Review of Thompson

Thompson, A. (ed.), The Taming of the Shrew. Pp. xii + 190 (The New Cambridge Shakespeare). Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Hard­bound £15.00 ($29.95); paper bound £3.50 ($7.95).


Notes and Queries, ccxxxi, 1986



I am disconcerted to find myself so dramatically at odds with a University Press. But the New Cambridge Shakespeare has advertised this edition as “completely new” and “in the very best traditions of textual scholarship”, whereas, on my evaluation it is so outmoded and misleading in its assumptions and procedures that it ought to be withdrawn for radical revision.

     So far as I can see, it makes no original contribution at all to the only serious scholarlyShrew problems, that is to say date, status, and sources. Its very first sentence rightly acknowledges “a heavy debt” to its predecessors, in particular Dover Wilson (1928) and Hibbard (1968), though Morris (1981) and Oliver (1982) were also taken into account. It shares their common bankruptcy, which derives from reckless over-investment in unsecured literary hypotheses at the expense of negotiable histori­cal fact, as set out by, for example, Frey (1888), who was apparently not consulted.

     The Folio Shrew play dates from c.1603, not c.1590. That early date was invented in the 1920s to accommodate the calamitous Smart-Alexander notion that the quite different 1594 Quarto version The Taming of a Shrew is a so-called “memorial reconstruction” of the 1623 text, and not just (as everyone once knew) a play by a playwright, c. 1589. However, time is still flowing backwards at Cambridge, from effect to cause, as in the days of Dover Wilson; so the basic data are yet again comprehensively confused in this new edition also. For example, the Sly sub-plot has clear antecedents in De Rebus Burgundicis (1584); prima facie this was among Shakespeare's sources. Yet Dr Thomp­son flatly states that “there is no evidence that he read” it. Throughout forty pages of introduc­tion and twenty of textual analysis, evidence is thus divorced from objective reasoning and wedded to personal feeling.

     Again, take the vexed and vital question of authorial copy versus transcript. The relevant data include speech-headings often interpreted as the names of actors, as in some Shakespeare MSS c.1600. One example is Par. at IV.ii.71. The old New Cambridge edition suggests Wil­liam Parr, ji. 1602. Here Dr Thompson has a novel explanation. First, we are to postulate a copyist. Then we imagine his perplexity at find­ing a hypothetical blank, instead of a speech-heading, at line 72 of the MS before him, though the Folio prints “Pedant” there and passim, nine times all told. So our resourceful copyist looks back to line 63, which predicts the arrival of “a marcantant or a pedant, I know not what”. He opts for the former, “probably influenced” in some unspecified way “by the unfamiliarity of the word”. Next he abbreviates it to Mar, which he thoughtfully inserts in the wrong place. But then he feels it may also be the wrong name, so he alters it (again wrongly, we are told) to Ped for Pedant. He gets as far as changing M into P, and then stops, having achieved his Par. But he has been unprofes­sionally slapdash; he finds the result “too messy”. So he cancels it, yet contrives to leave it apparently uncancelled and entirely legible. Below it, he puts his Ped. The compositor sees and sets Par, but sees Ped and sets Pedantpassim.

     A ridiculous rigmarole to this effect, but omitting all the obvious objections I have supplied, is twice set out in some detail (pp. 123, 157-8). Incredibly, it is called “evidence”, and said to be “just as likely” as the alternative explanation that Par. meant Parr. Such is the standard throughout this new edition, which begins by blatantly begging the essential prim­ary question of Q and F dating. From the documented facts Dr Thompson draws conclusions which not only fail to follow from the premisses but actively contradict them, by inferring the existence of two plays in 1594 from data that mention only one.

     There is better material in the brief account of modern performance practice and commentary. It is fair that feminist Shrew critique should have the last word, and very humane and refreshing it is, especially from Coppelia Kahn and Germaine Greer. Dr Thompson's own view is that The Shrew should be redefined as a middle-period problem play; and so it will be, as soon as editors can get their facts straight.