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  • Activating Annotations, an Experiment with Proverbs
  • C. K. Ash

AMANDA. I don’t believe in crying over my bridge before I’ve eaten it.

—Noël Coward, Private Lives, Act 2

Coward’s anti-heroine explains her unrepentant attitude in a neat proverbial mash-up, combining the phrases “to cry over spilled milk,” “to burn one’s bridges,” and “to have one’s cake and eat it too.” She declares the ultimate in unapologetic pragmatism in ruthlessly witty terms, effectively creating her own corrupted—and corrupt—proverb. The play is more than eighty years old, yet the source proverbs are familiar enough for contemporary audiences to understand Amanda’s gist, even if they miss the full dissection of her wordplay. Still, an editor could spend some enjoyable lines of literary analysis unpacking these proverbs, describing their parallel appearances: in other Coward plays; in other early twentieth-century plays; in antedated sources. These are valid responses within a traditional editorial methodology, but they are more useful for literary critiques than a rehearsal room. This article will explore how to activate proverbial language as an actor and director might during rehearsal, that is, to analyze proverbs as textual clues pointing toward characterization and the creation of meaning, and to explore how editors might calibrate proverb annotation better to aid practitioners. After identifying the components of activated commentary, I will make a brief survey of editorial treatment of a proverb in Macbeth with suggestions for increasing the performative usefulness of such annotations.

To explore fully what editing for performance might look like, we need an alternative to generalist annotations in multi-user editions. Instead of adding to the bibliography of edited plays that might serve the needs of a broadly inclusive readership, it is time to consider the critical space available for editions targeted at specialist users. In 1965, Samuel Schoenbaum wondered at the wastefulness of a market producing duplicate editions of [End Page 89] select texts while leaving others untreated (16). Fifty years later, publishing houses maintain that trend. New technologies continue to expand the accessible canon of Renaissance drama,1 but individual editors can diversify the field by, paradoxically, narrowing their focus. In a time of impact studies and audience expansion, this narrowing may feel counterintuitive, but I think it is especially important when considering the disparate needs of play users. Richard Proudfoot assures us that “There is no ideal text of Shakespeare. No single edition will supply the needs of the full range of likely users” (29). If “likely users” includes everyone from high school students to university professors to theater directors, no edition could sensitively attend to their particular concerns. No edition could be expected to. But an edition, or an editorial series, that thinks of readers as users may find that taking only one group in hand is worth more than hoping for two in the bush. Taking idiomatic and proverbial language as example, I consider ways editors might use basic components of modern actor training to activate their annotations for one of these specialist user groups: theater practitioners. In this way, editors can bridge the space between the practices of performance and criticism through historiographically sound analysis of those colloquial phrases that fluctuate between the obscure and the cliché.

Proverbs, maxims, adages, sententiae, and idioms can be watery terms whose streams cross often and inextricably. There is no critical agreement on the distinction between types of proverbial language: “Nearly every writer on proverbs has offered his or her own formulation, but none has been accepted as entirely adequate” (Deskis 3). An early English discussion of proverbs comes from Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique, in which he describes them as the third component of rhetorical amplification, “when we gather such sentences as are commonly spoken, or else use to speak of such things as are notable in this life” (R2r).2 Wilson goes on to quote John Heywood’s collections of proverbs, which were themselves published without a definition of the form.3 Somewhat more recently, B. J. Whiting laid out three “sharply defined” types of proverbs—true proverbs, proverbial phrases, and sententious remarks—that he argues cannot fall under a single, encompassing definition (273–74...


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