Shakespeare and the stenographers

English professor Adele Davidson '75 takes on the role of literary gumshoe

I hate to admit it. Even though I graduated from a sterling liberal-arts college with a nationally known English department (Kenyon, in case you were wondering), when I used to hear the word "Shakespeare" I would succumb to an overwhelming physical reaction.

I dozed.

Let me explain. This reaction has nothing to do with classroom experiences on the Hill. It goes back to my past life in a large Midwestern high school, where my required Shakespeare class met right after lunch.

To say the least, this was before the era of "interactive learning," and class time was filled with monotonous student recitation (punctuated with guffaws), minimally interrupted with corrections by our teacher, Miss S--. Her print dresses, black oxfords, and wire-rimmed spectacles were badges of her long teaching career, and she was about to retire. (It is frightening to realize her wardrobe would be "cutting edge" in the 1990s.)

Miss S-- started the class with Romeo and Juliet, a work filled with sexual passion, secretive teenage lovers, mean parents, mindless violence, and death--logically, a perfect play for high-school students to read.

The problem was that Miss S-- had, for want of a better phrase, run out of gas. For several weeks, we repeated the same part of the play--the well-known balcony scene--again and again. The result was the utter and complete destruction of even the masterful Bard's lyrical poetry and majestic cadences.

The bigger problem was that no one in the class brought this matter to Miss S--'s attention. We were arrogant seniors in our last semester, already mentally finished with high school even though our gangly bodies were still trapped there. Our stomachs filled with sturdy Ohio lunches of macaroni and cheese and Sloppy Joes, we decided in a wordless conspiracy that the class would work fine for nap time. And this pattern continued, I am sorry to say, until we graduated.

You can win the battle, so the old adage goes, but then go on to the lose the war.

Because of Miss S--, and my joint responsibility for what happened in that sun-filled, dusty classroom long ago, I never took a Shakespeare course in college. Now I'm finding out what I've been missing.

It is apparent to even casual readers of the newspaper that interest in Shakespeare is "off the charts." In terms of popular culture, this is most evident in the plethora of film versions of Shakespeare's plays being produced, first fueled by the success of Kenneth Branagh's film version of Henry V in 1990.

The interest is not confined to the popcorn-strewn corridors of the movie theater, though, as Shakespeare studies have also become more visible in the august halls of the academy. Kenyon is no exception to this trend: the College sustains a veritable miniconference of Shakespeare scholars centered around Associate Professor of English Adele S. Davidson '75.

Carmen M. King, fine arts librarian in the audiovisual department of Kenyon's Olin Library, is an expert on films of Shakespeare's plays. J.E. Luebering II, who graduated this spring with highest honors in English for his thesis on nineteenth-century editing of Shakespeare, contributed a paper to the prestigious Shakespeare Association of America. Rising senior Stuart M. Rice is producing his own annotated version of Hamlet for desktop computer. Rice has also received a grant to develop Shakespearean and other computer-teaching applications for the English department. And last, but not least, 1997 graduate Ryan H. Engle even mentioned Davidson's research on his admissions tours for prospective students ad their parents.

Davidson, who earned her doctorate at the University of Virginia, is clearly one of a "new breed" of Shakespeare scholars who have come to the fore in the last twenty years. Their varied approaches include cultural and theater history, feminist critical theory, and textual analysis.

Davidson herself is a walking advertisement for a continuing love affair with Shakespeare. Her experiences include a stint as a researcher/editor at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., as well teaching at Kenyon.

As a student, Davidson says, she was influenced by the late McIlvaine Professor of English Gerrit H. Roelofs, with whom she took seven courses. Even though he was not teaching Shakespeare at the time (he would later), Roelofs kindled her interest in medieval and Renaissance literature, and his English 11-12 inspired her to become a teacher of English. "If in my own teaching I can pass along a little of his legacy, I feel myself justified," Davidson says.

She affectionately recalls her classroom journeys with him in this memorial: "Gerrit's faith in the power of poetry provided inspiration to us all. Any class with him was part Chaucerian fabliau, part Shakespearean performance, part Spenserian pastoral, and part Miltonic epic. As Wordsworth says of Milton, 'He had a voice whose sound was like the sea'--and in class his mind was a marvelous maze of erudition, a labyrinth where dense thickets and circuitous paths charmed us with surprising turns onto vast and panoramic vistas."

A year-long Shakespeare course with John Crowe Ransom Professor of English Emeritus Galbraith M. Crump her senior year was also crucial to Davidson's personal path. She says she considers it to be "the capstone" of her study of English literature at Kenyon.

At the University of Virginia, Davidson wrote her dissertation on Shakespeare's Pericles, intrigued by the medieval elements in the play. In the course of her research, she was further struck by its complicated textual history, which laid the basis for her continuing postdoctoral research. Following completion of her dissertation and a teaching stint at Bowdoin College, Davidson returned to Kenyon as an assistant professor in1985.

"No Shakespearean manuscripts have survived, and it is basically true to say that Shakespeare himself never published a play," Davidson says. "His plays were the property of the acting company he worked for, and there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever saw a manuscript of his plays through the press. Because of this lack of authorial involvement, Shakespeare's plays present unusual problems to the modern editor."

For Davidson, this leads to the mysterious passages in Shakespeare--which she calls "textual cruxes"--that have no clear meaning or appear to be clumsily written. Some plays even have multiple versions. Adding to this complexity is the claim by John Hemings and Henry Condell, friends and fellow actors of Shakespeare who were the publishers of the first volume (the "First Folio") in 1623, that some of his plays had earlier been stolen and published in a "maimed and deformed" state.

Pericles, according to Davidson, is honeycombed with these rascally cruxes, as only one version of the play exists, an unauthorized "bad quarto" edition from 1609. But she was reluctant to tackle these problems until she received a "gentle push" from Eugene J. Dwyer, a professor of art history at the College, when he asked her to offer a guest lecture in a course on "The History of the Book" with him and Special Collections Librarian Jami E. Peelle.

Scholars are often detectives, and Davidson's "big break" in her research came when she was browsing through the Kenyon library in the section on the history of books and printing. "I happened upon a book that the Ohio State University library, where I do most of my research during the academic year, did not own." The book was the obscure Title Page Borders Used in England and Scotland 1486-1640, by R.B. McKerrow and F.S. Ferguson, published in 1932. In looking through the book, Davidson noticed that the picture on the title page of the 1609 Pericles was the same as on the first page of another book, John Willis's The Art of Stenographie of 1602. Both books had been published by the same Elizabethan printer, William White.

For Davidson, the effect of this simple fact "was electrifying." She recalled a past theory, often discredited, that stolen plays of Shakespeare had been surreptitiously copied, while they were being performed, in modern shorthand, which had just been invented. And Willis's stenographic system was one of the most popular. Davidson recalled this discovery with one word: "Eureka!" She had what scholars often hope for but often work years to reach--what she refers to as "that moment of instant insight or recognition."

Davidson now felt empowered to investigate the connections between the contents of Willis's book on shorthand and the plays of Shakespeare, searching for textual evidence to show how shorthand transcriptions could have molded the language of Pericles. Her net widened to include King Lear, which one scholar calls "the bibliographer's [Mount] Everest," as there are two editions of the play dating from 1608 and 1623. Davidson metaphorically explains that she is "trying to make my way up the slopes of this textual mountain, and I believe I have found mypath to the summit in Willis's Stenographie." Her investigations have resulted in a research grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, numerous presentations at conferences, two articles, and a book-in-progress.

"While some of these textual details can seem trivial," Davidson says, "what is at stake is the wording of Shakespeare's greatest masterpieces. My claims are bold: I am hoping to unravel the mystery of the 'stolen and surreptitious' texts of Shakespeare, to clarify the relations between different versions of the plays, and to restore the meaning of obscure passages."

In this age of concern over the protection of intellectual property, especially in the wake of the Internet, Davidson has enjoyed investigating how Elizabethan practitioners of another new technology--shorthand--may have illegally copied Shakespeare's plays (as well as other spoken texts, such as sermons) and sold them for a profit.

The world contained in Shakespeare's play is a world whose boundaries are human constructs, not those of time. His continuing appeal is demonstrated by Davidson's report that of the English department's upper-level elective courses, "Shakespeare" is the one taken most frequently. It appears that students come to the College already intrigued with Shakespeare, largely because of what Davidson describes, succinctly, as "Hollywood."

Once at Kenyon, students are academically nourished by how the plays can be analyzed both textually and in terms of current social concerns. For Davidson, these include Shakespeare's "treatment of colonialism and displacement of native peoples in The Tempest" and "the analysis of gender, ethnic, racial, and religious issues in plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, or The Merchant of Venice." Davidson's colleagues in the English department have offered courses on such topics as "Shakespeare's Sisters" (inspired by the forgotten woman playwright alluded to in Virginia Woolf's famous essay "A Room of One's Own"), "Shakespeare in Conflict," and the theme of revenge in Jacobean and modern tragedies.

Overall, Davidson credits many developments--computer technologies, feminism, film, and television--with today's continuing high level of interest in Shakespeare on the part of students and scholars as well as the general public. Strong evidence for this fact is the unprecedented number of new major editions of the plays--published by Addison-Wesley, Norton, and Riverside--released this year.

It is now even possible to download early versions of the plays from the Internet. Davidson slyly wonders "what Shakespeare would have made of all this."

My conversations with Adele Davidson--intrepid teacher and detective--have finally roused me from my Shakespearean slumber. The immediate result? I have just made plans to see a summer theater production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. And I just might re-read the nearly pristine copy of my high-school Folger paperback of the play before I go.

Kay Koeninger, who was a history major at Kenyon, is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with her husband, Scott Warren, dean of students at Antioch College, and their son, David.

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