Monday, July 28, 2008

Oxford School Shakespeare (3)


The Text

With most of Shakespeare’s plays the basic text is not a problem – you can fiddle around with words and punctuation but in reality it makes very little difference, especially in performance.

With ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, there are difficulties – serious difficulties that affect the performance of the piece: The choices made can also seriously alter the meaning.

Key choice is about the ‘Induction’ and Sly additions: In the Folio, produced after Shakespeare’s death, Sly disappears never to return – in A Shrew (which is thought to be an ‘illegal’ copy done around the time of The Shrew’s first production) there are more Sly scenes – providing a constant reminder that this is a play you are watching, and forcing serious questioning of the reality of what you are watching.

The Oxford School Shakespeare edition has chosen to use (perversely, if you know the rivalry between the two universities) the New Cambridge Shakespeare: A safe choice.

The text basically follows the folio – with the extra Sly scenes printed in Appendix A. For the school classroom this is a sensible decision – at this stage in a student’s study of Shakespeare it is more important for him/her to get the accepted canonical view – whilst suggesting the idea of contention and endless academic bickering – than to engage fully in the ‘debate’ her/him-self.

Each page is split into two columns – on the right the play text split into the conventional Act and Scenes and with the lines numbered every 5 lines. Character names are given in full and bold at the head of the dialogue making it very easy to follow who is speaking. Stage directions are in italic. Half lines are indented when appropriate.

The overall effect is to produce a very easy-to-read text – an essential for classroom use. It is quick and simple to find specified points in the play and the layout and print size makes it a good text for reading out loud or acting with.

The left hand column is jam-packed full of ‘glosses’, pictures and helpful snippets. Printed slightly smaller, these are not obtrusive and don’t get in the way of the main text.

Each scene starts with a brief, but helpful summary of what is to follow – and sometimes an indication of what to look for: The second scene of the Induction, for example, we are informed, ‘Two lifestyles are contrasted …’.

Most of the notes are printed next to the lines they refer to – all are numbered. Some of the notes are accompanied by generally helpful line drawings. In Act 2, Scene 1, when Petruchio and Katherina are engaged in their quick fire ‘word-play’ fight, three sketches help explain the text – one of a coat of arms, one of a fools ‘coxcomb’ hat and a third of two cocks fighting (to go with line 224, ‘craven’ – the defeated cock in a cock fight). As this is potentially the first time students could have encountered not only the words but the implied images, these pictures are very useful. The third sketch of the birds fighting also acts as an indicator of what is happening on stage – Katherina and Petruchio are ‘cock fighting’.

The notes are not purely explanatory – they have the delightful habit of being opinionated – at line 205 of the same scene, we are informed that Petruchio makes a feeble pun; and at 204 Katherina is insisting she is honest. The sex is not ignored either (which is a good thing) – in line 200, when Katherina uses the word ‘jade’ we are informed it implies Petruchio lacks sexual stamina !

The notes demonstrate clearly an awareness of the needs of a modern reader in several places. My favourite is in Act 3 scene 2, when Biondello is delivering his all too easy to ignore speech about what Petruchio looks like on the way to his wedding and is going through a list of diseases of horses – we are asked to remember they would be as familiar to the Elizabethan audience as a list of mechanical failings of an old car would be to the ‘modern’ – and the tediousness of many a pub visit leaps into view!

Scattered throughout the text are additional, larger drawings and photographs of the play in stage performance. Not only do these illustrate particular points in the play they also help keep the theatrical context – another essential requirement not only for this play but for all Shakespeare in general, particularly when being given to teenage readers.

There is nothing so instinctively conservative as a teenager.

Asked to ‘image’ a part of the text they will go straight for ‘old’ costumes of the perceived time Shakespeare set the play and with naturalistic backgrounds.

Using the RSC 1995 production photographs, with ‘Italian’ scooters, commedia beards, and clearly mixed-date costumes set in a strongly theatrical space, the students can be introduced to a freer perception and induced to break open their fertile reserves of imagination.

I think it is the adaptability of the material presented in this edition which is its biggest selling point – I could easily use this in the classroom – and it would make my work a lot easier. There is plenty for me to work on, and I could be very flexible with my approach – the notes give all the explanations needed but can be ignored if not needed or wanted – there are images to support and stretch, there’s an introduction to ignore or use and stimulate.

Students could pick this up on their own and have a good chance of not only following the events but starting to interrogate and respond.

Stuck on the end, in addition to the Appendix A extra Sly scenes, there is an Appendix B with an extract from ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ – explaining in a delightfully modern way just what ‘manning a hawk’ means (and with a teenage protagonist to boot); there is a very boring ‘what to do with the play’ if you really want to answer examination questions section; and a final extra background section – which is useful. To end this strange eventful comedy, is my second major niggle – a summary of Shakespeare’s life and work I don’t subscribe to – I’d go through it and then ‘rubbish it’ in class, so it isn’t going to stop me from using the book in the classroom.

The final point I think I need to make is that, although I have judged the text by its intentions – I hope I’ve also shown this is good general text too. If you are not an English School Child, don’t be put off by the ‘School Shakespeare’ title – if you want a clear, easy to read and follow edition – this should certainly be considered.

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