01 April, 2007

Miching Mallecho

In 1979, a previously-unknown manuscript was unearthed in the library of Winchester College, one of the top-performing public schools in Britain. The school's valuable library had not been catalogued since the nineteenth century, and even then the job had been done incompetently, by Ronald Busby (a descendant of Westminster's famous headmaster), an elderly Anglican master more interested in undressed adolescent bottoms than in the serious business of putting a historic collection to order.

It was therefore left to Peter Hithersay, a jobbing Moberly's boy under the supervision of the Under Master, to discover the text one afternoon—a printed pamphlet inserted into a 1714 Works of Shakespeare (ed. Rowe), containing what appeared to be a parody or burlesque of The Merchant of Venice. The text was close to the 1600 Quarto, and yet certain passages had been transpos'd, words replac'd with bawdier equivalents, and the whole abridg'd by almost thirtie per Cent. One of the most hilarious and disturbing aspects of this version was its author's suggestion that Shylock could barely contain his sexual desire for his daughter Jessica. The most controversial passage—and the one which no doubt got Hithersay his reputation among the other lads—is the following, from Act 2 Scene 5 (I reproduce from ECCO, which to its credit finally uploaded the pamphlet last year, though it remains hard to find):

It must have been thought particularly ribald in 1714 to give Shylock over to the excesses of Yiddish! The plot, however, thickened—for the renowned scholar E. A. J. Honigmann would notice, just two years later, the similarity of this bizarre text, never found in any previous edition, to the scrappy marginalia on an edition of the Quarto, now at the British Library, in a hand he identified with the 'Hand D' of the famous MS Harley 7368 of Sir Thomas More—a hand widely attributed since 1923 to the Bard himself. The connection was quite apparent; for instance, beside the final word ('girl') in the original of the sixth line quoted here was scrawled a list of 'alternatives'—goose, coun, bitch, hare. . . and piece, which Eric Partridge (Shakespeare's Bawdy) gives as a Shakespearean abbreviation for 'piece of flesh', used pejoratively of a young woman. The marginalia also experimented with Yiddishisms, although this particular example is not among them. So what, we might ask, was the significance of this scribbled jesting?

Honigmann conjectured that the printed 1714 text was the unique surviving copy of a closet libertine publication from the late 17th century, deriving originally from humorous notes that Shakespeare and his company added to one member's Quarto. The evidence supported Honigmann's disbelief in the common conception of Shakespeare as a playwright uninterested in the printed texts of his plays. The Bard, he argued, was sufficiently concerned with the reception of his written words to circulate a coterie publication of his 'obscene' Merchant. Naturally, the established Shakespeare authorities rubbished Hithersay's discovery as a forgery, and dismissed Honigmann's conclusions, with the same contempt doled out to Don Foster for his attribution of the infamous 'Funeral Elegy'. A racy account of the controversy is, in fact, one of the many amusing anecdotes in Ron Rosenbaum's recent bestseller, The Shakespeare Wars.

But in his 2004 book, Shakespeare as a Literary Dramatist, Lukas Erne, who follows Honigmann in regarding Shakespeare as a canny manipulator of the printed page, provides further evidence for the history. In 1597, a year before the first performance of Merchant, Philip Henslowe recorded seeing a comedy about a pederastic Jew filled with 'straunge canting Dutch termes'. Erne speculates that in late 1599, when Merchant no longer had any staging value, it was submitted for publication; Shakespeare recalled the comedy that Henslowe had witnessed, and which had comprised a minor source for his own play, and revised his own copy as a dirty joke for his theatrical associates. Thanks to the undercurrent of Restoration humour that produced John Wilmot and Thomas Urquhart, the joke retained its currency—not an aspect of the Bard's personality that had much mainstream popularity in the centuries to follow. But as Peter Hithersay proved so recently, Charles Dodd was more right than even he knew, when in 1752 he wrote of Shakespeare that 'all humours, ages, and inclinations, jointly proclaim their approbation and esteem of him.'


Andrew W. said...

Conrad, another intellectual triumph!

I look forward to this post making its way into many a high school/undergraduate paper!

Coincidentally, our own Hart House theatre will stage this raunchy version next year, in an effort to halt declining ticket sales.

I'm also surprised you managed to scoop the Valve on this - and you don't even like Shakespeare.

Pedro Eduardo Ferrari said...

That's one bit of shakespeareana I didn't know. Regardless, I just remembered you haven't written your post on Fulcanelli yet; that should be something.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, Otto, you must write a review of the Hart House production for us: a unique opportunity. Pedro: look forward to Fulcanelli in June.