Review of Craik

Shakespeare, W. (ed. T. W. Craik), The Merry Wives of Windsor. Pp. ix + 242 (The Oxford Shakespeare). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. £27.50.

Notes and Queries, ccxxxvi, 1991

This new edition amply exemplifies the best and the worst aspects of academic Shakespeare studies. Best is the professional approach, which offers first-rate text-editing skills, an illu­minating account of the play's substance and structure, and an informative conspectus of cri­tical and theatrical interpretations from 1702 to 1985. Worst is the professorial approach, which undermines all this fine work by entrenched anti-historical and pro-collegial prejudice.

     This Oxford editor ignores or disparages every century but this and every school but his own. His general introduction deals with such factually based topics as the play's date, occa­sion, and sources, and the explanation of its two strikingly different versions. For such purposes the main modern methodology is the medieval argumentum ad verecundiam, the appeal to high authority. This teaches us that the 1623 Folio text was really written for performance in April 1597; for such, “though it cannot be proved”, is “the consensus of the majority of scholars”. Never mind why, how, or where Shakespeare, that assiduous reviser, hid his holograph unchanged for twenty years. Not only is this early date of 1597 “generally agreed”; it is also, we are instructed, accepted by Gary Taylor.

     Yet Professor Craik is utterly unimpressed by Shakespeare's own godson Davenant as a source of dating evidence. He “may have invented the story” that a Falstaff play was com­missioned by Queen Elizabeth. So may two other poets laureate, Rowe and Dryden; so may the critic Dennis. Besides, “the story… may have originated in the play itself. So, we are also assured, may the story about the young Shake­speare's deer-poaching and his persecution by the local landowner Sir Thomas Lucy. Stratford sources may have invented this too, just to hoodwink four or five different dupes, such as the archdeacon Davies, the classicist Barnes, and the actor Betterton, as well as Rowe.

     Thus all the apparent references to this vital early chapter of Shakespeare's life, throughout fifty famous lines (I.i.1-37, 72-6, 100-110) are relegated to limbo. Even the well-known luce­louse allusion to the Lucy coat of arms is implausibly explained away as “a schoolboy's pun… introduced into this play for a purely comic purpose”.

      With this rejection of early historical evid­ence as invention goes the acceptance of late literary invention as evidence. Here the crux is Walter Greg's 1910 fantasy of the 1602 quarto as a “memorial reconstruction” by an actor who had forgotten most of the allegedly pre-existing 1623 Folio text. For this strange and self-con­tradictory notion “there is no need to set down all the evidence”; or indeed any, since none is offered or has ever existed. But none is needed, for the theory “is now accepted”.

     Typically, we are not told that it would have been rejected by Pope, Theobald, Johnson, Capell, and Malone among many others in their day, and has been refuted by Urkowitz among many others [1] in our own. What was “formerly believed”, for 300 years, will still be apparent to any ordinary reader; the 1602 title-page speaks true when it proudly proclaims: “By William Shakespeare”, as acted by his own company “before her Majesty”. If so, the chronological and textual assumptions asserted as fact throughout this volume must all he radically wrong. So must all the other current editions. [2] What scholars, students and Shakespeare-lovers now need is a moratorium on yet more Merry Wives Folio texts while due debts and proper respects are paid to Shakespeare's own rejected, unobtainable, and forgotten 1602 first version.


[1] Such as Evelyn Albright, Dramatic Publications in England 1580-1640 (New York, 1927), 300-10; W. Bracy, The Merry Wives of Windsor (Columbia, 1952); Hardin Craig,  A New Look at Shakespeare’s Quartos (New York, 1961), 65-75; S. Urkowitz, ‘Good News about “Bad” Quartos’, in “Bad” Shakespeare, ed. M. Charney (London and Toronto, 1988), 189-206; P. Werstine, ‘Narratives about Printed Shakespeare Texts’, in Shakespeare Quarterly (Spring 1990), 65-86; E. Sams, ‘Mistaken Methodology’, in London Review of Books (14 June 1990).

[2] The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. W. Green (Signet, 1965), H.J. Oliver (Arden, 1971), G.R. Hibbard (New Penguin, 1973), S. Wells with G. Taylor (1986), and the editorial work of John Jowett in the Oxford Textual Companion (1987), 340-50.