I had the privilege of participating in this weekend’s Folger Institute symposium, “Shakespeare’s Theatrical Documents.” What follows is an attempt to synthesize some of the main threads of thought that emerged out of the weekend. These comments represent my own take-aways from the event. If my account seems abstract, it's only because I don't want to speak for the other participants, whose exceptional work for the symposium will surely find its way into a more public place over the next few years.
Organized by Tiffany Stern (Oxford University) and Owen Williams (Folger Institute), the symposium was designed to overlap with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s truly breathtaking exhibition, “Shakespeare, life of an icon,” where you can see, among other unique textual objects, Liber B of the Stationers’ Register, one of the ledgers in which publishers entered their rights to print Shakespeare's plays and poems, and two manuscript pages of The Booke of Sir Thomas More, a manuscript play that may—or may not—contain three pages in Shakespeare’s own hand. (If you're interested, you can visit the online exhibition that features images and explanations of the items on display—plus many more.)
The exhibition itself presents what seems like an overwhelming number of documents from which to reconstruct, at the very least, an idea of Shakespeare not only as a playwright but also as a person in history. At the same time as the presence of all these documents together in the same room appears to put a dent in the received wisdom (at least in scholarly circles) that we know very little about Shakespeare, the exhibition also exposes how the persistent absence of other documentary evidence relating to Shakespeare’s life and profession requires new—and sometimes oblique—ways of looking at what does survive.
The symposium took up this mantle, pivoting sharply away from biography (and even Shakespeare) towards the messy, collaborative processes inherent in making plays for the commercial theater, remediating those plays into reading matter, and repurposing their contents for a variety of other uses. Over two days, the presentations and ensuing discussions—thankfully, there was a lot of time for discussion—challenged long-standing assumptions about the nexus of textual and non-textual activities involved in producing plays, not least the manuscript-to-stage-to-print teleology.
The symposium was organized around pairs of papers that tracked different classes of evidence:
- documents before performance
- documents of rehearsal
- documents during performance
- documents after performance
- playtexts as documents
- lost, incomplete, and forged documents
The temporal and ontological distinctions erected by the schedule quickly broke down, exposing just how difficult it is both to do theater history without being alert to the way scribal and printed texts are made, read, and used and to study documents relating to the the theater without an awareness of theatrical practices. For example, we discussed whether commonplace books of dramatic extracts weren’t also documents “before performance” and/or “of rehearsal” since their contents were often used to facilitate social performance. We also discussed the extent to which any of the seemingly whole text (like a printed playbook) is also, in many ways, incomplete (c.f., all the unrecorded business signaled by a single &c). I found the sustained attention to methods for reading such absences, textual lacunæ, and implied improvisations especially rich.
I was also struck by the interest in shedding new light on the complexities of dramatic form in the period. Several papers brought to light new ways of thinking about how, instead of story or narrative, the logistics of performance (including but not limited to actorly competencies) governed the composition, staging, and even publication of early modern plays. Perhaps most suprisingly, the agency of playwrights was treated as one (and certainly not the most dominant) among many agencies. As Paul Werstine noted in his closing remarks, several of the papers exposed just how irrelevant playwrights seemed to be to the ways that plays were presented by stationers and used by readers.
I concluded my own paper about typographies of performance with a short riff—sorry for almost stealing your thunder, Peter Holland!—on the early modern definitions of “document” as instruction, lesson, precept, experiment. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that “document” came to refer to something “written down or inscribed.” The earlier definition was fitting, though. After all, what were we doing all weekend if not trying to learn something from positing new ways of reading a motley collection of textual—and also non-textual—objects: letters between playwrights and company managers, lists of plays made by the master of the revels, actors' parts, backstage plots, plot scenarios, prologues and epilogues, absent stage properties, theatrical manuscripts, commonplace books, marginalia, annotations, forgeries, ballads, woodcuts, lost plays, textual fragments, &c—
I’ve learned that we should never assume we know what any of these “documents” mean—or how they might be useful—without first attending to them on their own terms, by which I mean (1) in their own time; (2) in the context of the materials and agents of their making; and (3) alongside generically similar documents. Only then can we start to know what to do with them and how to speak of them here and now.
This symposium affirmed the collaborative nature of researching a set of cultural practices that were, in their time, collaborative enterprises. This brings me to my very final point (for now): none of this would be possible without the Folger. It was, of course, a great thing to study a critical mass of unique documents together for the first time in the library's Great Hall; it was equally gratifying to have had the opportunity to see (and hear) the brightest minds in the field at work. These scholars are themselves documents in how to suture theatrical and textual histories—and perhaps also documents in a little madness for attempting to do so.