Amy Lidster is currently studying for her PhD at King’s College London. She was the 2015 winner of the John Edward Kerry Prize, a competition open to postgraduate students worldwide. The winner of the 2016 competition will be announced shortly, and the 2017 competition will close on 23 April 2017.
Texts and Paratexts: Assessing the Transformative Role of Publication
Amy Lidster, King’s College London
In my current research, which focuses on early modern history plays, I am particularly interested in drawing attention to the agency of alternative ‘producers’, specifically networks of repertory companies, patrons and stationers, on the development and transmission of history plays. I am very pleased to have been awarded the John Edward Kerry Prize from the Malone Society. A significant part of my research relates to textual issues and early modern print culture, which involves working closely with sixteenth and seventeenth-century texts or facsimiles of them, and this prize enables me to add considerably to my collection of Malone Society volumes. In this blog, I’ll introduce a few of the broader issues and arguments that my research addresses (while highlighting the importance of examining the early textual witnesses of history plays), and then relate these points to a short example involving The Famous Victories of Henry V (Malone Society Reprints, Volume 171, 2007).
Although it is often neglected in studies of history plays, I am especially interested in the early playtext itself as both an important source of cultural, social and political contexts, and a place where the play has been re-presented and even transformed. As opposed to simply transmitting a play from stage to page, publication in the early modern period was driven by a variety of political, ideological and literary agendas that worked to position and appropriate texts. In particular, the use and presentation of paratextual features is central in understanding the ways in which playtexts could actually promote an interpretation of their action and context to readers (providing, as Zachary Lesser observes, evidence for the first early readings of a play).1 In editions of history plays, paratextual features, including title pages, dedications, epistles, and even decisions of typography and mise en page, frequently position the play within a contemporary political context or highlight aspects of the play’s action that suggest a particular interpretation of the dramatized events, as in the title pages for Edward I (1593 and 1599) which capitalize on anti-Spanish sentiment in the aftermath of the Armada (and the ‘Invisible Armada’ of 1599) by drawing attention to the play’s villainized presentation of Eleanor of Castile.2
Interestingly, evidence from the majority of history plays printed during this period suggests the playwrights had little involvement in their publication, pointing even more strongly to the agency of alternative producers in promoting interpretative and political contexts through the paratexts and, more broadly, in affecting the development and survival of history plays. The selection of plays for publication was not arbitrary or representative of larger performance repertories – a striking example of the difference between company repertories and extant printed texts can be seen by comparing the evidence for history plays performed in the late 1590s (which suggests considerable variety in subject matter and approach) and the smaller group of history plays that reached a printed edition between 1597 and 1600. This latter group is mostly comprised of Shakespeare’s English history plays and, stemming from a tendency to equate publication with performance on stage, has come (rather unprofitably) to dominate classificatory efforts and critical narratives of the genre.
To give an example of the more nuanced understanding of a play’s publication and reception that can be reached by examining text and paratext, Thomas Creede’s printed edition of The Famous Victories of Henry V (1598) offers an interesting juxtaposition between the paratextual reading and the representation of the events suggested by the larger play itself (although the boundaries between paratext and text can be very fluid). As several critics (such as Larry Champion) have noted, The Famous Victories provides a challenging and, at times, disturbing portrait of its titular character and the ‘honourable’ battle advertised on its title page, notably through Henry’s parricidal intentions and political ruthlessness, and the play’s depiction of the brutality and victimization of war, grimly evoked in the profiteering of the soldiers Dericke and John Cobbler as they steal shoes, clothes and other items from the dead and injured at Agincourt.3
Creede’s presentation of the text, however, suggests a more aggrandizing and nationalistic view of the play’s events and Henry V’s position as a celebrated martial leader. As the sole compositor of the play, Creede unusually employs black letter type for the main text which, as a specifically ‘English’ type, has been connected to the evocation of nostalgic and patriotic sentiment.4 Creede’s descriptions and layout of the title page, giving prominence to ‘The Famovs Victories’ of the central character and ‘the Honourable Battell of Agin-court,’ suggest a dramatic focus on strong military leadership, honourable actions and an important national battle – and, significantly, the title page would also have been used as an advertisement for the printed text and posted around the London bookstalls.5 This paratextual reading highlights Creede’s likely marketing strategy and suggests an early interpretation of the play that accords with Creede’s publication of other plays from the Queen’s Men (which tend to promote a royalist political position), as well as drawing attention to the more expansive literary and historical tradition that surrounds the figure of Henry V.6 This is further suggested by the consistent use of the speech prefix ‘Henry 5’ (or variants of this) throughout the play (despite Henry’s position as the Prince of Wales for much of the action), which points to an awareness of the central character in light of his later achievements and role in a larger tradition of Agincourt narratives, escaping the confines of his representation in The Famous Victories.7
While The Famous Victories is rarely studied in isolation (with most critics concentrating on its relationship to Shakespeare’s plays on the same historical figure), an examination of its textual features and conditions of publication draws attention to the ways in which plays were reshaped through their marketing and publication. Modern critical editions tend to regularize the early texts, and paratextual features are often lost or access to them is significantly reduced, erasing some of the evidence for early interpretations by the play’s producers. This illustrates one of the reasons why the work of the Malone Society is especially important for my research, and its facsimiles, transcriptions and textual emphasis have assisted in developing my understanding of the playtext as a converging site of multiple producers that mediates our access to the plays that were once performed on the early modern stage.
1. Zachary Lesser, Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication: Readings in the English Book Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.1-25.
2. The summer of 1599 brought supposed intelligence of an imminent invasion from Spain, assigned by Francis Bacon the sobriquet of the ‘Invisible Armada.’ Quoted in James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber, 2005), p.208.
3. Larry Champion, ‘“What Prerogatives Meanes”: Perspective and Political Ideology in The Famous Victories of Henry V,’ South Atlantic Review, Vol. 53 (4), Nov. 1988, pp.1-19.
4. For a summary of the evidence for Creede’s role as the sole compositor of Q1, see the textual introduction in The Famous Victories of Henry V, ed. Chiaki Hanabusa, Malone Society Reprints, Vol. 171 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), pp.x-xii. See Zachary Lesser, ‘Typographic Nostalgia: Play-Reading, Popularity and the Meanings of Black Letter’ in The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers and Readers in Early Modern England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), pp.99-126 for a discussion of black letter type combining Englishness with a sense of nostalgia.
5. The Famous Victories of Henry V, 2007, p.1.
6. Creede had previously published The True Tragedy of Richard III and Selimus in 1594 and Locrine in 1595, as well as entering other plays from the Queen’s Men in the Stationers’ Register. It is likely Creede printed The Famous Victories in 1598 as an attempt to capitalize on the reading public’s apparent interest in history plays based on the reigns of relatively recent monarchs, and was specifically responding to the phenomenal success of Shakespeare’s English history plays published by Andrew Wise in the late 1590s. Several of the Wise quartos were printed before the appearance of The Famous Victories (Richard II Q1 1597, Richard III Q1 1597, and possibly also Richard II Q2 1598 and Q3 1598, Richard III Q2 1598, and 1 Henry IV Q0 1598 and Q1 1598), and Creede himself was involved in the printing (but not publication) of Wise’s second edition of Richard III in 1598. The popularity of these quartos would have been apparent to Creede who responded with his own publication of The Famous Victories and the similarly-marketed The Scottish History of James IV, plays which he had previously entered in the Stationers’ Register on 14 May 1594 but not printed until 1598.
7. Determining agency in the assigning of specific speech prefixes is complicated, and related to the nature of the manuscript used by the printer. This reference to speech prefixes in The Famous Victories is intended to illustrate how the play as a printed text seems placed within a larger literary and historical narrative, rather than attempting to argue for Creede’s involvement in the attributions.