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Poetaster.

Most of us know Poetaster - if we know it at all - mainly for the vomiting scene, when all of Crispinus' (or Marston's) hard and indigestible words come up in a comically outrageous climax. The rest of Jonson's text survives as a little read and less admired document in a half forgotten literary quarrel - not so much a work of art as a weapon of poetomachia. Tom Cain's excellent new edition, however, offers a clear, precise introduction which calls attention to Jonson's wider concerns beyond the War of the Theatres. If it helps to reclaim this complex and funny play from the peripheries of the scholarly mind, it will have done a valuable job.

The edition itself has many quiet virtues, along with the odd nit for a reviewer to pick. The text seems accurate bar a couple of obvious literals that will need correcting in the next printing (italics are set as roman at III.iv.81 s.d., and I.ii.32 appears twice, on pp. 84 and 85). The notes are full, if sometimes coy about double entendres (II.i.40, 46-7; and bawdy is not noted at all at IV.iii.152). By the standards established by Stanley Wells in 1979, the modernization is occasionally erratic: Cain retains moils (I.ii.172) for mules, and for an (III.i.6, III.iv.339, IV.vii.6), and the meaningless a' (III.ii.17) to denote the unstressed form of he.

This last is perhaps more than a trivial criticism. One oddity of the edition is its uncertainty over what version of the play Cain understands his text to represent. Herford and Simpson used the literary 1616 Folio version as their control-text, but in this more stage-conscious era Cain prefers Q, a post-theatrical version which bears the scars of censorship. This concern for the theatrical dimension is apparent in a number of helpful editorial stage directions, particularly the ones clarifying how the lictors are to move on stage in III.iv. In practice, however, Cain's text is eclectic, and his various decisions in favour of F often seem to reflect a greater concern for the literariness of the play. This is especially evident in the interpolation of the F-only scene between Horace and Trebatius (III.v): given Cain's view that the scene was 'not intended for the stage' (163), a truly theatrical text would uphold its omission from Q and print it as an appendix. In choosing to include the scene, Cain implicitly declares his ultimate allegiance to the written text rather than the to-be-enacted play, to the work as the author sought to transmit it through print rather than through the stage.

The incongruous survival of a few early seventeenth-century word-forms may, then, reflect a broader textual inertia, a deep-seated devotion to the author's ipsissima verba irrespective of their function. Sometimes this prevents Cain from engaging with such knotty problems as whether one of the minor characters - never named in the dialogue - is an actor called Histrio or an anonymous figure designated, in Latin, by his profession as an actor: Histrio was Jonson's word, and the question of what it signifies, and whether it should be translated, seems consequently not to arise. Sometimes, too, this approach creates unnecessary obstacles for the modern reader. The Dramatis Personae, for example, lists 'Marcus Ovid' and 'Publius Ovid', whereas the text's speech prefixes give Ovid and Ovid Senior: the inconsistency is genuinely Jonsonian, but to retain it does a minor disservice to the play; even in the footnotes it is not made immediately obvious which Ovid is which. Perhaps Ben Jonson could assume a classically educated readership; Revels editors should not follow suit.

My point is that the edition either does not recognize the fundamental difference in the textual status of dialogue on the one hand and of stage directions, speech prefixes, and lists of the Persons of the Play on the other, or else consciously works in terms of a textual theory which ignores such discriminations and reduces everything to the reassuring solidity of the written word, all of it to be punctiliously preserved whatever may have happened to it in production. But then Jonson, most consciously literary of all Renaissance dramatists, is at the sharp end of this difficult issue of editorial philosophy: the dichotomy dates back at least as far as his own editorial work in his 1616 Folio. So ultimately it is not inappropriate that Poetaster's first important edition since Herford and Simpson should be a conservative one in this vein, and not only because there are scholars who do not share my preference for a radically edited text which treats a play primarily as a theatrical rather than a literary artefact. But if Cain's vindication of the play proves as effective as it deserves to be, we may not have too long to wait before the play is edited again; and it is to be hoped that that editor will offer a genuinely alternative version of Poetaster to the one offered in this useful Revels text.

MARTIN WIGGINS The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
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Author:Wiggins, Martin
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Words:848
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