Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Alien and Alienating Text

Before digging any deeper into this edition of Macbeth, I wanted to talk about the remarkable nature of the text itself. It is billed as “a genetic text,” designed to present and explore the layers of composition, and is a quirky, idiosyncratic beast. There are neither punctuation marks in the text (except for apostrophes) nor capital letters at the beginnings of sentences or verse lines, so we get Shakespeare by way of e e cummings:

she should have died hereafter
there would have been a time for such a word
tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death out out brief candle
life’s but a walking shadow a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more it is a tale
told by an idiot full of sound and fury
signifying nothing
enter a messenger
                                thou com’st to use
thy tongue thy story quickly

Huh. The argument goes, neither Shakespeare nor Middleton used much in the way of capitals or punctuation in their surviving manuscripts (real Shakespeare nuts will note that you have to accept the “Hand D” additions to Sir Thomas More as Shakespeare’s in order to give him any “surviving manuscripts”), so that the 1623 Folio punctuation “reflects the practices of different compositors and scribes,” and not the playwrights. The spellings, too, are taken to have more to do with the print-shop compositors, and so all the spelling is quietly regularized to modern norms, as being the most neutral choice possible. “Words have to be spelled, one way or another,” and “the choice of any early modern spellings would necessarily have been arbitrary, lending an undeserved weight to differences which have no more authority than differences in punctuation.”

Okay, but then we go a bridge too far: “This completely unpunctuated text lets readers decide for themselves how to interpret the words…glossarial commentaries, like punctuation, make interpretive choices about which meanings are appropriate and which are not.” That might explain why Macbeth has been stripped of punctuation and commentary, but it doesn’t explain why we wouldn’t want to do that for every other play in the book. Doing this once as a special exercise in textual exploration is one thing, but don’t let’s try to make some kind of post-modernist virtue out of it.

Beyond this, every word is color-coded, as it were, to show Gary Taylor’s assessment of its provenance, thus:

-What Shakespeare wrote and Middleton left untouched is in normal type.
-Middleton’s additions are in bold.
-Words that Middleton deleted or meant to delete are in light gray.

“Deleted?” But how can we know that? There’s just the one text, and you can’t see what’s not in it. Ah, but Doctor Taylor can—even if only through a glass, darkly. He conjectures that certain passages were re-arranged from Shakespeare’s original manuscript: these appear in gray in their “original” positions, and then in bold where Middleton is supposed to have relocated them. There is also the rare bit that seems to have been meant for deletion, but somehow survived in the manuscript—redundancies and so forth. Last of all, Taylor takes a couple of tentative stabs at describing what might have once been present in Macbeth before Middleton’s cuts—including a cameo appearance by Edward the Confessor himself.

Gentle reader, I perceive your dubiousness through the very fabric of time and space. But let’s leave our discussion of the details for another day. I can only report that I’ve been turning Taylor’s conjectures over and over in my mind these past days, and there is a satisfying resonance to them, a kind of ring of plausibility, if not of Truth in all her glory. We’ll talk about all these items one at a time—for now, I just wanted to paint a picture of this very odd text.

In truth, I rather like it. It’s not a text for reading, really, but there’s no need for that: as the editors point out several times, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a “traditional” text of Macbeth. I count five of ‘em on my bookshelf right now. This is more in the nature of a blueprint or schematic drawing: the intent is to expose the structural members, not conceal them. One thing I’m really coming to admire about Taylor’s editorial practice is his ability to communicate important non-verbal messages through form and style. This wacky Macbeth actively avoids polish. It looks like an archaeological dig site, which I suppose it almost is. In spite of the stated reasons for stripping all the capital letters and punctuation, I think the biggest one was to contribute to the atmosphere of roughness in the text, which encourages us to be open-minded to the possibilities of revision and reconstruction in a way that a “clean” text might not. An “alien and alienating” text, as Taylor puts it, putting one in mind of Brecht and his “alienation effect”—setting us apart to better analyze and judge.

I keep thinking I’m just going to bang out a few quick thoughts, and, next thing I know, I’m closing in on 900 words again. Past time to shut this one down!

1 comment:

Alan K.Farrar said...

One more of these posts and you'll be pulling the witches trick on me - temptation of future glories leading to abandonment of the true path (through Shakespeare).
This sounds a really fascinating edition (and well worth the money).
My only problem is the regulation of the spelling - which possibly changes the 'sound' - when I read whan instead of when, it does 'sound' differently on my inner ear.