Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 461-463
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The Authentic Shakespeare and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage. By Stephen Orgel. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. Illus. Pp. xx + 276. $85.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.
When, at the 1980 MLA convention, Stephen Orgel said "We know nothing about Shakespeare's original text" (5), he was addressing an editorial community that had focused for several decades on "recovering" the texts of Shakespeare's "foul papers," a term defined (with a precision that far exceeded any known early modern usage of it) by W. W. Greg as the manuscripts containing the plays in the form that Shakespeare finally intended—Shakespeare's original text. Orgel's words provided powerful inspiration to those willing to examine the evidential basis for the then-prevailing textual theory and editorial method, and he deserves a great deal of the credit for the recent shake-up in editing. This MLA talk, titled "What Is a Text?," leads off the group of four pieces devoted to editorial matters that open this selection of fifteen previously published essays. Orgel offers this general characterization of the essays: they are "often frankly revisionist in intent" (xvii).
Bearing out this generalization, "What Is a Character?," which follows in more ways than one "What Is a Text?," takes on the "requirements [for character] of psychology, consistency and credibility" from the Empsonian position that "characters . . . are not people, they are elements of a linguistic structure, lines in a drama, and more basically, words on a page" (8). In its turn, "What Is an Editor?" attacks the practical distinction between accidentals (for example, spelling and punctuation, which allegedly do not affect meaning) and substantives (the text's words, regarded as alone meaningful).1 Finally, among the opening four textual essays, "Acting Scripts, Performing Texts" aggressively compares modern editors to the scribe who marked up pre-Restoration acting scripts now in the University of Padua library and to Simon Forman, who provided what seem to us partial and inaccurate accounts of Macbeth and The Winter's Tale, based on seeing these dramas in the playhouse. Orgel suggests that editors, in their commitment to "modern assumptions about verse and prose [and] wholly anachronistic principles of taste and decorum," emend both the line-division and the punctuation of early modern texts so as to damage them severely and thus invite comparison of their practice with that of the Padua scribe and Forman (47). Writing against editorial [End Page 461] practice, Orgel frankly recognizes that he himself is among the targets he hits: "Producing a modernized text is unquestionably not the best way of [preserving the artifact that is an early modern printed playtext. B]ut I also want a Shakespeare accessible to the modern reader, and these two requirements are really not reconcilable" (17). Because so much writing by editors serves to paper over what is irreconcilable in their practice, it is most refreshing to have an editor make such a disclosure. That so many of Orgel's positions on editing are now widely taken for granted, at least in North America, is further witness to the influence these essays have exerted.
But Orgel's influence is much wider, extending to such issues as politics, culture, gender, performance, and spectacle. To turn away from the essays on the text to those on these other topics is not quite to turn from print and manuscript to pictures, but this impression is not altogether inaccurate. Granted that the argument in "Acting Scripts, Performing Texts" for the indeterminacy of verse and prose in Ralph Crane's dramatic transcripts is convincingly illustrated by photo-quotations. Granted, too, that we do not altogether leave editorial issues behind after the first four essays: for example, the subversive and witty reading of Macbeth ("Macbeth and the Antic Round") pays considerable attention to the state of that text, not only in the First Folio but also in Davenant's and Garrick's adaptations; and the wide-ranging meditation on The Tempest, psychoanalysis, Shakespeare's biography, and King James's parents entitled "Prospero's...