Mediating Shakespeare: From Book to Screen

‘To print a text differently is to print a different text.’ – Stephen Orgel

There is a permanent indentation in my Arden copy of Henry V. When I lay it out flat at my kitchen table, the pages fall of their own accord to the opening chorus lines:

Can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France?

Or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt? (Prologue 11-14)

I put the book down and shut it. With the emergence of online editions, I have become increasingly aware of print as a technology’”of print as an active participant in reader experience and interpretation. If I submitted this thesis handwritten as opposed to typed, if I articulated the same sequence of words in a blogpost as opposed to on a printed page, is my argument received differently, are the words altered? I turn to Henry V: is a book any more capable of containing those vasty fields of France than a digital facsimile? In an Arden paperback, I am presented with a conflated version of Shakespeare’s text, complete with formal introductions, footnotes, glossaries, indexes, and assorted other paratextual apparatuses. In an online edition, I am presented with the opportunity to reassemble those paratextual (and sometimes textual) elements myself. The book, like the pen, is often thought of as a neutral conveyor of meaning: like a stage with its actors, the page is the platform on which words are presented. It is in this space, this space of book and page, that readers encounter a “warlike Harry” (Prologue 5). Yet only through material transitions do we come to recognize the book itself as a form of technology. The transition from book to screen is not simply a transformation of the medium: it is a transformation of Shakespeare that involves mediating his poetry and ultimately, printing it differently.

This Wooden O’

“Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” –Walter J. Ong

In Henry V, the stage is the wooden ‘O’ onto which the author crams his vasty fields of France. The stage, like the book-space, is a vessel: it is built to contain words. Yet as Kastan reminds us, books are not mere receptacles for words: rather, books transform words, and we, as readers engaging with the materiality of that text, transform those words as well:

“The material form and location in which we encounter the written word are active contributors to the meaning of what is read. A poem read as it was written by its author in ink or on a sheet of foolscap is not identical with the ‘same’ poem read as printed in the Complete Works of the poet, or as published in the Norton anthology, or even as it is read online.” (Kastan 3)

Like Ong, Kastan views the book as a transformative agent, whose “modes and matrices of presentation themselves inevitably become part of the poem’s structures of meaning” (3). The editor’s endeavor is to “strip the veil of print from the text,” in order to uncover the “ideal” text that lies beneath: the text as it was first conceived of and composed by the author, before it was betrayed by the material forms in which it circulated (Kastan 118). This desire to wrench poetry from its material context, to view the words as separate from and independent of their material conditions, is indicative of a desire to return to this ideal text. Such texts are irretrievable, particularly in the case of Shakespeare, who ironically had little to no interest in the printed book, seeking in stead performance as his medium of publication (Kastan 5). Print has the advantage, however, in that it is able to create the illusion of textual stability: by fixing ink on a page, an editor can give herself the illusion that she has secured Shakespeare’s meaning:

“Print situates words in space more relentlessly than writing ever did. Writing moves words from the sound world to a world of visual space, but print locks words into position in this space.” (Ong 21)

In this way, locking words into position on the printed page is a means of projecting authority on a text. In Gary Taylor’s 1984 edition of Henry V, Harry feels his father’s remorse for the usurpation of the crown is ineffectual, “Since that my penitence comes after ill, / Imploring pardon” (4.1.292-3); in the folio (the only source for these lines), Harry’s penitence comes not “after ill” but “after all” (Kastan 120). “Although this emendation is graphically plausible,” writes Kastan, “it is clearly determined by critical rather than bibliographic considerations: the commitment not to allow Shakespeare to be guilty of ‘a major artistic flaw” (120). The passage from the 1984 edition exemplifies this kind of authorial reconstruction, where the intent of the author is reassembled and repositioned by an editor in modern textual space’”subsequently distributed to less informed (but hopefully no less astute) readers. Print, then, offers a seemingly stable version of the text, one that contrasts with the fluidity and reflexivity of hypertext mediums.


It’s Not Conflated, It’s Polymorphic

In an online edition, it is the reader who must reconstruct his or her own Shakespeare play text: there can be multiple folio versions, digital facsimiles, and supplementary resources such as audio or visual files’”all incorporated (crammed) onto a single screen. As Patrick Connor notes, all “variants and variations . . . can be present and linked as nodes, and even processed into the text, so that one can reproduce any version of the text one wishes” (Kastan 127). In this virtual space, readers are presented with the opportunity to act as editors, reconfiguring Shakespeare in all his multifaceted-ness, fragmentation, and hypertexual glory.

The ending of King Lear provides ample opportunity for this. The conclusion of the play has a long and complex editorial history, tracing back to the original publications which offer competing versions, making it ambiguous as to when Lear dies. Here is an example of the ending as typically rendered in a modern, hardcopy edition (all three versions extracted from Jowett’s Shakespeare and Text, intro p. 2):

LEAR And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more.

Never, never, never, never, never.

[To Kent] Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.

Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.

Look there, look there.                                        He dies

EDGAR He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

KENT (to Lear) Break, heart, I prithee break.

❧ Whereas the 1623 Folio edition, on which this modern edition is based, contains different spellings and punctuations, and lacks the additional stage directions later supplied by editors: 

Lear. And my poore Foole is hang’d: no, no, no life?

Why should a Dog, a Horse, a Rat haue life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer.

Pray you vndo this Button. Thanke you Sir,

Do you see this? Looke on her? Looke her lips,

Looke there, looke there.                                        He dies.

Edg. He faints, my Lord, my Lord.

Kent. Breake heart, I prythee breake.

❧ Finally, the 1608 Quarto edition (reprinted in 1619) differs considerably, both in terms of form and content. The verse is set in prose:

Lear. And my poore foole is hangd, no, no life, why should a dog, a horse, a rat of life and thou no breath at all, O thou wilt come no more, neuer, neuer, neuer, pray you vndo this button, thanke you sir, O, o, o, o. Edgar. He faints my Lord, my Lord.

Lear. Breake hart, I prethe breake.

For readers of the modern edition, only the first version is presented. An online edition, however, such as the University of Columbia Lear site, provides readers with multiple versions at once, making the digital edition not conflated, but polymorphic (*see Kastan 126 for screenshot).


This is Not the End of the Book;

Some critics regard this movement from book to screen as a triumph for the humanities discipline. Graham Caie jubilantly writes:

“One of the joys of teaching medieval literature is to see the transformation in a student when working with a manuscript. This is not always possible, and indeed, we must consider the damage done to the original if it is constantly consulted. With such sophisticated techniques as enhancement of texts through digitisation there will be little need in the future to subject precious texts to the constant handling that is ruining them. Only the very few codicologists with interest in foliation or binding will need to inspect them in the future, as harassed librarians can point to the ‘virtual manuscript’ in electronic form. Although the smell cannot yet be reproduced (though this will surely be a matter of time) almost every other aspect of the manuscript can be conveyed in electronic form and available to those who live far from original copies.” (Caie 36)

While the preservation of rare and easily damaged manuscripts is all too easy for a senior scholar to celebrate, it is disheartening for emerging Shakespeareans: though students may have “virtual” access to the folio texts, they are nonetheless deprived of experiencing the older version. This complaint, of course, presupposes that the older text is somehow more authentic than its digital counterpart’”a claim which, Kastan argues, is admittedly untrue, for the “truth is that all of the technologies of writing betray ‘real presence’; always they offer a simulacrum of a voice that is by definition absent” (135). The question, then, is not one of authenticity, but rather of reader experience: does the digital play text lend itself to the same kinds of readings as a 1608 Quarto edition (even with the presence of the Huxley-esque, old-book-smell scent organs)? Yes, readers are able to click through the relevant Holinshed source material; but are they able to see the wear of time on King Lear‘s pages?

Still, some scholars are more concerned. Gary Taylor humorously begins his paper “C:\ WP\FILE.TXT05:4110_07_98” with a hypertext poem, illustrating the dangers that digital editions (the File) pose to books (Prints of Darkness) and book-lovers (Pagites):

Those there were once, who worshipped the Prints of Darkness and the s/ matterings s/ mutterings of the page.

But the Pagites could not prevail, against the File.

For the File ate the Prints of Darkness. (Taylor 45)

The anxiety that surrounds the death of the book has spurred some scholars to publish works with hopeful titles such as, “This is not the end of the book;” (note the emphatic italics and the optimistically inserted semi-colon). For thinkers like Umberto Eco, the book itself is as fundamental to human life as transportation or cutlery:

“The book is like the spoon, the scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.” (Eco 5)

Paperback or no, the movement from book to screen marks yet another material transition in the life of Shakespeare. It brings to mind the closing line of sonnet 65: “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” The future of the book remains uncertain, and although it is likely that Shakespeare’s sonnets will continue to shine, they may one day be pixilated. “As we rationalize our resistance to digitization,” Kastan writes, “we reveal the fetishism of our relationship to the book” (113). While some of us must acknowledge ourselves to be covert bibliophiles’”as in William J. Mitchell’s phrase, the sorts of persons “addicted to the look and feel of tree flakes incased in dead cow”‘”it is nonetheless important to consider the impact that material transitions have on readers of Shakespeare (Kastan 2). While digitization opens up a world of possibility, it nevertheless awakens readers to the impermanency and instability of the text, along with the systems of filtration that’”once begun in the sixteenth century’”have accelerated dramatically with the arrival of the new media.

Leave a Reply