The Case for the Folio

Filed away to read on a rainy day (after I’ve cleared some big projects from my to do list): Jonathan Bate

The original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s works do not survive: the sole extant composition in his hand is a single scene from Sir Thomas More, a multi-authored play that cannot really be described as ‘his’. Shakespeare only survives because his works were printed.

The scholarly editing of Shakespeare began in the eighteenth century, when the model for such activity was the treatment of the classic literary and historical texts of ancient Greece and Rome. The recovery of those texts had been at the core of the humanist Renaissance. The classical procedure was to establish which surviving manuscript was the oldest, the aim being to get as close as possible to the lost original, weeding out the errors of transcription which had been introduced by successive scribes in the centuries before the advent of print. As Shakespeare began to be treated like a classic, the same procedure was applied to his texts. The eighteenth century also witnessed his rise to the status of national genius, icon of pure inspiration. That image required the imagining of a single perfect original for each play. Shakespeare couldn’t be allowed second thoughts – that would imply some deficiency in his first thoughts. So it was that over time, there emerged a preference for early texts over later ones and a belief that the editor’s job was to restore a single lost original, something approximating to the text as it came ‘pure’ from the hand of Shakespeare.

We are very unlikely ever to recover the manuscripts of the plays as Shakespeare originally wrote them (the ambition of the ‘new bibiographers’). In the absence of surviving promptbooks, let alone dictographic or video records, we will never recover the plays as they were first performed (the ambition of the ‘Oxford revisionists’).

All plays change in time, metamorphosing as they go from writing to rehearsal to performance to revival. Many agencies (the playwright and his collaborators, the actors, the book-keepers and scribes, the compositors and proof-readers) were involved in the creation of what we call a Shakespearean text. Despite a hundred years of advanced bibliographic investigation, there is still a remarkable lack of scholarly consensus about the nature of the copy for many of Shakespeare’s plays…. Perhaps it would be best to abandon the idea that any one text represents the ‘definitive’ version of a Shakespeare play. After all, the quest for a ‘definitive’ text, based on a ‘single lost original’, was premised on the principles of classical and Biblical textual criticism. It is not necessarily appropriate for more modern literary and especially dramatic texts.