Wednesday, April 23, 2008

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 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?


Alan K.Farrar said...

Tempting stuff - Already seeing another journey after my own is finished.
(And thanks for the Dido!)

Craig said...

You're most welcome. I really have a soft spot for Marlowe--sometimes I daydream about the incredible friendship/rivalry there might have been between him and Shakespeare, had he lived. You see some of that, with Henry VI bouncing off Tamburlaine and Edward 2 bouncing off _that_.