Hello, I’m Charlene V. Smith and I’ll be live blogging Russ McDonald’s keynote: Shakespeare and the History of the Bookish.

McDonald opens by admitting a kind of fatigue evident in his title, using the work “bookish,” and confesses that today he is taking on the role of “Mr. Fussy” and complaining about both bibliography and performance, at the risk of offending everyone in this room.

1. Doubting the Text

Recent books and articles have over-filled the hole found in Shakespeare studies twenty years ago: the book trade and the culture of early modern print. In this section of his paper, McDonald questions the supremacy this topic currently has in Shakespeare studies. McDonald wishes to cast a skeptical eye on some of this scholarship and some of its “dubious orthodoxy.” Though scholars have paid much attention to the book, they have paid little attention to the text. McDonald confesses to being irritated for two decades by the well-known and frequently cited essay, The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text by de Grazia and Stallybrass. The arguments in this essay have achieved and maintain importance in our field, shattering textual certainties. In their essay, de Grazia and Stallybrass argue that “word,” “work,” “character,” and “author” are vexed terms. McDonald points out that these words are changeable and complex, but not incomprehensible. He warns that we must not allow the history of the book to erase the text itself.

2. Cutting the Text

McDonald next objects to the despotism of modern directors; in particular, the way they cut the text. Recent productions of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream  have lacked wonder and a sense of transfiguration, partially caused by the excising of some of McDonald’s favorite speeches. Next McDonald points to the lack of Queen Margaret in Mark Rylance’s current production of Richard III, running in New York. In 2012, the BBC announced the production of The Hollow Crown. While initially excited by the idea and the line up of actors and directors, McDonald views the resulting TV movies as acts of vandalism. McDonald feels the cutting was too ideological, such as the lack of references in Richard II to the king’s guilt in in the Duke of Gloucester’s murder. McDonald feels the most damaged play in this series was Henry IV, part 2. This long and leisurely work of 3300 lines was reduced to 1 hour and 52 minutes. A colleague of McDonald’s pointed out, “It’s a pity the BBC didn’t make this series for the people who would watch it, instead making it for those who won’t watch it anyway.”

3. Reading the Text

McDonald asserts the importance of reading the text in order to experience scenes which you wouldn’t see on the stage. Directors frequently cut scenes that do not advance the plot. If they seem to have no function, McDonald points out, they must have a function. Shakespeare had a reason for including these scenes, which often add to the texture of the play. McDonald then discusses 4.3 of Coriolanus, a frequently cut scene between a Roman and a Volsce, two characters we haven’t seen before and won’t see again. McDonald argues that the scene is thematically rich, especially in fire and heat imagery. McDonald also looks at 3.1 of The Winter’s Tale, a scene, again, with two characters we haven’t seen before: Cleomenes and Dion. According to McDonald, this scene sets up the possibility of magic and establishes the oracle of Apollo as something special. The two characters feel diminished, “I was nothing,” in the wake of their experience, an idea that stands in direct contrast to Leontes’ hubris. These lost scenes give depth, layers, and texture to a play.


McDonald ends by arguing for disciplinary balance: an awareness of what others in the field are doing. He promotes the value of pluralism: page and stage, book and text. McDonald praises George Walton Williams, the honoree of this conference, for always maintaining this balance in his teaching.