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Memorial Transmission, Shorthand, and John of Bordeaux

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 58, 2007-2008
pp. 109-134 | 10.1353/sib.2006.0003

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The hypothetical process known as memorial reconstruction was developed in the twentieth century by Sir Walter W. Greg and the “New Bibliographers” to explain printed Renaissance playtexts identified as “bad quartos.” Evidence cited to support the concept (if not the concept itself) has been questioned, principally by Paul Werstine and Laurie E. Maguire.1 Arden Shakespeare editor Giorgio Melchiori replies that critics “intended to nullify all narratives by their predecessors. Theirs was not an alternative narrative. . . .” 2 However, Werstine and Maguire do specify other possible origins of these problematic publications relevant to the renewal in this essay of a hypothesis that New Bibliographers themselves discount. My analysis of the manuscript playtext John of Bordeaux,3 aptly described by Harry R. Hoppe as “a bad quarto that never reached print,” 4 indicates that it is transcribed from the stenographic recording of a stage performance. I compare this inference to prior scholarly opinion that the text is either a memorial reconstruction or a descendent transcription of authorized text and I discuss the implications of my findings.

Before shorthand can be fairly argued as a cause of any playtext, a history of the current opinion devaluing that method of transmission must be reviewed, beginning with a clarification of the terminology. Early in Suspect Texts Maguire asserts that “memorial reconstruction” is synonymous to “bad quarto” (15), and to “reporting” (18), apparently in agreement with Fredson Bowers, whose thirteenth and final listed class of Elizabethan printer’s copy is “memorial reconstruction of the text without direct transcriptional link with any manuscript derived from author’s autograph, in other words, the copy for a so-called ‘bad quarto.’ ” 5 But earlier in the century Greg had carefully defined “reporting,” listing six of its forms, including “shorthand reporting” and “memorial reconstruction.” 6 These and other terms may be redefined not only to adhere to their historical usages, but to maintain distinctions necessary to discussion.

When in 1938 Leo Kirschbaum held that a bad quarto “cannot possibly represent a written transcript of the author’s text,” 7 he referred to a physical set of fewer than fifty editions printed between 1591 and 1620 that have been suspected historically to be so corrupt that a significant part of each of these dramas results from memorial transmission—a process recovering text without access to an original or descendent manuscript from which the agent’s knowledge of the text derives, or to any other transcribed descendant. This term may be usefully applied to oral, written, or printed text without quantification or identification of any method of transmission.

A memorial report (or report) is a relatively full text derived at least in part from any originating form of memorial transmission. Hypothetical cases of reporting that may result in bad quartos include “memorial reconstructions” and “theatrical reports,” where a memorial reconstruction is the written report of a playtext, not taken from performance, but recalled by an actor or actors (or someone possessed of a like knowledge of the text). A theatrical report is a text derived directly from stage performance, when the oral report is recorded and the performance is otherwise described. A shorthand report is a category of theatrical report comprising stenographic notes, their longhand transcription and other descendants, including revisions, printed texts, and performances.8 Similarly, others of these terms are applied hypothetically by convention to particular bad quartos. To imply descent from a category or a subcategory, for example, the 1597 edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been called a “report” and a “memorial reconstruction.”

Maguire suggests that memorial reconstruction is conceptually flawed because it is “capacious, being able to explain almost any textual problem” (Texts 7). Werstine more accurately remarks that memorial reconstruction “by an actor or actors identified with specific parts has never proved an adequate explanation for the genesis of any ‘bad’ quarto; the case . . . has needed to be supplemented by secondary hypotheses” (82). When John Jowett responds to Maguire “that for some texts a capacious theory seems to be needed, and that few are available,” 9 he apparently accepts the weakness of multiple hypotheses in order to retain memorial reconstruction as the best practicable explanation of some bad quartos. But the “alternative narrative” of...

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