texts over time

There’s a striking passage in “The Folio Restored”, an article by Jonathan Bate in the April 20 issue of the Times Literary Supplement on the perils of editing Shakespeare because of the differences between various editions:

“Perhaps it would be best to abandon the idea that any one text represents the ‘definitive’ version of a Shakespeare play. After all, the quest for a ‘definitive’ text, based on a ‘single lost original’, was premissed on the principles of Classical and biblical textual criticism. It is not necessarily appropriate for more modern literary and, especially, dramatic texts. ‘Version-based editing’ now seems a more fitting way of approaching authors (such as Wordsworth in The Prelude, or Henry James in the New York Edition of his novels) who self-consciously revised their word. Theatre is a supremely mobile art form, and we need a similar version-based approach to Shakespeare. We cannot be confident about the degree of authorial control in the revision of Shakespeare’s plays, or the extent to which it was systematic or haphazard; but we can be confident that many of the thousands of differences between the quarto and Folio texts are best explained by accepting that the texts embody different moments in those plays’ theatrical lives.”

(p. 12 of the 20 April 2007 issue; online here, though their archive is subscriber-only.) I don’t think you need to be interested in the details of textual minutiae to see that this is an interesting way of thinking about texts, and especially about how they can function in a digital age. Texts might be thought of as souls metempsychosing through bodies, temporarily alighting in books as they pass through time.

One thought on “texts over time

  1. Gary Frost

    Florida is returning to paper ballots. The excursion into touch screen has proven that touching the screen is not sufficent for maintenance of democratic governance.
    So does the contrast between screen and paper readership also play into the maintenance of knowledge generally? It is worth realizing that mutability and a living dynamic of texts is germinated by their printing to paper. This is not a contradiction; persistent variation and differing evidence based interpretation invigorates books.

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