may vary day by day (McKenzie 1984). MacDonald P. Jackson is virtually alone in using a statistical understanding of chance to distinguish real habits from random variation in behaviour (Jackson 2001). Nonetheless, some indisputably clear habits have been discovered. Paul Werstine showed that mislineation of Shakespeare's verse is far more prevalent in Folio compositor's A stints than in Folio compositor B's, so rather than attributing the resulting rough verse to the author's experiments in prosody we should assume that he lined his verse with metrical regularity that the printer occasionally wrecked. The Oxford Complete Works editors showed that although the two expressions were equally acceptable in the period, Folio compositor B tended to modernize "nor . . . nor" to "neither . . . nor" even when metre required that the first word be monosyllabic (Wells et al. 1987, 1 Henry 6 5.1.59n). The sociological model of publishing requires the modern editor to embrace these depredations as the inevitable effects of collaborative endeavour, but the correct editorial response is to undo them.

    Greg called the word choices of a text its substantives because they "affect the author's meaning" and called the punctuation, spelling and styling its accidentals, "affecting mainly its formal presentation" (Greg 1950-1, 21). This distinction has been criticized on the grounds that punctuation affects meaning as much as word choice does (Davis 1977; Davis 1981). Greg's distinction was not intended as a description of language--he was scarcely so naive about punctuation--but as a tool in the practical examination of the authority, author's or printer's, lying behind certain choices. In Shakespeare's case the distinction is entirely accurate: his handwritten contributions to Sir Thomas More show that he left his authorial papers almost entirely unpunctuated, so that with certain exceptions the pointing of early printed editions must be someone else's work. One obvious exception would be Quince's prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.108-17), which Shakespeare presumably punctuated carefully to indicate the desired, 'incorrect', delivery. There are exceptions of the opposite kind too, where word choices are immaterial. As Gary Taylor pointed out, the distinction between pray thee and prithee is "entirely without semantic significance" and it is properly treated as accidental not substantive (Taylor 1981, 40). 

    Ralph Crane is the only scribe involved in the transmission of Shakespeare's texts who has left enough manuscript evidence for systematic study of his interventions to be feasible (Howard-Hill 1971; Haas 1989). Because Crane prepared copy for the Folio, knowledge of his habits has undermined what was previously thought to be a reliable distinction between the work of compositors D and F: evidence of the apparently distinct habits of two men might really be just one compositor changing his practice when setting from a Crane transcript (Werstine 2001). This possibility draws our attention to an important difference between the constructive input of players turning a script into a performance and the essentially destructive input of scribes and compositors transmitting a manuscript: the latter's agencies are detectable only by the harm they do.

     When they worked to the best practices of their professions, scribes and compositors left no trace on the words we are interested in. One way to detect scribal transmission is the provision of Latinate act and scene intervals that no-one in the theatre would bother to add, but these do no harm to the dialogue, stage directions and speech prefixes. Crane's interventions, however, extended to massing a scene's entrance directions at the beginning of the scene no matter when the characters enter (destroying the evidence of where the dramatist placed his entrances), expanding the dramatist's contractions (you'de to you would, they're to they are, even when this damaged the metre) and rewriting stage directions to make them more literary. Likewise, by definition when compositors were being careful, as they were in the first editions of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece printed by Shakespeare's fellow Stratfordian Richard Field, it becomes difficult to tell them apart (Shakespeare 2007, 471-89). Once co-authorship has been discounted, certain kinds of unevenness in a text are evidence of non-authorial agencies active in its transmission, so the very foundation of the socialized model of publication--the identification of labours other than the author's--should alert us to the risk of treating corruption as collaboration.


    In place of the authority of the author, recent theatre historiography and textual criticism has tended to emphasize the collaborative, socialized labours of the players, the scribes and compositors, whose effects upon the surviving script are treated as though they were just as important as the author's labour. Because it is difficult to differentiate these various inputs when studying their collective output in an early printed play it is sometimes said to be virtually impossible to do so. A typical example is Jeffrey Masten's insistence that attempts to attribute parts of co-written plays to their respective co-writers are bound to fail because ". . . the collaborative project in the theatre was predicated on erasing the perception of any differences that might have existed, for whatever reason, between collaborated parts" (Masten 1997b, 17). Developing his argument, Masten decided that just as we cannot distinguish writers' individual inputs to a printed book, so we cannot distinguish the compositors' inputs from the writers':

. . . compositor analysis . . . insists upon a precise individuation of agents at every stage of textual production, in ways that are often strikingly anachronistic. In this way, compositor analysis closely parallels the work of scholars like Cyrus Hoy (and more recently Jonathan Hope) who have sought to discern and separate out of collaborative texts the individuated shares of particular playwrights . . . . (Masten 1997a, 97-98)

Since Masten wrote that, extraordinary successes in the field of computational stylistics have illustrated the importance of authorship in the teeth of postmodernism's denial of it. It turns out that authorship is indeed individualistic and discernible, not a post-seventeenth century construction. 

    Hugh Craig makes this point pithily:

In the case of authorship, statistical studies might have revealed--were free to reveal--that authorship is insignificant in comparison to other factors like genre or period. In that case the theory that authors are only secondary to other forces in textual patterning would have been validated. . . . As it happens, however, authorship emerges as a much stronger force in the affinities between texts than genre or period. Unexpectedly, perhaps uncomfortably, it is a persistent, probably mainly unconscious, factor. Writers, we might say, can't help inscribing an individual style in everything they produce. We need to take account of this in a new theory of authorship. (Craig 2009-10, par. 3)

Those who wish to insist that the processes of co-authorship so thoroughly mix the styles of the writers that they cannot be disentangled must confront the mounting evidence that we can now distinguish quantitatively between the stints of different writers in one script. Independent studies working along different lines have shown the measurable unevenness--even if they cannot always precisely identify the seams--produced by Shakespeare's collaborative authorship of 1 Henry 6, The Contention of York and Lancaster (=2 Henry 6), Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, Pericles, All is True, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Sir Thomas More, Edward 3, Arden of Faversham and The Spanish Tragedy (Vickers 2002; Jackson 2003; Craig & Kinney 2009; Vickers 2012; Jackson forthcoming in 2013). The challenge for those working on scribal and print transmission is to emulate the statistical rigour of these studies and so discover whether the unevenness arising from the mixed labours of scribes and compositors can be turned into reliable distinctions of human agency in the resulting printed editions.

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