George Walton Williams, ed. Shakespeare's Speech-Headings Newark: U of Delaware P, 1997. xxiv+213pp. ISBN 0 874 13637 7.
Andrew Murphy
University of St Andrews

Murphy, Andrew. "Review of George Walton Williams, ed., Shakespeare's Speech Headings." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 18.1-7<URL:

  1. George Walton Williams's edited collection of essays, though published in 1997, in fact dates back to 1986, when many of these pieces were presented as papers at the Shakespeare Association of America textual studies seminar. The essays were scheduled to be published by AMS Press in 1990, but editorial policy changes at AMS meant that the collection moved to the University of Delaware Press. The long delay in bringing the collection to press is unfortunate, not least since textual studies has been such a lively field over the course of the past decade or so, with the result that some of the arguments mapped out here in tentative form have since been expanded and considerably developed -- in some instances by the contributors to this very volume (this is particularly true in the case of Paul Werstine).

  2. The collection takes as its point of departure R. B. McKerrow's "A Suggestion Regarding Shakespeare's Manuscripts", first published in 1935 in the Review of English Studies, and conveniently reproduced here as the opening chapter of the collection. Like many other seminal New Bibliographical works (such as Pollard's 1909 Shakespeare's Folio and Quartos and Greg's edition of the 1602 Merry Wives of Windsor published in the following year -- which set up, respectively, the concepts of the 'bad' quartos and memorial reconstruction) McKerrow's article sets out a centrally important idea with deft clarity and deceptive simplicity. In brief, McKerrow's 'suggestion' was that lack of consistency in nomenclative practice in Renaissance play editions (especially in speech headings and stage directions) points to an author's own foul papers as the underlying text, whereas consistency in naming was more likely to indicate that the text being reproduced had a theatrical provenance -- possibly being derived directly from the promptbook.

  3. Like so many other cornerstones of New Bibliographic practice, what McKerrow offered as a tentative suggestion quickly assumed the certainty of solid fact. Editors quickly began to write with great confidence of the exact provenance of the texts they edited, based on their assessment of nomenclative practice within those texts. The last decade or so has, however, witnessed a radical reassessment of New Bibliography, with the approach coming under attack from a wide variety of perspectives. The New Bibliographers have been criticised for their political and philosophical positionings, while at the same time it has been demonstrated that many of the conclusions reached by the New Bibliographers lack solid evidential foundations. Paul Werstine's essay in the present collection is a nice example of this latter kind of challenge. McKerrow insists that promptbooks would necessarily need to be consistent in their naming practices and we can readily assent, I think, that, intuitively, this proposition makes perfect sense. Werstine demonstrates, however, that, surprisingly, this contention is not borne out by the evidence provided by surviving promptbooks. William B. Long supports this conclusion, observing that "what has been erected by McKerrow's successors is a very rickety house of cards" (37). Werstine's Speech-Headings piece is, in fact, an abridged version of a longer article published in Renaissance Drama in 1989, in which he examines the evidence in much greater detail. It is one of a series of brilliant essays in which Werstine has, with great clarity, used the evidential record radically to undermine virtually all the central tenets of New Bibliographic thinking, including memorial reconstruction, 'bad' quartos, foul papers, and prompt copy.

  4. One of the problems with Williams's collection -- valuable though it certainly is -- is that it never seems to be able wholly to make up its mind whether it sponsors this challenge to the immediate topic of McKerrow's article and, more generally, to the whole New Bibliographic project. As a result, the collection offers a somewhat uneasy mixture of the broadly orthodox and the defiantly challenging. Thus, while the contributions by A. R. Braunmuller, Thomas Clayton and Richard Proudfoot are very interesting and informative, one cannot help feeling that these critics make rather odd bedfellows for the likes of Stephen Urkowitz and Randall McLeod. Clayton has himself prompted scholars to think more closely about such issues as the validity of the notion of "bad" quartos by editing a very useful collection entitled The "Hamlet" First Published, but in his essay in this present collection we hear a trace of ruefulness in his realisation that the solid certainties of old orthodoxies are gradually ebbing away: "It is always a source of regret when hypotheses and evidence together fail to yield immediate and satisfying universal results, but ambiguity is often inherent in the medium as uncertainty is in many of the exact details of transmission" (84). The only sense of regret we find in Urkowitz and McLeod is that the old certainties could not have been swept aside long before now, since those very certainties facilitated the erection of unhelpful barriers between the reader and the text. For Williams himself, in the "Preface" to this volume, "To edit is human" (xxi); for McLeod, the "editor's hobgoblin instinct" (153) leads to the credo that "the text is not enough" (193). Editing, in McLeod's view, becomes a form of supplementarity that serves, ultimately, to displace the text itself.

  5. It is inevitable, I suppose, that while the essays of Braunmuller (writing on King John), Clayton (discussing Coriolanus and drawing on his work as a New Variorum editor), and Proudfoot (analysing the apocrypha) are immensely interesting from a strictly bibliographical point of view, it is the brash oppositional perspectives of Urkowitz and McLeod, together with the investigative analyses of Werstine and Long, that really hold the interest in this volume. Urkowitz argues here -- as he has done extensively elsewhere -- for seeing variant quartos as individual textual instances, rather than dividing them into categories of good and bad. He focuses on variant murders in different versions of 2 Henry VI and Richard II, reading changes in speech headings and dialogue as an indication of differences of emphasis and interpretation between the texts. As ever, his work is subtle and convincing. McLeod's essay physically dominates the volume, as it runs to some seventy pages, taking up more than a third of the whole book. In one sense, this adds to the sense of the volume's unevenness, since, by contrast, Sidney Thomas's "McKerrow's Thesis Re-Examined" runs to just three and a half pages. As in the case of Werstine's essay, a version of McLeod's piece has already appeared elsewhere -- as a chapter in David Kastan and Peter Stallybrass's collection Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (1991). Here, McLeod offers a fuller version of his argument, with more extensive evidence and analysis. The essay is a typical McLeod performance: witty, absurd, trouble-making, and deeply scholarly. McLeod is a kind of latter-day scholarly Mohammed Ali, floating like a butterfly around the hapless editors whose work he discusses, and stinging like a bee with his surreal wit and scholarly incisiveness.

  6. McLeod might have had some additional fun had he turned his attention to the very collection in which his essay appears, as there are a number of minor errors in the volume which, fortuitously, resonate nicely with the book's concerns. Much attention is given in the volume to variants in nomenclature and it is amusing to find that Williams himself in his Preface misspells McLeod's name as 'McCleod' (xii) -- a nice irony given McLeod's tendency to publish under a variety of whimsical noms de plume. Likewise, Laurie E. Maguire becomes, in Jay L. Halio's "Foreword", "Laurie McGuire." McLeod would doubtless also be tickled by the fact that his essay begins on p. 133, following on immediately from p. 130 -- presumably a result of his typical practice of producing his own camera-ready copy, which often intersects problematically with the contingencies of modern book publishing. To draw attention to these matters is not at all to offer snide criticism of either the editor or the publisher, but rather to note that the physicality of the book itself nicely illustrates some of the issues discussed within its pages and within the field of textual studies more generally. Indeed, the book's own troubled history -- migrating from AMS to Delaware -- offers a neat illustration of McGann's "social theory of textuality", drawing attention to the broad range of agents necessarily involved in the publishing process (as Urkowitz puts it in relation to Renaissance playtexts: "printed scripts of plays usually represent a confluence of pressures and contributions generated by an extended literary, theatrical and publishing community" [116]).

  7. Shakespeare's Speech-Headings is, then, an uneven collection, in the sense that the essays assembled here do not always hold together as a coherent body of material. But perhaps, as much as anything else, this reflects the current lack of consensus within the field of textual studies itself. This unevenness notwithstanding, we must be grateful to Prof. Williams for putting together an engaging and valuable set of essays which will be of as much interest to the non-specialist scholar as it will be to Renaissance textualists.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)