Posts Tagged ‘Simon Russell Beale’

Shakespeare’s First Folio

September 24, 2014

I’ve finally watched the recent programme by Simon Russell Beale in the BBC Secret Life of Books series, and was mildly disappointed: nothing new revealed, just some nice shots of very old books to drool over, really. A missed opportunity, but it had me reflecting on my life with Shakespeare.

Quite a few years ago, when in need of a treat, and feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio. It is a lovely book, and there is something quite magical in being transported back four centuries and seeing the complete works as they first appeared from the press. And yet, it’s a complete fake, of course. The Norton edition is a collation of photographic reproductions of the best pages from dozens of different First Folios, all collected at the Folger Library somewhere in the US, I can’t remember where. So, as a fascimile it’s the best possible one to have: no blurred or smudged pages, and so on. Just that the ‘original’ of it doesn’t exist!

Texts, especially Shakespeare’s, are edited and interpreted for us before we read them. Different quartos (if these exist) and the various folios are compared, decisions taken where uncertainties exist; spellings are often modernised, as is punctuation, words are glossed and explained in footnotes: our access to 16th/17th century texts is eased, simplified. Although there are the famous ‘cruxes’ – words or phrases that nobody has succeeded in making head or tail of since then: the ‘arm-gaunt steed’ in Antony and Cleopatra, for instance – that remain to puzzle us.

At this point it is good to remind oneself that these plays were written to be performed in the theatre, not pored over in a classroom or lecture theatre, and I often did remind my students of this fact. And how different the experience is: language that seems impenetrable on the page is instantaneously digested and understood with ease – if only partially – and interpreted for us with the help of the action onstage. The play is brought to life – oh so powerfully and as intended – and we receive what Shakespeare intended, but then remember it has been mediated by a director and the actors…

Studying the written text can be very revealing and very fulfilling: one can explore, and focus on the power of the language and the cleverness of the writer; one can seek connections and links throughout a play; one can analyse rhyme or rhythm. None of this is a substitute for the real thing. And yet, it’s partly this that has led to the hagiography of Shakespeare over the centuries. Not that that is undeserved, but I suspect it does mean that it is no longer possible to stand sufficiently far enough back to get any real perspective on the man and his work in his time. As Simon Russell Beale pointed out, if the First Folio hadn’t been compiled, then we’d only have half of Shakespeare’s plays. What would we make of him then?

Edited texts: the Arden Shakespeare second series was always the gold standard in my student days and is still the one I prefer, though long discontinued. The Arden third series is good, though not as good, and if I had to recommend a modern edition it would be the New Cambridge Shakespeare, which certainly now has the edge. And for a smaller and cheaper edition, it is still hard to beat the New Penguin, with its excellent introductions, though having to flip to the back for notes and glosses has always annoyed me.

I was amused to read of the glitch – a two hour bomb-scare – at the opening of the new Shakespeare theatre in the Polish city of Gdansk: of course, the silly Prime Minister did mention the name of the Scottish play….

 

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