Shakespearean Configurations: Afterword

Dympna Carmel Callaghan
Syracuse University

  1. As I write, a debate about whether Thomas Middleton had a hand in All’s Well That Ends Well is gathering momentum in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement where Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith have proposed that Thomas Middleton had some share in the play’s composition (13-15). They do not claim, however, that Middleton and Shakespeare contributed in equal measure to the script but suggest instead some lesser form of collaboration, perhaps a Middletonian revision of Shakespeare’s earlier draft, or, even an arrangement where one playwright was responsible for outlining the plot, while the other fleshed out the verse. Nonetheless, this argument has met with vigorous objection from Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl who rebut the claim for contribution to All’s Well of any sort of by Middleton or anyone else. For Vickers and Dahl, those who argue for multiple authorship are Shakespeare’s detractors: "[T]here is absolutely no evidence of another hand in this play. The world media get excited by any attempt, however weak, to take something away from Shakespeare. We hope that they will pay equal attention to this restitution" [My italics] (14-15). The controversy has provoked remark in publications as various as The Times of India, Huffington Post and Private Eye. Matters of Shakespeare authorship remain contentious far beyond the academy in the Anglophone world in part because they challenge the commitment to a hitherto unassailable paradigm of authorship, which has now become increasingly hard to sustain. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the authorship debate in this or any other particular instance, we might ask nonetheless whether a retreat from the conventional idea of Shakespearean authorship—and the raft of assumptions that go along with it—does indeed “take something away from Shakespeare.” After all, copies of the First Folio are still intact, the poet’s monument in Holy Trinity Church still stands, and people have not taken to the streets to publically burn their copies of The Complete Works. That the idea of Shakespeare as “the single, isolated author” has become untenable is a vital impetus behind the present volume. Shakespearean Configurations follows the undoing of a series of foundational understandings—not least of which is that of the Shakespearean text itself—that have also unraveled, in part, as a consequence of the disintegration of the received (though now largely residual) idea of Shakespeare as someone who necessarily worked alone and whose genius distanced and insulated him from his own society and culture. The Romantics are usually held accountable for what Jean-Christophe Mayer calls this “author-centered vision of the creative process.” Coleridge, for example, claimed that:

    Shakespeare was not a whit more intelligible in his own day than he is now to an educated man, except for a few local allusions of no consequence. As I said, he is of no age, nor, I may add, of any religion, party or profession. The body and substance of his works came out of the unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind: his observation and reading, which was considerable, supplied him with the drapery of his figures (qtd. in Lerner 273).
    Although Coleridge was in many ways a supremely gifted reader of Shakespeare, every one of these assertions has been challenged or refuted in recent decades. Reading and spectatorship are certainly now understood to be historically specific rather than generalizable phenomena; so-called “local allusions” are understood to be hugely consequential; questions about Shakespeare’s religion, in a society where faith was a matter of compulsion not choice, have returned with a vengeance; Shakespeare’s profession is understood to have been that of a playwright and poet who wrote, above all, as a means of making a living and not out of inspiration untainted by mundane matters of simple economic necessity; and critics no longer attempt to plumb the “organic depths” of the poet’s mind and regard his reading and historical context as integral to his ideas rather than as mere ornamental “drapery.” Moreover, recent scholarship has demonstrated that Coleridge’s model of authorship and text was based on a demonstrably incomplete picture of what it meant to be a writer in Elizabethan England in a theatrical culture that sometimes required, as Henslowe’s Diary records, a “booke to be done within one fortnight” (Foakes and Rickert 96).

  2. The essays in Shakespearean Configurations embrace the disintegrated, deconstructed and demystified model of authorship that has resulted arguably as much from new evidence as from developments in post-structuralism, the Foucauldianism that animated new historicism, or Marxist-inflected cultural materialism. Importantly, these developments are understood not as the destruction of Shakespeare but as the opportunity for new explorations. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, Shakespeare is neither in pieces nor in need of restoration to wholeness by the cavalry. This is because, as the essays in this volume show, reading in ways that complicate received ideas about authorship, text, dissemination and reception do not offer an assault on Shakespeare but are rather the consequence of a seismic shift in perspective. The dominant narrative about Shakespeare as someone whose work could be transmitted across time on page and stage without significant deviation from his allegedly original (though sadly no longer extant) script merely occluded the reality that the object of analysis in Shakespeare studies was always a collection of somewhat disparate materials. The past, after all, and the texts recovered from it, do not and cannot change, though new evidence may come to light and our understandings may undergo transformation.

  3. A particularly exciting element of Shakespearean Configurations is its representation of current work in textual studies. Recent years have seen the rise of a completely new type of textual scholarship. While earlier textual studies took refuge in the solidly substantial volumes that were believed to enshrine Shakespeare’s own words or what Stuart Sillars refers to in his essay as “the true Shakespeare,” the new scholarship situates itself within the much wider and specifically cultural terrain of the history of the book. There is no nostalgia for a vanished, unified textual certainty in these essays but instead an exploration of new possibilities for reading and interpretation opened up by a much more dynamic model of textuality. For Andrew Murphy in “Configuring the Book,” for example, the material solidity of the First Folio and of subsequent Complete Works is not a given but rather an historical conundrum. Murphy asks why the format of the plays increased in dimension and why size mattered so much in the history of Shakespeare as a book. Arguing that the dimension of a text has crucial bearing on its physical accessibility and its affordability of content, Murphy examines the enlargement of Shakespeare’s plays from quarto to folio volumes compared to the diminishment of the poems, which began in quarto format to be reduced in size even further in the decades after Shakespeare’s death. In an essay that overlaps with work in visual culture, performance and reception history, Stuart Sillars asks similarly fundamental questions about Henry Irving’s mid-nineteenth century illustrated edition of Shakespeare: what is the cultural work of such images in relation to Shakespeare’s plays? What do the pictures do to or for Shakespeare? They serve in part to mediate between contemporary performance (for which they may provide a partial record) and reading and so offer some key connections between theatre production and print, but they also guide emphasis and interpretation. The Henry Irving Shakespeare seems to depart from pictorial convention in Romeo and Juliet, by offering no vision of fairies to illustrate Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech (which had been grist to the creative mill for so many artists) but simply a depiction of Mercutio amid a group of other characters, poised to utter his lines. Towards the end of the play, the characters are depicted in static tableaux, that is, along the lines of what was at the time a popular theatrical practice that involved a configuration of actors meant to resemble those found in famous paintings. Such unpredictable connections between visual and theatrical culture suggest at once the richness of this material as well as impossibility of fully ascertaining its precise meaning and function.

  4. From the other end of the historical spectrum that constitutes the history of the book, the postmodern moment when the book as a physical object is in demise, it is clear that we cannot turn back the clock to revive the book as the primary form for the written dissemination of Shakespeare in the electronic age. From the pragmatic point of view of a publisher, Sarah Stanton points out that misplaced nostalgia for the physical book would result only in financial disaster. While, as Andrew Murphy argued, the size of a volume used to be the guide to access and use of the Shakespeare text, the challenge of the digital age is similarly to structure access to the text by providing a path through the wealth of information about Shakespeare and his world rather than just “the riches themselves.” Indeed, publishing in the digital age may look rather like the process of "grangerizing", the phenomenon explored in Lori Anne Ferrell’s essay, “Extra-Illustrating Shakespeare.” The obsession of Rev. James Granger and the hobbyists who emulated him was that of physically assembling (or perhaps reassembling) Shakespeare by collecting and organizing a diverse array of (typically printed) illustrations in relation to the Shakespeare text. Though not necessarily devoid of purpose, the grangerizer’s objective was arrangement rather than interpretation. This was a time-consuming, laborious process of sorting, cutting, pasting and placing—a sort of eighteenth-century montage. To dismiss it as a meaningless hobby is to ignore valuable historical evidence about how Shakespeare permeated cultural practices and understandings among a specific class of people at a particular historical moment. In a related vein of inquiry, Noriko Sumimoto’s “Updating Folios: Readers’ Reconfigurations and Customisations of Shakespeare” addresses the curious practice whereby owners of Folios hand copied printed annotations directly from other editions of Shakespeare as if to “update” their own texts. Since they very likely also owned the books from which they copied, the practice seems doubly bizarre. Why would readers slavishly imitate annotations that were already in print? Even to pose this question, let alone to retrieve from it, as Sumimoto does, a wealth of information about reader’s engagement with Shakespeare, requires that we set aside some of our own prejudices about the pointlessness of replication after the ascendency of mechanical reproduction. All these inquiries bear out Svenn-Arve Mykelbost’s lucid exposition of the theoretical problems posed by the idea of an original and authentic Shakespeare. Mykelbost advocates instead the challenges and opportunities presented by the idea of “configuration” as offering a conceptual framework that is not constrained by limited notions of imitation or repetition.

  5. Jeffrey Knight’s essay “Shakespeare in Bundles,” also argues that traditional criticism has insisted on the so-called lacunae of evidence about how seventeenth-century readers related to Shakespeare only because it has not asked the right questions about the available evidence. Even the new historicist attention to context, he points out, posits relationships between literary and historical texts and documents that are almost invariably imaginary. That is, connections between and among texts are more often established by means of interpretation than they are by physical evidence. Indeed, actual, material connections between text and context, such as the apparently eclectic early modern practice of binding Shakespeare with other plays has not been accorded much in the way of critical attention. This is in part because it does not fit with the logic of cultural intelligibility we have imposed upon Shakespeare to ask why, for instance, A Woman Killed With Kindness is to be found cheek by jowl with the uber-canonical Henry V. The idea of configuration, as opposed to context, Knight argues, allows sufficient flexibility to address both the physical and conceptual relationships between bundled play texts.

  6. The rubric of Shakespearean Configurations permits, then, an attention not just to context, those circumstances that shape a text, but also to ostensibly extraneous matter around the play text itself, such as the prefaces to readers with their “often fantastical stories of how a given book came to be materialized.” These are the focus of Jean-Christophe Mayer’s essay, “Shakespeare and the Order of the Book.” Taking literally the idea that there is nothing outside the text allows Mayer to offer an account of the dialog between those who produced books and those who consumed them, which of course, in the case of Shakespeare’s posthumous First Folio, did not include Shakespeare himself since this is, in a very important way, the one book he definitively did not produce.

  7. That so many of the contributions included here focus on the material book also speaks to another unifying theme of this volume, namely the idea of Shakespearean configurations physically situating Shakespeare’s texts to show that “the matter” of any work cannot be properly understood apart from the actual form of the text as a material object or from its binding, printing, or its means of dissemination. This is not to say that what is in a book is not as important as its physical form—rather it is to examine the limitations of this dichotomy. While the division (and even antithesis) of form from content enshrined in, for example, the proverbial expression that you cannot judge a book by its cover, seems a matter of commonsense, there is in fact no such thing as the content without textual or dramatic form, even while there remains such a thing as a bad but beautifully bound book, or, as is more often the case with Shakespeare, a good but badly bound one.

  8. However, the concept of configuration not only demonstrates that matters hitherto held to be outside the parameters of Shakespeare studies are in fact vital to it, but also that, in some instances, aspects of Shakespeare’s texts that are literally intrinsic to it have also been ignored. William Sherman’s account of the history of punctuation in editions of the Sonnets, “Punctuation as Configuration,” is, as he punningly puts it, “a case in point.” His examination of punctuation reveals an astonishing range of historically specific fantasies both about the Sonnets’ meaning and about the troubled relation between the 1609 Quarto and its subsequent incarnations. Crucially, too, however, what is at stake here is not just a theory about punctuation but about the very different, but nonetheless historically accessible system (or more accurately, systems) that constituted punctuation practice at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the variety of functions that it served.

  9. The concept of configuration also fosters investigation not only into textual dissemination and transmission but also into what is often the essentially unknowable matter of reception, or what Stuart Sillars calls “the mysteries of reading,” that is, how readers and spectators understand, absorb, interpret and respond to Shakespeare. Atsuhiko Hirota’s “The Kingdoms of Lear in Tate and Shakespeare” examines Nahum Tate’s notorious rewriting of King Lear as a creative appropriation, which allowed Shakespeare’s play to speak directly to the immediate political situation of the Exclusion Crisis. In concert with the themes of this volume, however, Hirota also reads Tate’s Lear against Shakespeare’s own play as itself a reconfiguration of history, and in this exemplifies the usefulness of the concept of configuration for much more rigorous historical readings of materials that are already in the ambit of conventional literary history.

  10. “Configuration” can also be brought to bear on visual and performance studies, which typically have been somewhat outside the interpretive parameters of new historicist understandings of context. Agnès Lafont’s essay on Titus Andronicus argues that emblematic theatre—especially in relation to the theatrical still-life that often constitutes the representation of femininity—closes the gap between saying and showing, between word and image. In contrast to most of the other essays in this book, which emphasize the difference between Shakespeare’s world and our own, Lafont argues that there is perhaps much more continuity between early modern emblematic stagings and ones now current in contemporary theatrical practice. By examining emblem books and theatrical depictions of the Ovidian trope of the tongueless Philomel—so crucial to the dramatization of the mutilated Lavinia—she argues that: “[E]ven if the genre of the emblem is no longer familiar to audiences [...] staging techniques may be closer than we think to what could be a Renaissance understanding of the play.”

  11. The essays in this volume have been instigated by a complex picture of literary production that, broadly conceived, takes issue not just with the idea of single authorship, but also with the notion of a single, original text that can be transmitted unproblematically to page and stage at any given moment in history. In this, they engage with the most significant developments in Shakespeare studies over the past half-century, which have sought to situate and understand Shakespeare in terms of a variety of contexts, both past and present. The term “configurations” advances this rethinking about the boundaries of Shakespeare’s texts in several directions simultaneously, considering not only what might be intrinsic or extrinsic to any given work, but also asking what constitute the spatial and temporal boundaries of the text and whether those boundaries are permeable membranes or fortified borders.

    Works Cited


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