Notes on Teaching Textual Studies
(a session at the Shakespeare Studies Assoc. New Orleans, March 2016)
I think that one reason for this session is to prove wrong the general notion that textual study us deadly boring to students. Our own counter myth is that the monolithic marble monument which is the one true text of Shakespeare is itself boring and off-putting, not to say frequently wrong. Neither of these narratives strikes me as wholly true, but our focus is on the question, can textual studies energize students' understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare's plays. The papers presented in this seminar show that it does. It does so by several different paths.
1. Examining the range of variant historical texts gives students permission to question the text by showing the tenuousness of the supposedly finished text and the vulnerability of the developing text in the hands of both genius and incompetent text handlers. Permission to question is an essential element of learning.
2. It gives students the individual responsibility of determining the significance of the play by asking them to choose among various texts. This aspect is enhanced by the more familiar notion that performances fill in a great deal that is not explicit in the text. The things that went without saying must have been well understood by Shakespeare's contemporaries and therefore went without saying. They no longer go without saying and yet must now be acted out, performed in accordance with our best informed guesses about how to make the text live. There may be wrong answers but there may not be a single one right answer either. The explanations one reads in the footnotes ain't necessarily so. And yet, some erudite reasoning on recondite information found in the seminar papers prepared for this session suggests that textual variation is not just a smorgasbord of choices to be made willy nilly according to uninformed guesstimate. Research leads to better guesses.
3. Confronting original material texts, even if only through images on a screen, gives students a clearer sense of the passage of time and of their own precarious temporal position on the shifting sands of the English language. Our today, like Shakespeare's, soon becomes the murky past; modernized texts don't stay modern. Like other doses of reality, this realization could be enervating or invigorating, but it is clear from the seminar papers that the realities of textual and verbal instability are not things we need to protect our students against. (It might be worth pointing out that instability of text preceded any of our destabilizing moves. The illusion of textual stability is just a mark of the textual ignorance with which many students and some of our colleagues approach what they call literature and we call a text.)
4. Awareness of textual complexities gives students a clearer sense of the relationship between the written text and the spoken word. Particularly this struck me in the examination of 15th and 16th century printers' symbols used to mean a variety of things that, at the time, were perfectly ordinary but which now seem strange to the untrained eye. Spelling and punctuation carry similar lessons for us. Learning to read is a never ending but liberating process. Dismissing material evidence that we do not understand is a stupid way to study Shakespeare--literally. It is not the case that textual criticism is the art of detecting that which we do not understand and replacing it with something we do. That would reflect a love of ignorance.
5. I asked myself why it is that the students described in these papers as well as my experience of forty years dragging alternative texts into classrooms--why do students always glom onto variants in texts. I recall one of my classes cursed by the bookstore having substituted a cheap inferior text for the one I ordered. Upon comparing a passage in his text to the one in mine, a student in the back threw his text on the floor, pointed at my copy and said, "I want that one." Students are interested, not only for the four reasons already given, I think, but for a more profound resonance that students have with the functions of variant texts in processing and understanding words. It is what I tried to express at excruciating length in chapter three of From Gutenberg to Google and which I called rather grandiosely Script Act Theory. It is that in understanding any text, whether written or spoken, the words of a sentence are understood in a particular way NOT because of what they are intrinsically but by how they contrast with what they are not but could have been, given the surroundings in which they are found. Touchdown and Spinach are both nouns and can be grammatically correctly substituted in a sample sentence, but spinach is not something that can be shouted at a football game. Context is old hat in interpretation. Either we use the context we know to be the operative context of the text's origination or, in literature, if we don't know that context, we sometimes make one up. That is how John Keats's "Oh, Attic shape" in "Ode to the Grecian Urn" can remind us of the big vase in grandma's attic. If we get context wrong, all sorts of wonderful adventitious things can happen. But textual studies gives us the other important contrast--that between what is said or written and that which, in the given context, could have been said or written. If you live in a green house I know it is not white or yellow or blue. That is how I understand green house. I am not confused about green houses for raising plants--that is not a viable alternative for the house you live in. If you have sullied flesh I know it is not clean or soiled or solid or sallied. That is how I understand sullied. Textual variants give us some of the unspoken words at least as they were understood or misunderstood by someone close to the text's origin. And since in Shakespeare's case we frequently do not know if the original word or the replacement was correct or if the alternative was newly intended or if it was just a new mistake, the student gets to react to the variants in a very sophisticated way, because they have, from the beginning of their language use as babies, been testing every spoken and written word against its appropriate alternatives in the contexts in which the words are encountered. That is how they are used to finding appropriate meanings. We almost don't have to teach this thing. The most tricky thing to get them to acknowledge is that experiencing two or more texts of a passage side by side, holding them in comparative and contrasting contemplation, is often more satisfyingly rich than rejecting one and sticking with the single monumentally marble one. That might not be a perform-able richness, but it does play well in the mind.
6. The consideration of variants in Shakespeare's text does not have to be restricted to those found in early Quartos and the Folio. Once you get on a roll with this thing, the editorial speculative conjectures through the years becomes fair game, both for joy and disdain. But it is worth pointing out again two important matters to be considered. First, is it okay to approach textual variation with ignorance about their origins and contexts? If so, then perhaps it does not matter what mashup students make of the text as long as they think it is fun, like a game. My experience makes me think students soon tire of that game because there are no consequences; there is no standard against which to measure their success or failure. Textual awareness, I have found, involves more than the realization that there are variants. It involves the full range of what we call textual criticism. A little knowledge is a dangerous things, so drink deep from the fonts of information available to us, including that often neglected fact that in some cases we just cannot know. The editors our predecessors in the production of new texts for classroom use have been limited by two factors over which they had no control. The first is the limitation placed upon them by the print media and publishers whose eye was on the bottom line. They had to be brief. The second is the editor's own ignorance and misunderstandings. Misunderstanding feels exactly like understanding until it is properly acknowledged. Often that acknowledgement comes after publication. So treat your classroom edition with care. But also treat previous editor's emendations as a resource of variants that extend those in the early record.
7. Some minor recommendations:
a. Assigning students "tasks" might be less conducive to good work than asking them to help you explore possibilities. Doing tasks always bored me. The assumption is that the only thing one will find is what the teacher already knew. Why not save time and just tell me. But exploring and helping--who knows what we will come up with. However, giving students free rein to make stuff up might be less interesting than giving them free rein within the strict parameters of logic and the rules of evidence.
b. Extrapolating from a few examples in one area of editorial ignorance to a blanket condemnation of eclectic editing I did not find to be very convincing. Lost and unachieved texts, created out of the surviving textual record by critical analysis does not produce correct texts, but they do create contrasts to the surviving records. It is good to remember that the variants among historical texts resulted from speculative emendation on the part of their editors, also.
c. We probably do not need reminding that textual studies of original texts cannot be conducted on reprints or modern editions without recourse to original texts or at least to facsimiles of them. Every edition claiming to reproduce the text of an original edition is itself a new completely re-contextualized material object reflecting our own time. Unfortunately, that is true of digital facsimiles as well, though I have no idea how to avoid that. We just have a lot of explaining to do.