- Shakespeare and Text
John Jowett's volume is one of the latest contributions to the excellent "Oxford Shakespeare Topics" series. It is hard not to feel that the brief of writing a short book on "Shakespeare and Text" must have felt a little daunting to the author: where does one begin and exactly how much ground can usefully be covered in the space available? In answering these questions, Jowett draws astutely on his extensive experience as a first-rank editor of Shakespeare. The core of the book concerns itself with the complexities we face when trying to make sense of the earliest printed incarnations of the plays (and poems, too, although understandably the primary focus is on the dramatic texts). Much of the book is taken up with the particularities of the textual landscape that a scholar faces in engaging with Shakespeare and the difficult and complex decisions that editors, in particular, must make when trying to produce intelligent, sensible versions of Shakespeare's texts for the modern reader.
Beyond these central concerns, Jowett takes in a wide range of topics, weaving them elegantly into his general narrative. We learn, for instance, about collaboration and the nature of authorship in the Renaissance period, the character of the working texts that were likely used in the theater, the operations of the printing press, and the makeup of the physical book. The volume includes some very useful supplementary materials, including an extensive appendix providing details of "Shakespeare in Early Editions and Manuscripts." Particularly helpful is the second section of appendix 2, which lists the plays alphabetically by title and provides details of the first and substantive subsequent editions, with details of the relevant Stationers' Register entries. This economically maps out a huge amount of information within a small compass. Also of great value is section 3, which works its way through the F1 plays in volume order, providing information on the likeliest source texts used by Jaggard's compositors. Jowett properly warns that "notes on the nature of manuscript copy are necessarily conjectural" (187), but scholars will find this compact presentation of our current state of knowledge very helpful indeed. The volume includes a "Glossary of Key Terms," which ranges from a simple entry such as "scrivener: scribe" to an extended explanation of what a collation line is and how it should be written.
While his approach is generally empirical and pragmatic, Jowett is fully alive to the theoretical debates regarding the nature of authorship and textuality that have dominated bibliographic studies for the past two decades or more. Although often skeptical of the validity of the farthest reaches of theoretical speculation, he generally [End Page 580] makes a genuine effort to see the value in such speculation. His approach can be said to be conservative, in the most literal sense of the word. While he maps out the recent challenges to New Bibliographic orthodoxy, he seeks to preserve as much as possible of the basic structure of the New Bibliographic approach. Where a scholar such as Paul Werstine has rigorously challenged notions of good and bad quartos, memorial reconstruction, foul papers, and prompt books, Jowett feels that enough validity remains in these ideas to make them still useful as working hypotheses. Jowett recognizes that such propositions can no longer be used unproblematically but, at times, it is hard not to feel that he does not give the objections raised by Werstine and others quite as much weight as they deserve. His overall assessment of certain aspects of Werstine's work in particular might well strike some readers as being just a touch too easily dismissive: "His conclusion that New Bibliography presents 'narratives' rather than knowledge is well taken in the limited sense that applies to all scholarly reconstruction—for, as Edward Pechter has pointed out, Werstine and other 'newer bibliographers,' though they programmatically discourage 'the construction of new meanings,' nevertheless underpin their own narratives with unverifiable assumptions" (104). Fair enough, perhaps, but it does not really address the fact that Werstine has...