A Critical Comparison of The Norton Shakespeare and The Bedford Introduction to Drama: An examination of Background information, scriptural introductions, and textual variations within A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I found the idea of writing a critical comparison of two textbooks a particularly exciting endeavor. The two texts that were chosen are texts that have been utilized as a part of my educational program at Illinois State University. The first text, The Norton Shakespeare, was used for a class focusing on understanding the historical contexts surrounding Shakespeare’s works. The second text, The Bedford Introduction to Drama was used in a survey course covering dramatic works from Ancient Greece to present day. The focus of the background material in both texts followed suit with the appropriate course content. What was surprising was that the script versions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with the editorial comments and footnotes were incredibly similar.
The first focus of comparison between the two anthologies was drawn from the editor’s preface. Stephen Greenblatt’s preface talks at length about the cooperation with Oxford University Press about designing the Norton text as an educational tool based upon the Oxford editions of the anthology.
“When many classroom instructors who wanted to introduce their students to the works of Shakespeare through a modern text expressed a need for the pedagogical apparatus they have come to expect in an edition oriented to students, Norton negotiated with Oxford to assemble an editorial team of its own to prepare the necessary teaching materials around the existing Oxford text” (Greenblatt, xi).
Upon glancing through the table of contents, it is easy to see that the Norton edition is geared heavily toward an in depth look at Shakespeare, his works, historical and cultural influences and contexts, criticism, and interpretation of those works. This anthology would be well suited for scholarly inquiry and debate on the subjects, themes, and elements playing into any one of Shakespeare’s works. This anthology, unlike the Bedford anthology, focuses exclusively on Shakespeare, and would be best suited for an upper level course.
On the other hand, The Bedford Introduction to Drama focuses on all forms of theatre literature from the earliest scripts all the way up to present day playwrights. It’s focus, as stated in the preface, is, “[to] offer drama students a unique opportunity to study and write about major figures in the development of drama” (Jacobus, v). The anthology focuses on what it believes to be the canon for today’s students studying drama. Already it is apparent that the focus of the text is going to be different than the Norton anthology. The nature of the text as a study of all forms of drama is going to limit the amount of time spent discussing the complexities of Shakespeare’s works and the history surrounding them.
Looking further into the texts, their general introductions vary quite significantly as should be expected. The Norton Text spends a great deal of time covering in depth the history surrounding Shakespeare’s works. The anthology explores the religious, political, social, and cultural spheres that were in place prior to, during, and after the time that Shakespeare’s works were written. They examine the impact that these events may have had on Shakespeare’s works, how historical elements may support or contradict modern interpretation, and explain elements present in the scripts that may be unfamiliar today.
The Bedford Introduction to Drama spends relatively little time focusing on these elements. In the General introduction, only a page and a half are allotted for discussion on renaissance drama, and only a portion of that section discusses Elizabethan drama. The introduction mentions several authors from the time period, as well as several of the greater works of the period. There is some mention of Shakespeare, “Shakespeare, of course, elevated and vastly improved everything he borrowed,” (discussing the likeness of his works to ‘Italian originals’) (Jacobus, 9), but there is nothing of any substance mentioned. Later on in the text Elizabethan drama is focused on in a little greater detail.
The Bedford edition discusses history briefly, mentioning Queen Elizabeth and King James, Catholicism and Protestantism, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but does not go on to discuss the impact that this may have had on Shakespeare’s works (283). The editors also take a stance in their introduction to Elizabethan Drama that Greenblatt and the Norton staff may question. The introduction states, “They [Elizabethan playwrights] did not aim specifically to teach a moral lesson, although it is true that there are many lessons to be learned from Shakespeare and his contemporaries” (283). Though Shakespeare may not have necessarily intended to communicate a moral message to his audiences, he nonetheless criticized some of the conventions and beliefs of his time in his works.
Another large difference that arises between the two texts is found in the debate over Shakespeare’s identity. The Bedford Introduction to Drama never actually addresses the issue; rather, they make statements about Shakespeare’s identity as if it is a sure thing. “He [Shakespeare] became rich enough to retire in splendid style to Stratford, his hometown” (Jacobus, 284). This comment in and of itself does not point directly to one belief or another, but it leads one to believe that Shakespeare achieved his wealth as the direct result of being a successful playwright. Furthermore, what is interesting is that, though the Bedford text side steps the controversy of the true identity of Shakespeare, they openly acknowledge debates over the physical structure of theatre buildings. “The stage may have contained a section that was normally curtained but that opened to reveal an interior, such as a bedroom. The existence of this feature is, however, in considerable dispute” (Jacobus, 285).
Stephen Greenblatt, in the Norton anthology, spends some time in acknowledging the controversy, and examining the two major schools of argument. “The anti-Stratfordians, as those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship are sometimes called, almost always propose as the real author someone who came from a higher social class and received a more prestigious education” (Greenblatt, 46). Greenblatt goes on to explore and contest some of the claims made by other schools of thought.
A more surface examination of the two introductions reveals why the Bedford anthology may not go into much detail about the history surrounding Shakespeare. Rather than delve into the political feelings of the time, or deal with the issues of rising social mobility, Jacobus looks more at the growth of theatre during the period. The focus of his discussion is on the theatre companies, the conventions of Elizabethan theaters, a brief look at the makeup of a typical public audience (which serves the purpose of examining social hierarchy, though without any depth), The issue of female actors (or lack thereof), and an examination of court masques (283-6). This focus is suited to the purpose of the anthology. As a text with the primary goal of examining the history of theatre, it only makes sense to discuss theatre conventions, staging, and physical advancements. Whereas the Norton text is situated for a more scholarly pursuit of understanding Shakespeare in full, this text is less concerned with history outside of the theatre world.
The Norton introduction on the other hand spends a great deal of time examining everything and anything that may remotely have an impact on the writing of, or meanings to be drawn from Shakespeare’s works. The first part of the introduction examines cultural aspects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ranging from the bubonic plague, to social stratification, social mobility and the blurring of the traditional hierarchical lines, women’s roles, the Reformation, Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, Religious policy changes, and implications of immigration and exploration. After exhaustively covering this background material, Greenblatt turns his focus to the theatre world. Even though the primary focus of the Norton edition is not on the changing conventions of theatre, he examines the technical, political, and religious factors that shape theatre history in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. This exposes the weakness of the Bedford text. The Norton edition looks at the arena of theatre in much greater depth than the Bedford text, though the focus of the Bedford text should warrant such an exhaustive examination. The Norton text then goes on to explore the known facts of the life of Shakespeare, where and how he lived, who he knew, and the course of known events from his birth up to his death.
Perhaps even more telling about the depths at which Shakespeare is examined in the two anthologies is a comparison of the Introductions in each text to the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The introduction in The Bedford Introduction to Drama begins to examine some of the elements that have been previously covered in the Norton text. Jacobus comments on the theme of the play by saying, “For Shakespeare the fun of the play is in showing how the world of the fairies intersects with the world of real people, and we can interpret the play as a hint of what would happen if the world of dreams were to cross the world of real experience” (326). Jacobus communicates the notion that the play is about dreams and reality, and the likeness, or interconnectedness of the two worlds. He also makes the comment that this provides a basis for the comedy of the play.
The next portion of the introduction is a plot synopsis. Jacobus doesn’t advance any theories, or commentary on the script in this section; he mainly recounts a very brief look at the main events of the script. Immediately following the plot synopsis though, Jacobus lets himself dip into some criticism yet unseen in the rest of the material leading up to the script. He begins to look at elements of meta-dramatics in the script. Focusing on the play-within-a-play, the mechanicals performance of Pyramus and Thisbee, Jacobus discusses the misinterpretation of signs between the lovers, and goes on to say that, “The aim of the play [Pyramus and Thisbee] is realism, yet the players are naïve and inexperienced in drama; they do their best to remind the audience that it is only a play” (Jacobus, 327). Further, he goes on to comment that not only is Shakespeare creating a comical blundering in the characters of the mechanicals, but he is also commenting on “the function of drama in our lives. […] We are watching an illusion” (327). These illusions, in the form of the play-within-a-play, the fairies, and even our own dreams actually teach us about our reality.
Jacobus also hints at another criticism of Shakespeare. “As in most comedies, everything turns out exceptionally well” (Jacobus, 327). Jacobus begins to form a link between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Roman and Greek comedies. He discusses marriage as a convention of comedies that is present in the script that can be tied back to the conventions of New Comedy. He also goes on to directly state that Bottom and Puck are characters that mirror Greek and Roman comedy conventions presumably in the role of the servus calidus, or tricky servant role.
The Norton Shakespeare’s examines these issues as well, though again the Norton text delves deeper into the issue, and also adds criticism of a few other elements in its introduction. Romantic love and the idea of love being consummated in marriage are mentioned early on, but Greenblatt does not go into too much detail on those subjects yet (805). The first elements that he discusses in depth are the links between Shakespeare’s comedies and Roman comedy. He refers to a technique called stichomythia, or the alternating of single lines, that Shakespeare borrowed from Seneca and uses in many of his plays (806). Later in the introduction, Greenblatt too refers to the character Puck, “mischief maker and matchmaker,” as being reminiscent to the crafty slave in Plays of Latin playwrights (808). Another element of comedy that is brought up in the introduction is the basic plot device of the young lovers trying to overcome the strong will of a father figure. This basic plot structure that underlies at least a good portion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the same plot structure used for most of the comedies of ancient Rome.
Another element that the Norton introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream covers is the idea of the play’s universal appeal. The play mocks the groundlings in society right alongside the aristocrats. Where this fact becomes interesting though is when you begin to look at the social hierarchy commentary within the play.
“Shakespeare derives a vision of what we can call the revels of power, performances designed to entertain, gratify, and reflect the values of those at top. From this milieu too Shakespeare absorbs a sense of social hierarchy: a distinction between Duke Theseus, at once imperious and genteel, and Egeus, wealthy but distinctly lower in rank and harping on what is his by law, along with a more marked distinction between these characters and the artisans, loyal members of the lower orders, regarded y their social superiors with condescending indulgence” (Greenblatt, 807).
What makes this so interesting is that even though Shakespeare’s plays appealed to all audiences, and in effect were very popular, they upheld the social status hierarchy at the same time. The Bedford anthology does not address this issue in any of its introductions.
Another issue that Greenblatt addresses in his introduction to the script that the Bedford edition fails to mention is the theme of romantic love. Greenblatt is careful about how he introduces the topic, saying, “[A Midsummer Night’s Dream] also exaggerates this release from this power by staging the giddy possibility of a marriage based entirely on love and desire rather than parental will” (808). He talks about this possibility in junction with the idea of the overriding and supreme power that Egeus presumes to have over his daughter. Both of these ideas are exaggerated, for the comedy, in the script. These ideas, though present historically, especially in the case of desire and romantic love, would go against quid pro quo in Shakespeare’s time.
Greenblatt also tackles the topic of meta-dramatics in his introduction. In particular he mentions Puck’s speech at the closing of the play. “[Puck proposes] that the audience imagine that it has all along been slumbering: the play it has seen has been a collective hallucination. The play, then, is a dream about watching a play about dreams” (809). He further talks about the seeming unimportance of the last act of the script unless it is viewed as a commentary on meta-dramatics.
Though The Norton Shakespeare has so far proved to be vastly superior in its endeavor to understand everything Shakespeare, though the Bedford version’s focus and goal are slightly different, there is one arena where the two anthologies are surprisingly similar. The version of the script that both anthologies decided to use was the first Quarto of 1600 (Jacobus, 328)(Greenblatt, 812). The notes throughout the text are so similar that it would seem that many of the definitions and explanations of words were borrowed from one text to be used in the other and vice versa. Nearly all of the historical explanations and allusions are explained in the same fashion as well.
The first difference that is encountered in the text occurs in 1.1. During one of Lysander’s lines (159 and 160 in both texts) two lines of his speech are flip flopped between texts. In the Norton edition those two lines appear, “And she respects me as her only son./From Athens is her house remote seven leagues” (817), however, in the Bedford version the lines appear, “From Athens is her house remote seven leagues;/And she respects me as her only son” (330). By my best judgment this line positioning has no real effect on the message that Lysander is trying to communicate. There are no notes in either of the texts that would explain this variance, therefore, the logical conclusion to be reached is that this is simply a point of disagreement in the translation from the first quarto to the modern text.
Another discrepancy occurs in line 187 of 1.1. In the Norton text, Helena says, “Sickness is catching. O, were favour so!/Your words I catch fair Hermia; ere I go” (817). In the Bedford text, the word ‘words’ is replaced with the word would (331). This alters the meaning of the sentence. In the Norton edition, Helena catches Hermia’s words, meaning her jests, and in the Bedford version she is catching Hermia’s sickness, possibly meaning lovesickness. Again, there are no notes in the text describing this discrepancy, which would lead me to guess the difference stems again from the translation of the original text.
There are a few other examples of this type to be found between the two versions. In one instance the Norton version uses the word “bristly” (832), and Bedford, “brisky” (342). Again the effect is insignificant on the text, and the discrepancy is most likely related to an attempt to decipher an illegible word. In all of the cases, the differing words sound and look alike. It is then appropriate to assume that the handwriting at those points became somewhat unclear, and therefore left a little room for the interpretation of the actual word to be used.