Shakespearean Configurations: Introduction


Jean-Christophe Mayer
French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)
and University of Montpellier


William H. Sherman
University of York (UK)


Stuart Sillars
University of Bergen


  1. This collection takes a fresh look at configurations—and reconfigurations—of Shakespeare from the first quartos to the most recent incarnations. It offers new approaches for studying the packaging of the plays and poems through time, between cultures and across media. We have been prompted to explore the potential of the concept of configuration by two sweeping developments in Shakespeare Studies: the sustained attack on the idea of an authentic, original text produced by a single, isolated author; and a corresponding attention to the reformulation and assimilation of Shakespeare’s texts in cultures very different from the one in which they were created. These two areas (the one associated with Textual Scholarship and the other with Adaptation, Performance and Postcolonial Studies) have only recently begun to speak to each other, and together they pose a set of far-reaching questions which the essays gathered here seek to investigate:
    • Where does configuration end and reconfiguration begin? And where, for that matter, does configuration begin?
    • Who or what is responsible for shaping texts and how does the work of printers, actors, editors, and readers relate to that of the author?
    • How useful is the distinction between 'original' and 'adaptation,' in theory and in practice?
    • If there is no fixed original form that is later subjected to reconfiguration, are all versions equally valid?
    • Do non-theatrical treatments of the plays have a different status and value from those produced for the stage?
    • To what extent do our own scholarly frames reconfigure Shakespeare?
    In a recent number of the journal Adaptation, Natalie Hayton writes of the way in which “the use of fairy tales and folklore is often overlooked in adaptation studies,” perhaps because “they are difficult to discuss within traditional adaptation debates” and as such cannot be debated in terms of how an adaptation “remains faithful to its source” (38). Although of course divergent in terms of its textual focus, in conceptual terms the article suggests some of the issues that are central to the discussions in this collection. Like much writing about adaptation, it sets up a clear relation between two texts, an original which is then reinvented through a series of changes as a rewriting of a source to which it will be more or less faithful. The terminology varies in different approaches, but the concept remains broadly similar, and presents a move towards those categories beloved of theoretical pattern-seekers, the binary opposition and the linear progression. In showing that the process is one of mutual modification and clarification, such genuinely comparative study, revealing the process as symbiosis rather than parasitism, can be genuinely illuminating. But the term adaptation itself acts powerfully against this openness, almost as if it is attempting to make respectable the perennial popular complaint that the film wasn’t as good as the book.

  2. Placing fidelity to a source at the centre of the debate, as Hayton’s article does, raises problems that are especially insistent in the discussion of Shakespeare’s texts, and these are amplified by the allusion to adaptations of fairy tales. By their nature, these exist in a series of variant forms across and behind the textual record, so finding and defining a single source for a later version is a contentious matter. Apart from the eighteen plays which survive only in Shakespeare's First Folio, the rest have various versions, with anything up to six Quarto versions vying with the Folio, and all subject to the efforts of later editors to establish a true, original text that might take us behind the mediation of Shakespeare's actors, scribes, and compositors (Jowett; Egan; Erne and Kidnie). And the debate does not, of course, end there: how can a performative entity be given a single finite identity, depending as most critics now believe on circumstances of individual performance that are as various as individual actors and as unreliable as the weather besieging the Globe?

  3. Since the end of the nineteenth century, at least, efforts to establish one of the printed versions as the most authentic have been legion. Most recently, however, the move has been away from authenticity to multiplicity, with first the two-text Lear and most recently the three-text Arden Hamlet that prints the Second Quarto text in one volume and offers those of the First Quarto and Folio in a separate volume. Still more protean are the Hamlets offered in the Shakespeare Quartos Archive (, which presents online thirty-two copies of the five earliest editions held in the British Library, the Folger and several other international research archives. Are these Quartos--printed objects and digital surrogates--originals or adaptations? Or, to modify F. W. Bateson's infamous question, "If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, which one of these (if any) is Hamlet?"

  4. While the cult of authentic performance, beginning with Poel (and, though often overlooked, Planche, in his 1844 Shrew) was for a period dominant, there has rarely been any consensus in the theatre regarding truth to a source (Orgel). Instead, validity of performative reading has become the criterion. From Davenant’s dancing witches and Tate’s married Cordelia onward, few productions can assume a form that is--in Hayton’s words--“faithful to its source.” These are perhaps most obviously adaptations, because of the distance they create between event and language of Shakespeare’s period and that of their own. But what of the famous Kean crawl in Hamlet, Siddons’ stage business with the candle, the arbitrarily fractured delivery favoured in many more recent performances? Are these interpretations, emendations, adaptations?

  5. One response to this would be that, since performance has no permanent form, it can be regarded as something less extensive than an adaptation, of the kind produced by Davenant and Tate, because that exists in print. Yet the print versions are incomplete records of the performances, and might themselves well be called adaptations of the stage versions, which in turn become their source. The problem becomes much greater when other forms are considered – film, opera, painting, print-making, and illustrated editions. Unless these are completely to surrender their own identities and become a series of aesthetically imaginative footnotes to a source, itself largely artificial, they need to be seen in a far more balanced way, as elements within a dialogue of some kind with whatever we think of as Othello, Hamlet or any other play. They can certainly offer powerful emotional and aesthetic insights into these earlier structures, but they do so in a way peculiar to themselves. Verdi’s recapitulation of the kiss motif at the moment when Othello strangles Desdemona is a powerful insight into the play’s psychology, but it is achieved wholly through the progression of the music, itself repeatedly at variance in different performances.

  6. How, then, may any progress be made in discussing Shakespeares of all kinds in a manner that values the identities of each yet allows for their relation to the ways in which, through accretions of memorialised readings, viewings and hearings, most of us construct a Hamlet, an Othello or, albeit with less comparative effort, a Two Gentlemen? The essays in this collection all seek to arrive at not so much conclusions to this question but alternative ways in which it may be posed. The term configuration came about after extensive and contentious efforts to find a term that lacked the deep assumptions of the word “adaptation,” and would also sidestep the large and growing number of definitions of this and other terms within what is already a thriving community of adaptation studies. As the OED's etymology ("Latin configurare, to fashion after some pattern") suggests, the word helps us to articulate ways of giving form to something that, while having an earlier existence, constitutes a new constellation, conflation, or concatenation.

  7. Turning any of the plays into what, in other fields, would be the product of some kind of mathematical modelling, may at first seem to range from the tendentious to the absurd. But on reflection it is surely a microcosm of the process in which all Shakespeareans are involved, a constant revaluation of affect, meaning, allusion and experience in terms of the known and the newly experienced, in which any simple notion of a source is repeatedly challenged and renewed. All of the papers in this collection begin from this conceptual standpoint, offering readings of configurations that, in turn, become configurations in their own right. Source and adaptation or edition and interpretation, then, are far too simple: what we are left with is a performative process, a metaphor, perhaps, of the way in which the plays and poems, when fashioned, constantly redefine themselves in dialogue with earlier, and subsequent, forms.

  8. The collection opens with two essays which remind us that many of the transformative phenomena we have described would simply not exist were it not for the persistence of Shakespeare in print. Andrew Murphy and Sarah Stanton offer complementary perspectives on how the publishing of Shakespeare’s works--from the early modern book market to the business of marketing texts for modern readers--has changed our access to and understanding of Shakespeare. In “Configuring the Book,” Murphy notes, for instance, that because the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays were locked into the Folio format from 1623 to the beginning of the next century, this created “an ‘all or nothing’ access point” for potential readers. Questions of size and format determine our way of relating to Shakespeare and Murphy wonders in his essay how different the situation would have been if Shakespeare’s plays had been disseminated in smaller formats, as was the case for his poems. In “Publishing Shakespeare,” Sarah Stanton shares her experience of working over the last few decades as a commissioning editor for Cambridge University Press. She too is concerned with questions of textual access and points out that “configuring, in publishing terms, might mean the matching of text to reader, or subject to market.” She looks at the changes in the field of Shakespeare criticism, shares her views about the marketing of critical editions today and shows how Shakespeare publishing has been affected by recent developments in technology.

  9. The reading of books is inevitably shaped by the orders created by printers and by editors: according to Roger Chartier, each manifestation of a given text forms a configured space which at once directs the reader according to conventions and also opens up new possibilities (vii). William H. Sherman's essay on "Punctuation as Configuration" examines the crucial (if often overlooked) role played by punctuation in shaping the Shakespeares we see and hear. Commas, colons, and full stops have the power to change the pace, emphasis, and even meaning of the words they regulate, and yet almost all modern editions silently update the punctuation found in early modern editions to bring it into line with modern conventions. In asking why they do so and what may be gained and lost in translation, Sherman explores the modern editor's problem of giving access to Shakespeare's texts when we cannot identify his original habits or intentions. In "Shakespeare and the Order of Books," Jean-Christophe Mayer concentrates more specifically on paratextual material in early editions of Shakespeare. Mayer highlights the sets of devices through which those who produce books seek to interact with potential readers. Shakespeare’s editions thus create what might be described as “an experimental space, which builds on imaginary elements and constructs.”

  10. "The parameters of the work," as M. J. Kidnie suggests, "are as flexible as they need to be to serve the changing purposes of its users" (30). The next few essays consider what happens when actual readers take these textual constructs into their own hands. Jeffrey Knight (“Shakespeare in Bundles”) argues that readers and collectors in the early modern period were sensitive to the composition and arrangement of books and to the way single editions, like the quartos published by Thomas Pavier, could be bundled together. Publishers like Pavier produced plays “in flexible, linkable formats, which even admitted non-Shakespearean works.” Today, argues Knight, our criteria for assembling plays are more author-centred and we tend to see books as self-enclosed non-configurable entities.

  11. In “Updating Folios: Readers’ Reconfigurations and Customisations of Shakespeare,” Noriko Sumimoto goes beyond the traditional notion of reception to study the way in which a series of Shakespearean folios were appropriated, “customised” and reconfigured by their readers. When filling the pages of their folios with notes, these readers often imported material from eighteenth-century editions, thus creating an original and often personal dialogue between two publishing eras.

  12. Lori Anne Ferrell (“Extra-illustrating Shakespeare”) is interested in another form of customisation that puts texts from different periods into dialogue, the practice of extra-illustrating Shakespeare editions in the nineteenth century. The practice is also referred to as “grangerizing,” after James Granger (1723-1776), an English clergyman whose Biographical History of England (1769) was arranged for the addition of pictorial materials in a wide range of formats and genres which illustrate and extend the source text. Ferrell argues that grangerizing was an approach to textual interpretation (and not just collection or compilation) and that we have much to learn from it. Indeed, she writes, “grangerizing was, after all, an expansive and thus inherently exegetical act: one that located meaning in the relation between words, the mental images those words inspired, the created pictures that made those words manifest.” In “Thoughts on the Illustrated Edition,” Stuart Sillars is similarly concerned with the way illustrated editions of Shakespeare relate to readers who might also be theatre-goers. He explores the intersections between the textual, the dramatic and the pictorial, but also reflects on the implications of these transmediations. Such processes, argues Sillars, point ultimately to “the unattainability of a single, original and unchallenged text, to which all others are subordinate.” Thus, illustrated editions, like other acts of configuration, have “a value that is both immanent and fugitive.”

  13. The next two essays deal with theatrical afterlives, or reconfigurations, of two plays, King Lear and Titus Andronicus--both of which are famously based on Shakespeare's configuration of historical materials. Both approaches suggest that the question “is not how performance departs from or otherwise ‘adapts’ text, but the shifting criteria by which both texts and performances are recognized—or not—as instances of a certain work” (Kidnie 144). In “The Kingdoms of Lear in Tate and Shakespeare: A Restoration Reconfiguration of Archipelagic Kingdoms,” Atsuhiko Hirota argues that Nahum Tate’s King Lear, which is often seen as inferior to Shakespeare’s, is representative of the way Shakespeare’s work was adapted to serve political ends at the time of the Exclusion Crisis (1678-1681). Hirota also situates the King Lear plays, as well as the King Leir stories, within a broader framework—that of stories concerned with “the ethnic, religious and national groups around the ‘Atlantic Archipelago’ including Great Britain and Ireland.” As a consequence, these King Lear/Leir stories are seen to share the same cultural sphere, but their political parameters, as well as their implications from the point of view of international relations, differ markedly. In “Mythological Reconfigurations on the Contemporary Stage: Giving a New Voice to Philomela in Titus Andronicus,” Agnès Lafont investigates the early modern emblematic configurations of the Ovidian tale of Philomela in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to explore mythological transmediation. The intersections (or their absence) between the representation of the mutilated mythological figure in emblem books as well as in Illustrated Ovids and its Shakespearean scenic configuration help shed light on how the emblematic code is reworked in two contemporary productions of Titus Andronicus, by Yukio Ninagawa’s (Stratford-upon-Avon, 2006) and Lucy Bailey’s (Globe, 2006). Shakespeare configures Ovid and is being configured through the treatment of mythology: the raped body of the actress and the image of brutal glossectomy induced by the Ovidian intertext become meta-theatrical metaphors to question our modern systems of representation.
  14. The collection concludes with Svenn-Arve Myklebost’s theoretical thoughts on the concept of configuration itself, which grows out of his research on Manga versions of Shakespeare. In “Difference vs. Change: The Theory of Configuration,” Myklebost points to the inadequacy of the term adaptation when discussing transfers, rewritings, bowdlerisations, stagings, or translations. He argues that adaptation is used primarily to describe the differences between an original and a new creation, which is problematic and does not take on board changes. The value of the term “configuration,” he contends, lies in “the fact that it effaces the concept of repetition.” Myklebost highlights also a number of tropes that might help in the analysis of such cultural phenomena. Metaphor, synecdoche and metonymy are useful to describe change, but also the way “works or fragments thereof relate to one another.”
  15. The articles and approaches brought together in this collection grew out of two recent conferences on the topic of "Shakespearean Configurations." The first, in 2009, was hosted by the University of York (UK) in association with the University of Bergen (Norway); and the second, the following year, was hosted by the University of Montpellier (France). We would like to acknowledge the support of our sponsors, including York's Centre for Renaissance & Early Modern Studies, Bergen's English Department, and Montpellier's Institut de Recherche sur la Renaissance, l’Age Classique et les Lumičres (IRCL). We are also grateful to the speakers whose work does not appear here but who did so much to make these meetings so productive (including Ilaria Andreoli, Erin Blake, Judith Buchanan, Dympna Callaghan, Russell Jackson, Florence March, Alan H. Nelson, Marcus Nevitt, Varsha Panjwani, Erica Sheen and Emma Smith).

    Works cited



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© 2013-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).