Mediators of the wor(l)d: editors, Shakespeare, and inclusion

One of the concerns of Before Shakespeare is the impact of the canon on contemporary performance, editorial practice and theatre history. Dramatists, like playhouses, are often divided, either explicitly or implicitly, into groups deemed major or minor. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be publishing papers from the 2019 annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America’s  in Washington DC. Our third paper comes from Brandi Kristine Adams and was written for a seminar on ‘Modern Scholarly Editions: Challenges and Opportunities’, with thanks to Martin Butler and Jennifer Richards, the seminar organisers. Follow the links to read the other posts in the series, by Robert Stagg, Eoin Price and Andy Kesson.

Printed, single-author scholarly editions are majestic, monumental, and some of the weightiest tomes in the field of early modern English studies—both in terms of their intellectual content and sheer physicality. These books, which can sometimes span two or more large folios, evoke the power of impressive architectural structures, similar to the triumphal arch that marks the frontispiece of Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616), or the funerary tombs of Roman citizens that line the Via Appia. They are a culmination of the painstaking work of editors, including those who work on individual plays and establish the overall philosophy that guides the general ethos of any given edition. Elaborate paeans to one man (or possibly two in the case of playwrights like Beaumont and Fletcher), these editions reflect a Copernican universe in which everything revolves around the brightest star, or author, which outshines every other object in the cosmos. In 1576, as he first wrote in support of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Leonard Digges explained this recentering of the universe in A prognostication euerlasting of right good effect: “And whatsoeuer seeme to vs to proceede by the mouing of the Sunne, the same to proceede indeede by the reuolution of the earth, the Sunne still remaining fixed and immoueable in the middest.”[1] To continue this metaphor, the sun, or our star author, with his inevitable gravitational pull, orders the universe in such a way that it seems perfectly formed. However, this very order regrettably disallows most other stars and planets from being anything more than distant, orthogonal satellites, wholly dependent upon a generous heliocentrism. While these outposts can certainly be noticed, it may only be by those readers fortunate enough to be in possession of suitable training and proper, specific telescopes—be they the amateur, commercial kind or the Gran Telescopio Canarias.

Whether figured as monuments, tombs, or the sun, or in a way far less clumsy than I have managed here, “Complete Works,” especially of Shakespeare, often function as undergraduates’ central, pivotal, and sole introduction to the history of early English theater and its dramatists, plays, actors, spectators, and readers. Perhaps in a way to provide as much information to novitiates as possible, editions of Shakespeare now provide extensive historical and contextual material while provocatively including additional collaborators and heretofore thought anonymously-authored plays. New readers, who are often undergraduates charged with lugging these large textbooks around, may only ever learn about this one outsized author who then exists for them “not of an age, but for all time.” Shakespeare, in the form of these large books, becomes the sun by which undergraduates orient themselves (either within the field, or, if we follow the wishes of some editors of Shakespeare, throughout their entire lives). They will never experience Shakespeare as E.H.C. Oliphant wanted them to in 1929: “soiled with contact by the works of his rivals.”[2]

In his work on canons of early modern drama, Jeremy Lopez explains that Oliphant set out to publish an anthology of Elizabethan drama that included both Shakespeare’s work and that of some of his contemporaries—according to a generalized theory of aesthetics instead of chronologically or by theater companies or playhouses. However, this attempt to situate Shakespeare as one playwright among many lasted for one sole edition. In the end, Oliphant’s publisher Prentice Hall removed all of the Shakespearean texts from Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists and subsequently published a second edition of the book as Elizabethan Dramatists other than Shakespeare. This rejection of a new way of encountering the field— which Lopez explains was the first and only time that this “radical experiment” took place—simply reestablished (and still establishes) Shakespeare’s cultural supremacy over all other playwrights of the period.[3] There remains an absolute refusal to integrate him into a larger political and social landscape in which he is not always the favorite or the “most best.”[4]

To this day, there are no large anthologies of early modern English drama that intermix Shakespeare’s work with others.[5] He is presented as a class above all other writers and is often the first and only entry point for bright, curious students to the broader field of early modern English drama or early modern studies in general. Even though these books endeavor to be as welcoming as possible (with digital supplements and enhancements), they may still not be the best way to guarantee that we have future scholars of Shakespeare studies in general, or scholars in the field of editing in particular. At times, these editions segregate both Shakespeare and his work from a larger community of writers in somewhat troubling ways. He is marked as a savior, liberator, miracle worker, or universal signifier and as such students may find engaging and learning about his writing to be far less comfortable and seamless then some editions make this process out to be. Contemporary editing of Shakespeare and other early modern English drama should move toward a goal of improving inclusivity and accessibility. One way to open up the field could be to return to a version of Oliphant’s plan to integrate Shakespeare into the larger universe of early modern English drama. Otherwise, as a field, we may miss out on talented future scholars because of this singular approach of teaching by only using Shakespeare. It remains unfortunate that the carefully curated material students learn from these scholarly editions may be the only information they ever receive about a complex world that involved more people than just the man donning the cover of their books.

If fortunate, students will have instructors who give them the tools to be able to see and understand the other parts of the solar system, which on any given day can include Marlowe or Middleton, Fletcher or Greene. However, despite exciting articles and books written by many of their instructors on dramatists other than Shakespeare, an introduction to these other playwrights may not necessarily happen. Perhaps one consequence of single-author editions is that students may never hear about the existence of multiple and diverse performance venues—including universities. They may never know about theater companies functioning independently of Shakespeare or another star author. Students may also never understand the storied history of theatre before Shakespeare that includes other popular dramatists including John Lyly, who as Andy Kesson writes was a “popular writer with unparalleled reach beyond the court.”[6] They may also never learn that there were women theater owners and agents including “Margaret Brayne and Ellen Burbage—laying claim to theatrical space and asserting their own agency, ownership, and investment in the playing industry.”[7]

Despite the capaciousness of the single-author edition there remains an implication that there isn’t enough space in the books to acknowledge that early modern England and Europe were not nearly as white, male or as homogeneous as many students imagine these places to have been. There is also little acknowledgement that the history of editing single-author editions (or even single plays) is one that is not fully representative of scholars who are now working tirelessly in the field to make it more open, inclusive, and accessible. This is not to say that other issues surrounding the act of editing and the production of editions are not fascinating. Students enjoy learning about the compelling technical and emotional disputes about the versions of King Lear or the relative validity of the first quarto of Hamlet.

However, the resounding (long-held) opinions about contemporary editions of Shakespeare—I think of Barbara Mowat’s description of Stanley Wells’ calling the conflated version of King Lear “a wraith born of an unholy union” as the ultimate example—are mostly the stuff of men and that still, even now, embrace the combative nature and rhetoric of war.[8] Gary Taylor described this fight for dominance compellingly in 1988:

Editing exercises power, and it can only be understood by an analysis of power. Editors are always fighting each other, in a perpetual civil war designed to secure legitimacy for one faction or another…[.] Competing warrior editors fight each other over the body of a text, like the Greek and Persian armies fighting over the corpse of Leonidas, because control over that body confers honor and power”.[9]

That honor and power— as well as the spirited exchanges about the primacy of the quarto or folio version of a given play—were and still are fairly contained within a community of “upstart revisionists,” their vociferous tweeting supporters, traditionalists, and the lively ghosts of famous editors including McKerrow, Greg, and Bowers.

Left to observe these editorial battles from the sidelines are women and scholars of color (or women who are scholars of color) who for whatever reason are not engaging directly with either the technical or political acts of editing. Although these groups are missing from central conversations about editing, from the margins, they have begun to reconceptualize the process of editing and reframe it in more inclusive ways. These new editors are heeding the call from Kim F. Hall’s and Peter Erickson’s Shakespeare Quarterly’s special issue on race that “there needs to be more studies of race and performance that themselves theorize/critique race rather than simply document the activities of people of color in the service of proving Shakespeare’s universality.”[10] This includes examining how all scholars fit into the ongoing entertaining and thought- provoking intellectual disagreements about editing. Regardless, discussion about editing necessarily has to open up to more people than the original enemy-combatants and strident commenters who relish the specificity of the technical disputes and the mythos surrounding the “upstart revisionists” and firm notion that “the debates are arcane, but their impact is fundamental.”[11] Furthermore, the discussions about the versions of plays that most closely adhere to authorial intention should also perhaps employ a deep examination of the biases that we bring to texts as we begin to edit them, and how our own understanding of the importance of the author central to a single-author edition could shape the future composition of scholars in the field.

However extraordinary, forward-thinking, and revolutionary, these newer scholarly editions including The Riverside Shakespeare, The Complete Pelican, and The New Oxford Edition still (however unintentionally) perpetuate a hegemonic approach to Shakespeare and his plays. The very existence of these books assumes that students and faculty can both afford to buy or request the book for a course and that they possess the physical strength to carry it across campus and into the classroom several times a week. These editions expect that students will indeed read the additional material that accompanies the plays in order to get a more holistic view of the period. The prefaces to these tomes do not necessarily acknowledge that readers are presented with very particular historiographical and theoretical approach to the early modern world. Whether with intention or not, the ways in which “Complete Works” introduce an author can make that person seem inaccessible and unrelatable.[12] Perhaps without realizing it, editors fortify this exclusivity by suggesting that fully engaging with the complete works of Shakespeare is necessary not to understand one’s one relation to the world (or the universe) but to comprehend “other people’s pleasures,” or to “value our civilization (emphasis mine).”[13] When Gary Taylor and Terri Bourus wrote those words in the introduction to the New Oxford Edition entitled “Why Study Shakespeare?” they were likely identifying and rallying those whom they choose to identify as the “party of Yes,” or people who love Shakespeare and his work. These evangelists are convincingly sincere in their observations that we (in this enlightened party) are brilliant and have “so successfully institutionalized Shakespeare as our best, most rewarding read, and our most loved writer” (emphasis mine).[14]

It is so very tempting to absorb this argument in a desire to fit in, to conform, and to assimilate—to gladly submit to other people’s pleasures and hope to somehow experience Shakespeare in this collective, culturally significant way. And in doing so, it is perhaps easy to ignore the very words, struggles, and complications that women and/or people of color encounter as they read, write scholarship about and employ Shakespeare. For instance, while one may one assign Frederick Douglass to “The Party of Yes,” it is perhaps too easy to do so without acknowledging that Douglass may not have employed his reading of Shakespeare because of an ethereal connection the poet and his plays. Rather, according to John C. Briggs, “Douglass’s incorporation of Shakespearean language and tone in speeches and writings throughout his career is assumed to have supported his efforts to persuade audiences who were widely and often deeply familiar with Shakespearean language—audiences skeptical of, or likely to be gratified by, an ex-slave’s facility with the man Douglass called ‘the great poet.’”[15] Douglass may have been aligning himself with the “party of Yes,” but as a rhetorical tactic in order to get a yes vote to persuade readers of Shakespeare that slavery should not be a part of the American project. This use of Shakespeare was a Machiavellian means to an end rather than a manifestation of Douglass’s particularly close communion with the plays. Douglass knew the power that Shakespeare held over nineteenth-century white American audiences and the profound effect that those words would have on them.

Perhaps for some readers getting to yes—the wanting to approach a scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s corpus—can happen in a way that is unconnected to a large edition of this type. A kinship with “the poet of superlatives” may eventually result from exploring not only his work, but work written by other playwrights. The unequivocal yes may also come from learning about the history and happenings of the theater, the printing house, the city, or the state in the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries in England. It may also come from thinking about complex issues surrounding nationhood, race, gender, or disability and the ways that writers of the time may have navigated them.[16] The yes may not come from constantly pushing the ways that various marginalized/minoritized populations have incorporated Shakespeare into their work, but how these groups grapple with ways that Shakespeare has been used to support structures of supremacy. Ironically, the complete embracing of the resounding yes may even come through engagement with another single author edition that perhaps doesn’t include an actor putting on blackface for a performance.

Lukas Erne has claimed that the work of editors is invisible and that what we know about Shakespeare plays we have learned from them. What happens when we start to ask about the editors themselves? For him “[e]ditors are the unacknowledged mediators of the word,” but when it comes to single-author editions and “Complete Works” of Shakespeare, they also mediate and translate the early modern world and its larger universe of playwrights. At times, this mediation disrupts the inclusion of people who also have much to write and say about early modern English drama and even Shakespeare himself. Finally, there may be other ways to welcome new scholars, editors, and thinkers to field by having them embrace the work that interests them, because like Hamlet, some of us are “too much i’ the sun,” of Shakespeare.

Brandi Kristine Adams

[1] Leonard Digges, A prognostication euerlasting of right good effect, (London, 1603), M3R, EEBO, British Library. The 1605 edition of Digges’s work, edited by his son Thomas, is the only one available on Early English Books Online

[2] Jeremy Lopez, Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 3.

[3] Lopez, 4.

[4] Gary Taylor and Terri Bouros, “Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works,” in the New Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works Modern Critical Edition, ed. Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1-58, on 2.

[5] Lopez, 4. Lopez also records all of the editions of anthologies of English Renaissance drama. Since Fraser and Rabkin’s collection in 1976, only three other anthologies have been published. It has been thirteen years since Arthur Kinney’s Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments has been revised, and yet it is the most recent edition available to readers.

[6] Andy Kesson, John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), x.

[7] Callan Davies, “Before Shakespeare, Engendering Before Shakespeare: Women and Early English Playhouse Ownership,” Before Shakespeare: The Beginnings of London Commercial Theater, 1565-1595,

[8] Barbara Mowat, “Facts, Theories, and Beliefs,” Editing, Shakespeare in Our Time: A Shakespeare Association of America Collection, ed. Dympna Callaghan and Suzanne Gosset, (New York: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016) 57-64, on 57.

[9] Gary Taylor, “The Rhetorics of Reaction,” Crisis in Editing: Texts of the English Renaissance, ed. Randall McLeod (New York: AMS Press, 1988) 19-59, on 19.

[10] Peter Erikson and Kim F. Hall, “’A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, 67 no. 1, (Special Issue on Race, 2016): 1–135, on 9.

[11] Holger S. Syme, The Text Is Foolish: Brian Vickers’s “The One King Lear,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 4, 2016,

[12] The same could likely be argued for single author editions of other authors as well, particularly if general editors do not stop to consider their relative position within the larger academic structures of early modern or Shakespeare studies.

[13] Taylor and Bouros, 1.

[14] Taylor and Bouros, 1.

[15] John C. Briggs, “The Exorcism of Macbeth: Frederick Douglass’s Appropriation of Shakespeare,” in Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance, ed. Scott Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 35-43, on 36.

[16] This would be in sharp contrast to Taylor and Bouros’ reduction of differences in gender, class, race, and disability to genre which they identify as a “more useful way of characterizing collective human difference than race or gender or class or sexual orientation, because ‘genre’ incorporates all such differences without naturalizing or prioritizing one of them” (16).

3 thoughts on “Mediators of the wor(l)d: editors, Shakespeare, and inclusion

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare as minor dramatist | Before Shakespeare

  2. Pingback: What is a minor dramatist? or, three types of minority | Before Shakespeare

  3. Pingback: Minor plays | Before Shakespeare

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