@ the Table of the Great: Hospitable Editing and the Internet Shakespeare Editions Project

Patrick Finn
St. Mary's College

Finn, Patrick. "@ the Table of the Great: Hospitable Editing and the Internet Shakespeare Editions Project". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 2.1-29<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/finntabl.htm>.

  1. The relationship between readers and writers involves a certain form of engagement that involves the codes of hospitality. In cases where critics might describe a text as either readerly or writerly, following Barthes' classic distinction, we recognize a reference to the level of welcome afforded by a given text. The cultural history of texts also bears witness to this correlation. The writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Swift and Pope, of Woolf and Joyce all illustrate a fundamental tension between the desire to be of the people (that is welcoming) but not of the horde (too welcoming). Residing somewhere near the heart of this debate is the editor. Operating as an intermediary between writer and reader, and often between the past and the present, the editor occupies a special position in the political economy of literary expression.

  2. Following my title, reception entails an examination of who is invited to the "table of the great," where "the great" are those authors deemed worthy of study in the face of seemingly limitless array of texts. The invitations to textual banquets are the work of editors, whose editions inherently argue for the value of their authors and whose makeup can directly affect the interpretability of the work at hand. Both of these components – the decision of whom or what to edit, and how to present the edition – fall within the realm of hospitality. 

  3. In order to pursue this argument, it will be useful to follow three areas of inquiry. First, it is necessary to look at what it means to talk about hospitality in the context of literature and of editing. Having established the potential of hospitality as a useful critical category, we must then test these assumptions by describing what a hospitable edition might entail. Likewise, we should determine what might be considered inhospitable by these same terms. After establishing the method, and then demonstrating its potential uses and/or abuses, we can then turn to an examination of the Internet Shakespeare Editions (ISE) and test how that project fits within the established formula.[1] The result illustrates the ways in which the plays of Shakespeare (at least in their earliest performance) demonstrated a form of hospitality that migrates effectively into the digital structures used by the ISE. Of course, it is not necessary that a work be hospitable in nature to make an hospitable edition of that work desirable, but we should consider that the special case of making something that was accessible less so, might be a method of editing scholars would do better avoiding. 

    Hospitality and Literature

  4. In its most direct form, hospitality refers to a kindness to visitors: a friendly welcome and a kind or generous treatment offered to guests or strangers. As an act, this form of hospitality shows itself in a number of regions of Shakespearean scholarship. Often entailing sets of procedures or practices, different forms of hospitable engagement can be traced to the various technological forms of theatrical performance, printed reproduction and digital remediation. Shakespeare, it can be argued, began as an hospitable creator. With the exception of the very rich and the very poor, audiences for Shakespearean plays – at least those performed at the Globe – were socially representative of his time. Apparently, Shakespeare knew how to throw a wonderful party.

  5. The global accessibility which was afforded Shakespeare's more immediate audience did not – indeed could not – carry over to the codified world of print. While quarto publications were within the reach of many of London's merchant class, the publication of the First Folio placed the authoritative works of Shakespeare in the hands of the few. This material development was only one form of removal. Another came with the institutional aggrandizement afforded Shakespeare's plays, which culminated during the 19th century, when editors convinced themselves and the public that The Bard was no longer a progenitor of pop culture, but was instead the greatest writer of all time.[2] If there were popular versions of the plays – and there were – they most often came in the form of intentionally popularized productions designed with the market in mind. Not that versioning is culturally insignificant, but the split in accessibility recast lines between editors and readers in important ways.

  6. Still print did provide one contribution to accessibility. It made plays available to those who could not physically get to a theatre. In theory this meant that citizens who were at a physical distance, who had limited mobility due to physical or cultural reasons or who had commitments during the times when the plays were performed could access a form of Shakespeare's plays.

  7. We often hear that we have overcome the separations imposed by the cult of the book.[3] The achievement is a supposed result of the application of theoretical self-awareness on one hand and digital supplements to bibliographic challenges on the other. That is, the codex and its position as a cornerstone of the upper class establishment no longer bind us. Like Prometheus, we are unbound from the tyranny of the Gods – read classical editors – on high. Set free from a punishment meted out for our attempts to put fire in the hands of the common man. Yet, I would like to argue that without vigilant methodological work, ready theories and readier communications could be as exclusionary as any impasse currently regarded as historical malfeasance. One way out of this – at least the way I will advocate – is what I call hospitable editing.

  8. The notion of hospitality permeates Shakespeare studies through historical, performance and critical perspectives. From the moment when the players began to attract people to plays to the twenty-first century decision between links for a transcription of King Lear or for historicist materials in the Life and Times section of the Internet Shakespeare Editions, the invitation to communicate – to hear and to be heard – is a procedure embedded in the codes of hospitality. However, to twist a line from a recent film, "if you make it, they will not necessarily come." The making itself must involve either a form of attraction or welcoming. Otherwise, it must rely on some form of coercive social obligation.

  9. For the editor in pursuit of meaningful ways in which to interpret textual transmission, the concept of hospitality dovetails nicely with social practices of the period in which Shakespeare was writing. As Felicity Heal points out, hospitality in early modern England was a form of political exchange that rivaled the politico-juridical forms of governance with which we are so familiar today.[4] Through an examination of the social history of giving and obligation, Heal highlights the cultural codes that surrounded the giving of gifts and the offering of hospitable respite, two themes that arise repeatedly in the plays. The notion of hospitable obligation was well established by the time Shakespeare showed audiences the welcoming of the players to Denmark, the murder of Duncan while a guest in Macbeth's castle and the pursuit of Polixenes from Sicilia. Hospitality seems intricately bound to the political economy of Shakespearean drama. 

  10. Heal's book argues that there was a move towards a more secularized view of hospitality from the late middle ages to the early seventeenth century Further, she provides a critique of a complex social matrix that saw the household as the centre of hospitality, though the judgments therein were rooted firmly in the public sphere. Recent theoretical work has made much of the potential of these traditions of hospitable exchange as a means to promote equitable relations in society. The works of Marcel Mauss, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida offer a return to earlier ethical, spiritual or theological representations in a manner that seeks to address some of the same sociopolitical concerns that Heal records.[5] What we find is that all of these concerns find a home in the plays of Shakespeare. Following this, the hospitable editor is – in the case of Shakespeare – able to edit in a way that seems to strike harmony with the internal messages of the works in question. In order to understand this propinquitous relationship, it is necessary to review recent developments in the theory of hospitality.

  11. Marcel Mauss' book The Gift offers an anthropological account of rituals of exchange in a number of communities. The book has given rise to a variety of new studies of the gift and of hospitality. Mauss' development of the Potlatch system is perhaps his most famous contribution. In this intricate system of exchange, community is founded on a ritualized recognition of interdependence. For Emmanuel Levinas, giving can become an essentially ethical practice, but only after it tears itself free from injurious or inequitable obligation. Writing after Mauss, Levinas was able to address issues that arose from the work established in the anthropologist's work while taking into account the critical objections that arose in response to The Gift. In particular, Levinas negotiates the passive/aggressive potential of over-obligating someone with an elaborate gift. He speaks of responsibility that is determined by the root response – the opening or offering that provides space for the reply of the other. 

  12. One of the most effective readings of Mauss comes in Natalie Zemon Davis' book The Gift in Sixteenth Century France.[6] Davis presents a series of models of reciprocity that seek to complicate Mauss' original formulations. For Mauss, gift exchange was a model that could be drawn from our pre-industrial past, as gleaned through an examination of contemporary peoples who were yet to be civilized. Davis maintains the belief that the examination of one culture – here that of sixteenth century France – can have relevance for all other times and cultures – but adds a layer of complexity arguing for different languages of giving and levels of reciprocity.[7] In particular, she is interested in the difference in the relationship of God and people in the Protestant and Catholic contexts.[8] This latter has also been usefully addressed in Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt's defense of the New Historicism in, Practicing New Historicism where the authors deliver a thick description of the material culture surrounding the communion ritual.[9] As with Davis, this book focuses on the nature of exchange surrounding the consecration, and giving of the communion host. Both formulations are useful, yet each remain far too specific – too object-oriented if you will (a common practice of New Historicism given its focus on points of power) – to offer a useful model for the economies of textual expression. In order for exchange to serve as a model robust enough for use as a means to delivering edited texts, we must account for the specific role of the editor, who, unlike the priest, must be removed from the event in order to free the exchange between author and the reader.

  13. Jacques Derrida provides a useful example when he takes the notion of the gift one step further in his book The Gift of Death. As Scott Foutz points out: "Derrida's aim is to establish the priority of self sacrifice as grounded not upon utilitarian grounds but upon its status as radically individualistic gift. This makes the gift of death … responsibility toward mortal others."[10] Derrida is speaking of a system of practical ethics, of social responsibility embedded in the act of welcoming that functions as a central tenet of what he terms The New Enlightenment. In Derrida's formulation, communicators must bring about the end of their own power to truly allow for an unconditioned response. It is with Derrida's critique of subjectivity through self-sacrifice that we begin to glean a policy for the editor. Rather than following the traditional path of thinking of the death of the author, by considering the auto-annihilation inherent in good editing we are able to take a step towards a formula of hospitable editing.

  14. John B. Bennett echoes Derrida's revisionist approach in a recent article. In the process, Bennett brings the notion of hospitality to the scholarly community. In "The Academy and Hospitality," Bennett argues that hospitable scholars must find a balance between the tripartite functions of teaching, research and service. Academic hospitality says Bennett, "[is] the extension of self in order to welcome the other by sharing intellectual resources and insights…[its] intellectual and moral virtue is essential for the academy."[11] For my purposes, Bennett's notion of the hospitable scholar and in particular the intellectual who commits herself to service provides a useful model for the role of the editor.

    The Hospitable Edition

  15. Editors have for years played an important role in the mediation of cultural materials, not only through the creation of editions, but also in the publications describing their work. The Times Literary Supplement, for example has published dozens of articles on the editing of Shakespeare. The attention the press pays to these issues helps motivate scholars and keeps readers abreast of new research with which to evaluate upcoming publications. If, however, editors begin to take over, usurping the author, then they run the risk of over-obligating the reader. Moreover, they can silence the voice whose work brought them the spotlight in the first place. Editorial theory, which has for the last decade been working to account for the challenges literary theory posed to evaluative criticism, has settled into a non-resolution or functional agon that stems from the marriage of information technology and anti-foundational epistemology. In this sense, the computer's ability to store linked information melds well with the infinite referentiality that poststructural criticism sought to foreground. Readers are no longer presented a fixed edition of a text, but are instead offered an archive; a database of interrelated information that they can browse at will. The archive in this case is a mid point between the printed critical edition and the infinite referentiality studied in George Landow's Hypertext 2.0.

  16. The study of the various forms of Shakespearean editing has been central to the development of editorial theory as a whole. As Susan Wofford has indicated in the case of Hamlet, the history of editing Shakespearean texts can be a useful means by which to study the development of all intellectual culture in the west.[12] Moreover, The Oxford Shakespeare's use of multiple texts of King Lear is seen by many as the most thoroughgoing challenge to traditional Anglo-American editing yet to pass. Now as the scholarly world waits for the much-anticipated Arden 3 Hamlet, which will follow this pathway one more step and split that play into three, it seems an appropriate time to ask about the hospitability of various approaches. Which editions are welcoming? Which provide guests with the space necessary to engage with the text?

  17. The degree to which various editing projects might be judged hospitable depends on their cultural context. The accessibility of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare reminds me of family reunions when I had to sit at the children's table. If the Lambs proffered an invitation one might rather not receive, then R.B. McKerrow's Prolegomena for the Oxford Shakespeare might be considered an elaborate invitation to a party that never happened.

  18. In our current context, the scholarly editor's task – that of delivering culture in usable forms – is inherently caught up in hospitality. I would argue that one way we can create editions that are both accessible and useful is to practice a form of "hospitable editing" which creates editions and/or interfaces that foreground the interests of guests, thereby ensuring not only that readers and viewers are invited to the table of the great, but that they are given the tools to enjoy themselves while in attendance. Following Stephen Greenblatt's creative reading of Thomas More – from which I cribbed my title – the editors are close to, but not in, the authorial seat of power and must create and undo themselves through language in a fashion that must end in a form self annihilation that allows guests to take the fore. The editor in this manner must be prepared to offer the gift of death.  

  19. As examples of hospitable printed scholarship, we could debate the levels of welcome in the Riverside, or Norton editions of Shakespeare's complete works, both of which make different attempts at providing the equipment necessary to participate in the tradition. Running counter to this – though admittedly in a deliberate, theoretical move by the author – we might consider Harold Bloom's Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human as less hospitable scholarship. This book, which contains no notes that allow the reader to continue outside the parameters of the text, seems to fall into the category of cultural obligation so effectively studied in Michel Foucault's work on western pedagogy. Under that model, the teacher instills a sense of guilt in the student by demonstrating superior knowledge while limiting access to the means of attaining the same level of erudition. This in turn mirrors the challenge that John Guillory has made about literary theory's assault on the canon. Can non-linear editions actually serve to erect barriers that only the technologically adept can negotiate, thereby reinscribing the "cultural capital" of Shakespeare's plays?[13] In these terms, we might legitimately ask, is hospitality a function of access to information? And if so, how do the structure and presentation of editions contribute or detract from accessibility?

  20. Recent discussions concerning the influence of digital technology make much of the democratizing power of the accessibility fostered by the World Wide Web. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that more information is not necessarily better. Providing open access without the means to make use of the given systems is in fact a mirror of the traditional conservative political position, that the playing field is equal and we must "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps." Surely this cannot be the best means for sharing elements of our cultural heritage?

  21. In much the same way that early modern printers negotiated an expanding field of information in a climate of technological change, today's web editors are navigating new ground trying to find ways to create useful entrance points for readers and viewers. If those editors are to create anything that is of use to readers, I would like to suggest that they are doomed to failure if they emphasize a direct link between a postmodern notion of infinite referentiality and digital publication. Early books such as George Landow's Hypertext 2.0 made much of the parallels between these two modes. The comparison was useful in the early stages of electronic editing, but it is insufficient for our current state of work. Infinite referentiality is fatal for editing. Thus, in a medium that offers the delivery of vast amounts of information at high rates of speed, the rejection of all forms of linearity leads inevitably to high-tech gibberish. The only way to make sense within vast fields is by turning to some form of systematized navigation.

  22. I do not believe that it is ungenerous of me to point to Jerome McGann's Rossetti Archive project as an hospitable failure.[14] McGann has already discussed the failures of the project on a number of occasions. As a leading figure in the world of electronic editing, he feels that these mistakes are a part of a field of experimentation that will lead to new ways to practice editing and it is hard to disagree. In the interim however, this means that the Rossetti project has a great deal of information hidden behind an inadequate interface. For example, even before we enter, a pop-up window appears on the site, warning visitors that the current instantiation is insufficient and will be so for some time. Perhaps a clue to this cacophony can be found in the use of the term "archive" in the project's title. Like so many other archives, the Rossetti suffers from clutter that might reward committed souls with ample time to wander through, but which is ultimately forbidding to the majority of guests. Rather than having information arranged in easy to follow steps, visitors must first read through long portions of scrolling text to find out how to navigate and how to search and how to use the archive. This do-it-yourself approach to navigation fits well with the freedom espoused by social text editors, but quickly proves to be a prison of choice. To paraphrase Claudio in Measure for Measure, we are constrained by too much liberty. A hospitable archive or society needs an editor who neither abdicates responsibility nor tyrannizes by forcing certain practices of reading.  

    The ISE and Hospitality

  23. The Internet Shakespeare Editions takes just such an approach. It provides free access to a body of information – namely texts and transcriptions of Shakespeare's plays – that appear in clear and easy to use interfaces. It also presents a detailed series of contextual information to support reading and studying in its Life and Times section.[15] Critical editions complement textual transcriptions while a performance database and archive of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America provide elements of multimedia, performance and community representation. Its commitment to hospitality is also present in what it does not include. There is for example, no direct link to a discussion of the Oxfordian debate, clearly indicating that the host is aware that some of his guests may have a nut allergy.

  24. If hospitality is useful as a general concept, it must be practically applicable or it becomes little more than a watered down version of the golden rule; a position that leads the concept into the diminished state of which John B. Bennett warns. However, it is in these practical applications that The ISE most strongly demonstrates its form of welcome. Visitors are greeted by an image of Hamlet contemplating a mouse. To click or not to click is the immediate question, as it must always be when a viewer arrives at a web page. Of more concern is whether the mouse is a trap that will leave us wanting light. Fortunately, the introductory interface makes decisions clearer than those the young prince faces.

  25. In order to describe the modes in which hospitality functions on the Internet Shakespeare Editions site, I would like to discuss three ways in which the ISE can be put to use. For teachers, the ISE delivers useful information for students and can be counted on as a solid source for research papers. While students might have difficulties with more complex sites like The Blake Archive and the Perseus Project, the clarity of the ISE's interface mitigates against potential problems. The searchable transcriptions of the plays also allow those who wish to work with the texts to access the materials in a free and reliable manner. The textual accuracy that the site provides is exceptional and is a rarity among affordable editions of the play; print or electronic. For researchers or would-be-editors, the clearly articulated editorial methodologies and ambitious editions create an environment that is friendly to scholars. Further, the body of accurately transcribed texts affords editors a useful starting point from which to begin their research, while at the same time serving as a base for the ISE site.

  26. Freely accessible transcriptions with cogent descriptions of editorial methodologies and tagging procedures are each components of a beginning place for hospitable editing. Their continuation occurs in the ISE's policy of allowing individual editors to introduce their own approaches to their specific projects. The unifying forces of a commitment to accessibility and transcriptional accuracy help define the project as a whole, but the commitment to a humanistic form of research means the ISE does not fall prey to the notion that all Shakespearean texts should be edited in the same way.

  27. What these editorial decisions provide is a text that if useable by the widest possible audience. Early undergraduate students or general readers can link information from the Life and Times section to the electronic texts to better understand the context of the work. Graduate students can study the development of Shakespeare's work, its textual transmission or more broadly the process of electronic editing. Scholars who are working on specific pieces can access reliable, old-spelling texts of the plays that are available to any colleagues with whom they may be working. These are only a few of the ways the ISE can welcome visitors; a hospitable edition provides multiple points of engagement and the list of experiences grows exponentially with the arrival of each new guest. 

  28. As Jerome McGann has learned, attempts at editing using prefabricated documentary definitions seem doomed to fail. It is far better to edit from project-specific positions, which maintain the research modes of humanities-based intellectual work – that is, scholarship that allows itself to change as new information presents itself through focused research. New technologies can be particularly useful for supporting these practices; but they can also promote short cuts that lead to an instrumental use of language that dissects texts into lifeless data objects. Hospitality suggests we choose a different path.

  29. A hospitable edition is one that creates a space where a number of readers can come and feel welcome. The degree to which this hospitality is realized is a blend of the work under consideration, but also of the way in which the editor presents their selected material. While many recent theorists have made claims for the democratizing power of the Internet it is clear that merely digitizing and posting texts to the World Wide Web is insufficient and can in fact lead to an inhospitable environment, particularly when the mode of delivery is confused. By thinking of the editor as a host, inviting guests to a visual, auditory and textual feast, we benefit from the crossover of the title already applied to those who host materials online – the web host. We are only just learning how to negotiate this new virtual community, but there are already a number of friendly venues to visit; the Internet Shakespeare Editions offers one such site. Let us hope that scholarly editors will emphasize the policies of hospitality as they begin to move into the electronic medium. After all, if they treated us after our worth, who'd scape whipping?


[1] The Internet Shakespeare Editions. http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/

[2] Of course, the drive towards seeing Shakespeare as the preeminent author in English began as early as the seventeenth century. My point here is that the case seemed fixed by the time nineteenth century scholars began contributing commentary on the works.

[3] For an excellent early study of the changing role of the book in the Western world see Geoffrey Nunberg, ed. The Future of the Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

[4] Felicity Heal. Hospitality in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

[5] See, Marcel Mauss. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Communities. W.D. Halls, Trans. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990 (1950); Emmanuel Levinas. Alterity and Transcendence. Michael B. Smith Trans. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999 (1983). in particular, 97-110 and 131-144; and, Jacques Derrida. The Gift of Death. David Wills, Trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 and Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality: Jacques Derrida Responds to Anne Dufourmantelle. Rachel Bowlby, Trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

[6] Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

[7] Davis 37-38, 55ff. For Davis, there are four languages of the gift, the noble, the Christian, that of friendship and those of immediate community or neighbourly charity.

[8] Davis 100-123. In the brief chapter, "Gifts and the Gods," Davis examines the difference between a Catholic, vertically reciprocal debt to God for the gift of his son and the Protestant horizontal reciprocity, which harbours no such belief.

[9] Gallagher, Catherine and Greenblatt, Stephen. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. (139-62) Greenblatt has visited this topic in other work, most recently in Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. See in particular 12-16.

[10] Scott Foutz. Review of Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death. Quodlibet: The Online Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy. http://www.quodlibet.net/gift.shtml.

[11] John B. Bennett. "The Academy and Hospitality." Cross Currents 50 (1/2). 2000. (23).

[12] Susan Wofford. "Introduction" Hamlet, Susan Wofford, Ed.  Bedford-St. Martins Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, 2000. (2-4).

[13] See John Guillory. Cultural Capital: The Problem of the Literary Canon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

[14] http://www.iath.virginia.edu/rossetti/index.html. The pop-up appears once visitors click on "Enter the Archive." The Rossetti Archive is now in its second (released Summer 2002) of four installments. Each installment is intended to improve upon the functionality of the last, while maintaining the basic structure of the original, which was first released in 2000. Its editor-in-chief is Jerome McGann. McGann who started as a Victorianist textual scholar, gained early notoriety for his development of a critique that challenged the author-centred editing techniques of the New Bibliographic school that dominated critical editing practices in the English-speaking world for most of the 20th century. He later went on to become a leading voice in the world of digital editing and archiving.

[15] http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/SLT/index.html. Even within the "Life and Times" section there is evidence of hospitality – versions for faster and slower computers are provided.


Works cited


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