Tuesday, April 29, 2008

By the pricking of my thumbs...

(Image: Macbeth and Banquo with the Witches by Henry Fuseli)
I came to realize that, if I didn’t get right to Macbeth, it was just going to lurk in the back of my mind and make me too cross to enjoy anything else. So, my first play in the Collected Works of Thomas Middleton is going to be a play that isn’t especially "by" Middleton at all. How post-modern of me.

How does Macbeth come to be in this collection? Many fans of Shakespeare, even, will be surprised to hear that one of his greatest and most enduringly popular plays is covered with another author’s fingerprints. And yet, the basic idea that leads us, ultimately, to “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” being printed in the Oxford Middleton is about as settled and non-controversial as anything ever gets with this stuff. That basic idea is that two songs and a stray character drifted into Macbeth from another play sometime around 1616.

If you’ve read all of Macbeth, you will probably remember that there were not just three witches in it, but also the character Hecate, a sort of Witch Supervisor or District Manager who shows up to berate the first three for violating corporate procedures earlier in the play. She sings a song with them, just to show that there are no hard feelings, then later shows up during the “fillet of a fenny snake” business to sing another song and observe from the background as the first three witches summon the apparitions to speak their riddles to Macbeth.

I say “read,” and not “seen,” because it’s almost impossible to see these episodes performed on the stage anymore. Hecate serves no useful function and the song and dance numbers put the witches at grave peril of becoming ridiculous in our eyes. I’ve only even heard of one modern production retaining Hecate, and that was an amateur company that performed in Spanish (perhaps it gains something in translation). The excellent Arkangel Shakespeare audio series, with their philosophical commitment to cutting nothing, included both Hecate and songs, and gave it their best shot, but the play is unmistakably weaker for it.

But Hecate is where Thomas Middleton enters our story.

The Shakespeare Folio—our only authoritative source for the text of Macbeth—includes only the first words of each of the songs: “Come away, come away,” and “Black spirits.” The full text of each song is found in the only other play of the period to feature a witch named Hecate: Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. The stapled-in nature of the Hecate material in Macbeth makes it obvious that the flow of information was from The Witch into Macbeth, and not vice-versa, but there’s additional evidence in the form of a later adaptation by William Davenant, who printed the full text of the two songs in 1674, but most likely didn’t have a copy of The Witch to refer to. The chicken-and-egg calculations are very interesting, and covered beautifully by Taylor in his textual notes—I might write more about them later.

So, somebody transplanted the songs from The Witch into Macbeth, and, presumably, somebody wrote the lines for Hecate, who is quite superfluous to the plot. The leading theory for centuries now is that both of those somebodies were none other than Middleton himself. And, once we grant that the text was revised in one area, a lot of other things start to look fishy. Macbeth is very, very short—shorter than any other Shakespeare play except the very early Comedy of Errors. There are places where the verse is choppy and ragged, and whole scenes have a stitched-together kind of quality. The obvious conjecture is that we are not looking at just an expansion of Macbeth, but also an abridgement, and we can even guess where some of the cuts were made. We’ve already given Middleton credit for the songs and the Hecate additions—perhaps he also made the cuts, and whipped up a few lines of his own here and there to paint over the seams?

And that brings us to the present edition. Inga-Stina Ewbank, in her introduction to the text, reports Taylor’s estimates that Middleton might have cut ¼ of the original Macbeth. After picking through the play word by word, he also credits about 11% of the existing text to Middleton: mostly witchy stuff, but some other items as well. He also tries, where possible, to re-create what the original play might have looked like, an exercise that gets dangerously close to finding dragons in clouds at points, but also offers some fascinating possibilities.

Macbeth is very dear to me, and I’m afraid I had gotten my nose a bit out of joint at the prospect of it being included, in its entirety, in this collection—especially on the basis of some additions that are massively despised today (in the words of Ewbank, “disapproved of by editors, ignored by critics, and almost invariably cut by modern theatre directors”). I’m happy to say that my attitude has changed: in order to do what he wanted to do, Taylor had to include the entire text, because his edition is as much about uncovering the original Shakespeare as it is about delineating the Middletonian modifications. And the play certainly isn’t billed as some kind of collaboration, as much Middleton’s as Shakespeare’s—no, it is clearly understood as “Shakespeare’s play,” adapted by Middleton.

The chip on my shoulder is slowly being whittled down—although I still don’t like the Hecate stuff, and I still have my lingering resentment that I will never see the original Macbeth.

I’m still a very new blogger, and I’m trying to make my posts, well, bloggier—which means cutting them off at a reasonable hour for bed, and saving something for next time. I’m still eager to discuss the quirkier aspects of this text, and share with you my experiences doing my own adaptation of Macbeth last year (Craig Bryant—“our other Middleton”), and, not least of all, burden you with my own reading of the “witches,” and how I think Middleton’s adaptation undermined and cheapened Shakespeare’s original vision. But at least I’m at a point where I can cheerfully despise Macbeth’s Hecate, rather than grumbling darkly and gnashing my teeth.

So, until then!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thomas Who?: Some Middleton Resources

First off: not the guy who wrote Paradise Lost.

There's not a tremendous amount of Middletonian material on the Internet. Some Renaissance dramatists I could mention have venerable discussion lists, search engines, About.com guides, and text repositories that someone has been meaning to get around to fixing since the end of the last century. For my new friend Thomas Middleton, the pickings are slimmer. I thought I would bundle together some of the most interesting resources I've found to date.

As part of the media whirlwind surrounding the release of the new Oxford edition, a couple of good articles appeared in the popular press. Gary Taylor, one of the general editors, made an engaging case for the importance of Middleton in the Guardian of London: "The Orphan Playwright." I don't buy everything he's selling--he seems to think it very important that Middleton was published at a younger age than Shakespeare, for some reason, and I can't say that I remember A Yorkshire Tragedy as especially "searing," but he gives a brisk, cogent argument for what makes Middleton great, and why he has languished in obscurity. Time magazine presents a more balanced, but open-minded and favorable treatment in "Thomas Middleton: For Adults Only." The Toronto Star gives another good account in "Who is 'The Other Shakespeare?'" Last, you can hear a lecture Taylor delivered at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London, if you just keep scrolling through this page until you find the link.

Middleton, of course, has a Wikipedia page, as do many of his individual works. It doesn't seem bad, but you've always got to watch yourself around Wikipedia. Some unsavory types hang out there.

Chris Cleary has produced HTML editions of many of Middleton's plays, but, sadly, appears to have moved on to other endeavors. It was in his editions that I first read The Witch and A Yorkshire Tragedy, and I'm very grateful to him for his work.

The Luminarium page on Middleton brings together a number of essays and other resources.

Florida State University maintains a website at thomasmiddleton.org in support of the new Collected Works, but there's not really much there at present.

There is at least one blog dedicated to discussing the work of Thomas Middleton, but it's very new, written by an amateur, and not especially interesting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What a marvelous modern age we live in...

I note with happiness that Amazon.com has recently made both volumes of the Oxford Middleton available for full-text searching. Besides giving all you fence-sitters the chance to read a few pages before putting your money down, Amazon's "search inside" button is wonderful for finding something in a hurry or checking your memory when a book is at home and you're supposed to be working. I've looked up countless recipes in my favorite cookbooks, for instance, so as to check my shopping list for the afternoon commute. And now I can find every occurrence of "complete textual apparatus" in my Middleton at the press of a key. And I remember when the Internet was nothing but Star Trek geeks insulting each other in newsgroups at 1200 baud.

On Sitting Down to Read Thomas Middleton

Ready and equipped at last to begin the voyage. Acquiring my own 13 pound ration of Middleton proved to be a bit of work, as I first tried to save a penny with the cut-rate third party sellers on Amazon.com. This works brilliantly, except when it doesn’t, and then it’s extra helpings of delay and frustration. Week and a half to get so much as an acknowledgement from the seller, then the wait for the refund and more time to buy again at list price, refreshing the UPS tracking page every fifteen minutes on delivery day, because I’m pretty sure they monitor that and tell the drivers to prioritize the packages for the anxious customers.

But that’s all done now. The ingredients are at hand: the Collected Works, the Companion, and an evening to survey the field. Truly not a book to be tossed aside lightly—one could sprain a wrist trying. Nor a book, it seems to me, to be embarked upon lightly. I pour a bracing drink and begin my reconnaissance.

The bulk of the book is itself a message, of course, and the message is something along the lines of, “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT AUTHOR.” I’ve been reading about the plans the Department of Energy is making to mark our radioactive waste dumps for the next 10,000 years, and the size of those markers is a message in the same way: 40-foot earthworks, 100-ton granite obelisks, massive concrete bunkers all proclaim, “This message is important—please pay attention!” So does a 2,016 page book. It is impossible not to compare it with the Oxford Shakespeare, also featuring Gary Taylor as a general editor. I don’t own a copy of that august work—yet—but I stopped by the bookstore to give it an experimental heft, and the new Middleton easily wins on pounds. I can’t believe that’s any kind of accident. The old comedy show “The Kids in the Hall” began a sketch once with a preacher asking, “Which weighs more: the Bible, or the Koran?” Isn’t Taylor inviting a similar comparison?

I open the book—it creaks a bit as the spine adjusts—and am delighted to see that Taylor does not disappoint. The first words following the title page trumpet his manifesto: “Thomas Middleton (1580-1627)—‘our other Shakespeare’—is the only other Renaissance playwright who created acknowledged masterpieces of comedy, tragedy, and history…” At least he has the courage of his convictions: spite of cormorant, devouring time, our other Shakespeare is rescued from the dust. Magnificent! I can tell I’m going to enjoy this journey immensely, even if I end up hating Middleton.

But it also makes me wonder about this enterprise. I was drawn to this brassy new edition of Middleton because I distrusted the cult of personality that had grown up around Shakespeare, and was getting a bit uneasy about my own devotion to that cult. Now I think—am I really changing my outlook, or just dabbling in the cult of Middleton, too? How much better is two cults than one? Then again, perhaps I’m just a bit unnerved at the way the book is already cutting off the circulation to my lower legs, and I’m looking for a way to second-guess myself. A quick pause to chafe the feet, then onward.

Following the three tables of contents (chronological, alphabetic and by genre—“generic?”), I am grateful to find a little five-page User Manual, “How to Use This Book.” It forms a neat prĂ©cis of the major editorial decisions that shaped this edition, and I admire Taylor for hanging his laundry out like this for us to see. I’ve gradually been growing more aware of how four hundred years of editing have shaped the way we read Shakespeare: act and scene divisions, names of characters, names of the plays, even. Taylor doesn’t have those four centuries of practice, and has to write his own rules.

I generally like the look of things, although my spider sense starts tingling when he talks about the “federal” properties of the edition—taking different approaches to spelling, commentary, presentation, from one text to the next. He calls it “mak[ing] a virtue out of multivocality,” but I think it has a certain quality of throwing lots of spaghetti at the wall and then seeing what sticks—as if the general editors weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do, or (perhaps more likely) found it impossible to ride herd on the 61 other named contributors at the front of the volume. Then, too, uniformity can be stifling. My own “Complete Shakespeare” is a crazy-quilt of different editions: Signets, Ardens, Folgers, Cambridges, what-have-you. My wife can’t understand why I’d need three different Macbeths, but I know that they’re all different. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Eighty-odd pages of introductory essays follow the warm-up essay. I’ll probably read “Thomas Middleton: Lives and Afterlives” right away, and save the pieces on London and the theatres of the period for later.

At last, I come to the main event: the collected works of our other Shakespeare. It’s getting late—or my glass is getting empty—or both—so I’m not going to start a serious assault on a play tonight, but it is impressive to flip through for a while.

For all the talk of following the approach of the Oxford Shakespeare, this book gets one thing right that the earlier work got disastrously wrong: it includes footnotes with the plays. I still am baffled by the idea of presenting an edition of Shakespeare to general readers without footnotes (and saying that they’re all in a companion volume is a pretty shoddy defense). Middleton, who we haven’t been hearing all our lives, would have been impossible without them. And the quality seems just about perfect—“false friends” in the vocabulary, obscure references elucidated, but nothing to try the patience or insult the intelligence.

The running titles on the pages have come in for a lot of notice, and I notice them, too. A single play might have five or six different titles, all in different typefaces (or even handwritten). So, the play called “The Puritan Widow” will have at the top of each page one of the following:
The Puritan Widow
THE WIDDOW of Watling-ftreete. (I know it’s a long ‘s,’ not an ‘f.’ Give me a break—I’m new to Blogspot.)
The Puritaine Widdow.

It may be a bit disorienting, but I rather like it. In a modern omnibus edition, it is necessary to homogenize the texts to some extent, but I think this is a nice way of calling attention, almost subliminally, to the rich, contradictory, frustrating, endlessly rewarding mess that is textual scholarship. It gives us access to a little bit of the richness, with very little of the pain.

My eye is drawn toward some familiar titles: Timon of Athens. Measure for Measure. Macbeth.

Macbeth. The warm feeling I am developing for this book cools. The only text of Macbeth we have today is the one that Middleton monkeyed around with, interpolating his silly song-and-dance numbers from The Witch and fundamentally debasing the whole play. Shakespeare gave us the awful majesty of Fate, and Middleton turned the Weird Sisters into the Three Witches, a Haunted-House attraction. Sorry to sound emotional like that. I put together an adaptation of Macbeth last year, and I came to believe that a big part of what I was doing was un-adapting Middleton’s adaptation. It bugs me that I’ll never get to read Shakespeare’s original, and it bugs me to see the complete text of Macbeth in Middleton’s Collected Works. Back in high school, I myself wrote a puerile “new ending” to Romeo and Juliet. So do I get to include the first four acts of the original in my “works?” Would even George Bernard Shaw have the pluck to publish the first four acts of Cymbeline under his name, on the basis of his new fifth act?

I’ll have more to say about Macbeth, I’m sure. But this is bringing me down, and I don’t want to lose that happy glow. Just a touch more Scotch (of course), and a quick thumb through the Companion. The meat of this book is a “textual apparatus” for each of the works in the main volume—lovely term, evocative of scaffolding and gears and pulleys. Mark Scroggins, who blogged his own impressions of this book, and who, I wish, would write more about Middleton, took exception to sticking all the textual notes in an ancillary volume, but I think this isn’t so bad. Too many notes slow down the “pace” of a text—I find the Arden Shakespeare almost unreadable, except as a reference work. Having these notes in a separate volume means I can have both books open at once if I’m really scouring a passage.

And of course there’s loads of interesting essays, on printing technology, music, seemingly anything you’d care to know about the period. My mind is an infamous junk-drawer of odds and ends, and I know I’m going to suck greedily all of this information.

But for now, it’s time to put the book back on the shelf—remembering to lift from the knees and avoid twisting motions. I see the clock has turned over and today is become tomorrow. April 23, the traditional birthday of William Shakespeare, “our other Middleton”. My entire life is suddenly full of portents. What could be more appropriate?