Skip to main content

In Search of Shakespeare’s Anonymous Editors

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982
Shakespeare’s Anonymous Editors: Scribe and Compositor in the Folio Text of 2 Henry IV. By Eleanor Prosser. Stanford. $18.50.

Eleanor Prosser, who is known primarily as a literary critic, has written a lively book on one of the most vexing problems in the editing of Shakespeare: the relationship between the quarto (1600) and the folio (1623) versions of Henry IV Part Two. The study of textual criticism to which these problems belong has been mostly the province of specialists, for whom Prosser writes as an enthusiastic newcomer to the subject, and she is able to show them a thing or two. The reader cannot help but like her forthrightness and her passion for incisive distinctions and illuminating details. Above all, she writes such readable prose that her explanations of technical matters can be understood by any student of Shakespeare. This is indeed a well-focused, vigorous, and mostly persuasive work, full of zest from beginning to end.

She concludes that, although the folio edition of 2 Henry IV contains eight genuinely Shakespearean passages of about 156 lines not found in the quarto, the rest of the many significant variants in F have little authority. For example, she demonstrates in great detail how the compositor who set much of the folio played fast and loose with the script, sometimes compressing, sometimes expanding speeches to fit the allotted pages. Therefore, the new readings in F that can be traced to the compositor’s habits should be questioned. This part of the analysis appears to be sound, and it is set forth beautifully.

Prosser assumes that Q was printed from a “final rough draft” of the play, probably in Shakespeare’s hand, but she denies what is commonly thought, that the manuscript behind the new passages in F came somehow from the theater (and possibly contained authorial revisions). She points out that the stage directions in F show little sense of the theater—when a character should enter and who should be on stage at a given time. Some unauthorized editor has mistaken Falstaff’s boy and called him Bardolf’s boy. Mutes are ruthlessly cut from the script although it is clear from the dialogue that they should be there. I think Prosser exaggerates the importance of the placing of entrances a few lines earlier or later, but on the whole her point is well taken about the quite untheatrical character of the directions.

The problems are more troublesome in her treatment of the changes supposedly made by a scribe who, she thinks, prepared a clean manuscript that served as printer’s copy for the folio. This manuscript was based on the quarto, but it incorporated the omitted passages, presumably from the very same final rough draft that Q used. Nearly every small variant in F that she cannot attribute to the ambidextrous compositor she vilifies as “pedestrian,” “feeble,” moralistic, overly concerned with grammatical and metrical regularity. The hypothetical scribe pursues accuracy and literary refinement at the expense of drama; he is insensitive to dialect and he seldom tolerates short lines (called “waist lines”!) in the middle of a passage. (Incidentally, in her theory there is no room for significant changes by the proofreader.) So, between the too-accommodating compositor and the fussy scribe, the folio text of 2 Henry IV has lost some of the original flavor. Modern editors should not, in Prosser’s opinion, adopt the vast majority of the small changes from F, although she concedes that eight out of 90-odd readings she cites might be acceptable, as well as the eight longer additions (see appendix C; but on p. 163 she says she finds only three of F’s improvements “that cannot be readily attributed to the scribe” or compositor).

The suggestion that a marked-up copy of the quarto could have been used by the folio printer does not seem practical to her, but she admits that she does not know why a scribal copy had to be made in the first place. Perhaps, she says, no copy of Q was available to the printer. If so, where did the scribe find one? And if the scribe did not compare the manuscript with Q but just copied out the eight omitted passages, how did he know exactly where Q left them out? Answer: he must have skimmed the manuscript ahead, without collating. Thus the secondary hypotheses begin to multiply alarmingly, and we must imagine a headstrong scribe, literary, zealous, and meticulous, but careless. When he came upon an unintelligible word or phrase in Q, presumably, he did not have the patience to look at the manuscript that was before him. Instead he had the patience to make some ingenious corrections. His “highly trained and astute mind” enabled him to change rabble to rabbit (2.2.85), and his logical mind enabled him to emend Falstaff with my family to Falstaff with my Familiars (2.2.132), and Billingsgate to Basingstoke (2.1.169). Whenever the readings in Q possibly “make sense” Prosser apparently will seldom allow a superior one in F to stand on its merits; for example on p. 139 (2.4.301), she would stick with Q’s possibly correct reading how vildly did you speake of me now, though she admits that F’s even now seems more idiomatic for Hal’s specific jab at Falstaff. In other words all potential errors in Q must perforce be impossible before she will seriously consider the reading in F, because every superior reading in F (aside from the added 156 lines) may simply be an example of the scribe’s tendency to wing it.

This is where Prosser, an unusually bright novice, tarnishes her work as a textual critic. For all her intelligence and tough analysis, she ineluctably slips into the trap of the “best text” theory of editing. Ultraconservative editors of the 19th and early 20th century would approve of her method of following what is on the whole the best text except where it is impossible or where something has been obviously omitted. A. E. Housman refuted that theory by pointing out that “chance and the common course of nature will not bring it to pass that the readings . . .are right wherever they are possible and impossible wherever they are wrong.” W. W. Greg dubbed reasoning like hers as “the tyranny of the copy-text.” Merely because Q more often than not contains intrinsically better readings and because F’s improvements more often than not are sophistications, that does not mean we should rigorously follow the quarto. Nor should the careful critic feel impelled to explain away the lesser variants in F, as long as some of its readings are authentic. In a case so complicated as the texts of 2 Henry IV, where the possibilities are manifold, we should, of course, try to weed out the intrusions of the compositor and the probable sophistications of a scribe or proofreader, but each set of the remaining variants has to be examined on its merits, and no privileged theory about the mentality of the supposed scribe behind a printed text should lead an editor to reject an attractive reading. Theory is good, method is good, but any theory that, rigorously followed, results in an inferior text is suspect.

No wonder, then, that judicious editors in recent years have been content to pick and choose among those 90-odd word variants she cites between Q and F. Prosser tabulates “recent” editorial decisions, showing that they mainly favor F when they should favor Q, and she is probably right, statistically. However, she implies that this tabulation is evidence of “recent” misdemeanors and declares that she would follow Q in almost every case. The table needs a closer look, for it does not always mean what it seems. The Hardin Craig-Bevington editions (1951, 1973) are neither independent nor recent as far as text is concerned; indeed, they are essentially reprints of the Globe text of 1864. Irving Ribner’s reworking of Kittredge cannot be considered a wholly new edition although he made some changes. Peter Alexander’s edition was the work of another, earlier editor, and Alexander was brought into the project later to salvage a bad job. However, Blakemore Evans” (1974) and Peter Davison’s (1977) editions are the most recent work on 2 Henry IV, and they followed the quarto in more than half of the variants in question. But apparently based on the intrinsic qualities of some of the folio’s words, they decided to adopt what they thought were the better ones. This is as it should be, if editing is to remain an art.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading