Becoming Editorial: The Transversal Act of Editing Early Modern English Theatrical Literature

Janna Segal
University of California, Irvine

Segal, Janna. "Becoming Editorial: The Transversal Act of Editing Early Modern English Theatrical Literature". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 19.1-5<URL:>.

  1. Nesvet's review of Bryan Reynolds' Becoming Criminal [1] participates in the ongoing and crucial debate over the methodological dos and don'ts of early modern English scholarship. As such, it provides me with the opportunity to consider the historical, creative, and transversal act of extrapolation in early modern English literary studies. I would like to suggest that the investigative-expansive mode of critical inquiry proposed by Reynolds and James Intriligator and critiqued by Nesvet is a vital aspect of scholarly inquiry into theatrical texts that is routinely practiced by, among others, renowned editors of early modern English drama.

  2. Nesvet's review rests upon the presumption that objective, unmediated truth is accessible, a platform that transversal theory challenges in its, to quote Nesvet, "Protean" approach to "fact." Nesvet warns that, "if we seriously validate, practice, and promote [Reynolds'] method of making history, we will find ourselves in a world in which reasoning, truth, and responsible historiography are alien." However, the investigative-expansive mode, which acknowledges the mediating historical and cultural factors that Nesvet presumes are absent in early modern English cultural studies, is a more "responsible" approach to historical research than a methodology that neglects an important aspect Reynolds emphasizes in his book: "all of our means of exploring [early modern English] criminal culture are highly mediated through time, language, and personal bias (ours and that of the chroniclers)" (124). Moreover, the contingencies of historiography can provide scholars with the opportunity to transversally engage with their subject material. As Reynolds writes in reference to the subject of Becoming Criminal, "This mediation encourages the production of imaginary components of our own study of criminal culture. Just as its early modern chroniclers were forced, and probably capitalized on the opportunity, to extrapolate at times because of their limited access to this exclusive and clandestine culture, historical difference, both sociocultural and spatiotemporal, forces us to extrapolate on the available information" (124).

  3. The scholarly act of extrapolation, which Reynolds argues is "a transversal venture into differential conceptual spaces" (124), is a necessary and widespread methodology utilized by literary critics, theatre scholars, historiographers, and, particularly, editors of early modern English drama, who are asked to clarify references as well as to provide an interpretation of texts originally intended for live performance. Due to the scarcity of documentary evidence regarding performance practices in early modern England, and the mediating factors informing the extant evidence, such as sociocultural and spatiotemporal differences and the biases of chroniclers and contemporary interpreters of the chronicles, editors frequently "extrapolate on the available information" in order to provide readers with a vivid, albeit speculative, picture of how a given moment on the page might have appeared on the early modern stage. For instance, the first footnote in Sylvan Barnet's edition of Doctor Faustus offers an extrapolated interpretation of the text's opening stage direction: "Prologue s.d. Chorus a single actor (here, perhaps, Wagner, Faustus' servant-student" [2]. Similarly, in his edition of Titus Andronicus, Jonathan Bate, whom Nesvet hails as a defender of "the pursuit of objective historical facts in the study of English and cultural studies," includes an editorial note describing how Act One, Scene One may have appeared on the stage: "The setting is Rome; the gallery aloft represents the Capitol/Senate House; the tomb of the Andronici could have been represented by the discovery-space at the back of the stage or the trap-door downstage, though some eds suggest a free-standing structure (but this would have to be removed at the end of the scene" [3].

  4. Transversally venturing into the "differential conceptual spaces" of early modern English audience member, actor, director, producer, and/or playwright allows Barnet and Bate to supply the contemporary reader with a theatrical rendition of how the opening scenes of these two texts may have been produced. Additionally, both Barnet and Bate acknowledge the provisional and creative basis of textual editing with their inclusion of the conditional phrases "perhaps" and "could have been," respectively. While Nesvet might fault Barnet and Bate, as she does Reynolds, for providing "speculative conclusions" or for making "discoveries" that "are grounded upon under-evidenced generalisation," such conclusions, necessarily speculative due to the lack of historical evidence and the mediating factors informing the extant evidence, are imperative due to the theatrical medium of the plays. Without such transversal editorial acts of extrapolation, readers might neglect the theatrical context within which these plays were originally produced, thereby risking the reductive interpretation of these texts as literature rather than theatrical literature.

  5. The act of editing and interpreting early modern English drama can be a transversal enterprise that "encourages the production of imaginary components of our own study of [early modern theatre]." Venturing into the "differential conceptual spaces" of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century spectators and theatre practitioners is a vital exercise that functions to preserve and ensure the appreciation of texts originally produced in the mediating space of the theatre, where radical contingencies ranging from weather to the vocal range of a given performer might impact the meaning of a play.


[1] Rebecca Nesvet, "Review of Bryan Reynolds, Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 10.1-5 <URL:>.

[2] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Signet Classic, 1969), 23.

[3] William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. Jonathan Bate (London: Arden, 1995), 127.


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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).