Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Group Reading of Richard II and a Conundrum

I had a very enjoyable time last Sunday participating in the third meeting of the Shakespeare Reading Group. Previous readings have been of Macbeth and Twelfth Night (see previous blog entries for more). Thirteen of us (but with no ill luck) gathered to read Richard II. As there is a lot of poetry and long speeches without much action, the reading was a little slow-going, but I think it went quite well. We even had a little "game" before beginning our reading to see if we could all keep the various characters straight. 

As always, I encourage Oberon members and other interested people to participate in these group readings. One can really discover interesting things while reading every word of a play that is easily missed by only watching them (directors often cut lines or rearrange scenes).

That brings me to the conundrum I allude to in the title of this blog entry. There we were, in the last scene of the play (Act V, scene 6), when I heard this from the student sitting to my left (reading the part of  Northumberland): "The latest news is, I have to London sent/The heads of Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt, and Kent". I looked at my copy of the play and saw "...The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent". Ah, I was using the Penguin edition (the cheapest edition I could find last Saturday when I saw that the only other copy I had was in my large Riverside Edition, which I didn't want to schlep to the reading) while the student had the Folger edition  I usually prefer Folger editions to Penguin ones-but maybe not anymore-read on).

I was quite perplexed. Many Oxfordian scholars (notably Daniel Wright) have pointed out the curious way in which ancestors of Edward deVere, 17th Earl of Oxford are handled in the History Plays. For example, the 13th Earl of Oxford, in "actual" history, had a relatively small part to play during the Wars of the Roses, but as he was on the Lancastrian side (i.e. the good side for Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Age) his part is magnified in the Henry VI plays and in Richard III while the 9th Earl of Oxford is completely absent from Richard II even though he was Richard's closest advisor and intimately involved in things during almost the whole reign. Of course, he was seen as very evil and degenerate by future generations (like Shakespeare's). It seems that the author of the plays wants to put the Earls of Oxford into the best light he can when writing so-called History. The family connection seems to be a reason for this.

Anyway, having always been told that the 9th Earl is absent from the play Richard II, I asked myself, what is he doing there in Act V, scene 6?? I am, of course, assuming that the mention of "Oxford" (or at least his head) is referring to the 9th Earl.

Well, I did a little research. Maybe I can look into this further later, but for now, here is what I know:

The play Richard II seems to have been quite popular in Elizabethan (and Jacobean) England. It appeared in no less than 6 Quartos as well as the four Folios. The first 3 Quartos (1597, 1598, and 1598) lacked the deposition scene (a political hot potato, which apparently was actually done at a special performance of the play commissioned by the Earl of Essex the day before his failed rebellion was launched). The deposition scene was restored (partly) in the 4th Quarto (1608) and the 5th Quarto (1615), after Elizabeth's death and then was more fully realized in the First Folio (1623) as well as the other Folios (1632, 1664, and 1685). The 6th Quarto (1634) also has a complete deposition scene, but this is after the appearance in the First Folio.

Anyway, what about the curious mention of Oxford among the rebels (against King Henry IV), or rather the loyal subjects of Richard II, by Northumberland (Henry Percy) at the end of the play? Well, the line that the Folger edition has (seen above) appears in the first 5 Quartos, but all of the Folio versions and the 6th Quarto has the line as I saw it in my Penguin edition (actually the 6th Quarto also eliminates the name of Blunt as well). My Riverside (an older edition-I don't know what the new edition has) kind of splits the difference by putting the name of Spencer in brackets, not mentioning Oxford, and referencing the textual differences in the appendix.

What is going on here? I seems (from the small amount of research I did-an hour on the Internet) that Shakespeare scholars say that Quartos 2-5 are based on Quarto 1 except when the deposition scene is partly restored, while Quarto 6 is based on the Folio text. Obviously, the Penguin edition (and my Riverside) prefer to go with the Folio text and not mention Oxford (presumably the 9th Earl), while the Folger edition prefers to go with the early Quartos (and have Oxford mentioned-at least once-he is nowhere else in the play)! 

I hope there is no ulterior motive here on the part of the Folger!

I will have to find some time to look at other editions of the play to see what I can find out about how where they take their text from.

Now, why is the character of Oxford (or at least a mention of his death) in the early editions (Quartos 1-5) but not in the First Folio? I can't answer that, but I'm sure that the answer would be very interesting...

Did Edward deVere forget to eliminate this mention of the 9th Earl in his sources in an early draft of the play and was this then corrected by him or his executor later in the First Folio? Was Quarto 1 (on which the later Quartos were based) a version misremembered by an actor? Was the character (or at least the head) of Oxford put in by some unscrupulous person (like one of the Cecils)? 

Maybe I will find out someday. 

Maybe not. 

Probably not.

And will I continue to trust the Folger editions of the plays? We'll see.

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