A Look Back: Shakespeare After Shakespeare at the 2007 ALSC Conference

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This is part one of a retrospective on the 2007 ALSC Conference in Chicago. To learn more about our upcoming conference in Philadelphia, visit http://www.bu.edu/literary/conferences/.

Anston Bosman speaks during the Shakespeare After Shakespeare session at the 2007 ALSC Conference

This Friday-afternoon session began the ALSC’s 2007 conference on a scholarly note. Association president Morris Dickstein opened the session with a brief welcome, remarking on the partnership with the Poetry Foundation, its support of poetry generally, and how natural it was, therefore, for the ALSC to open the convention with a panel on Shakespeare, one of literature’s greatest poets. Convener Stephen Orgel then provided a critical framework for the panel’s three papers, noting his hope that the proceedings would “encourage thinking on how canons are put together,” a subject to which Shakespeare is central. According to Orgel, the “rich raw material” of Shakespeare’s work has proven “endlessly malleable” through centuries of manuscripts, printed editions, revivals, readers, librarians, and audiences. Unfortunately, Michael Wyatt, one of the four scheduled panelists, could not attend. But Orgel shared some of Wyatt’s research on Measure for Measure, in connection with the early eighteenth-century editor Charles Gildon, and Purcell’s opera Dido & Aeneas to provide the audience with a “teaser” of what was to follow.

The remaining three panelists were very much present. Anston Bosman, Amherst College, presented a paper entitled “Retouching the Lord Hamlet,” which treated primarily an early seventeenth-century German version of the Hamlet narrative, known in a contemporary English translation as Fratricide Punish’d. For Bosman, this play exemplifies what he calls “inter-theatre,” a “transcultural hybrid of polyglot productions” that features traces of earlier texts and stagings from different countries. He situates this German version of the Dane within a “tradition of hybrid Hamlets,” and his focus ultimately involves our more familiar textual “versions” of the play—the Variorum Hamlet and the 1982 Arden edition.

Bradin Cormack, University of Chicago, next argued in “Remaking Shakespeare’s Sonnets” that Shakespeare invokes an “erotics of substitutability” that privileges legal textuality, transmission, and the conversion of the immaterial into the material. This discourse, or “poetics of possession,” illuminates the various figures of ownership and inheritance in these poems, and it ensures—at least in the 1609 edition of the sonnets—that the “poems themselves do a good deal of the work of imagining their reception.” Bradin offered the memorable example of a legal manuscript featuring a “nest of couplets,” or as he puts it, motifs isolated as usable form, to illustrate the response by one reader from Shakespeare’s near future, the sort of reader already imagined in the sonnet sequence itself.

Finally, Jeffrey Knight, Northwestern University, concluded the panel with his paper “Of Shreds and Patches: Shakespeare’s Afterlife in Books.” Knight began with a simple, material question—how do we physically make, buy, sell, and read books? He considers bound, and rebound, editions of Shakespeare’s quartos and folios as his first case study, showing how modern institutions value a “perfect” or orderly collection that is often at odds with original printings of these texts and the reading habits of those who owned them. “Pre-modern books in modern archives are fundamentally divorced from original contexts,” Knight asserted. He introduced a miscellany of early modern books found in several major rare-book libraries, and showed how archivists’ efforts to bleach, standardize, and rebind ruins the integrity—the authentication and completeness—of the very “high prestige texts” whose preservation is presumably so important. These early modern books could be used as notepads, as file folders, or for the propping up of children (!), and they are all objects of “limited possession,” eventually passed down to heirs, etc. (Isn’t everything?) “Mutability is precisely what made these desirable,” said Knight, making some concluding comparisons with today’s new technologies such as iTunes and Sony Reader, which resembles nothing so much as a Renaissance commonplace book.

In the closing Q&A session, Orgel decried archivists’ habit of bleaching books; this practice values “literature” that is reflected in a “pure, pristine object,” and untainted by marginalia and other traces of readers’ histories. Dickstein quipped that we don’t want used texts, which share a reputation with pre-owed vehicles. In any case, each of these three papers was a more respectable vehicle to explore Shakespeare’s literary afterlife, and the issues of reception generally.

– Brett Foster

The text of this post originally appeared in ALSC Newsletter 14.1 (Winter 2008).