[the numbers are messed up, because I haven’t always blogged books in order. See THE INDEX for a tidy list]
In 1930, Oxford UP’s Clarendon Press published Sir Edmund Chambers’ massive, monumental, two-volume work William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. The first volume is 576 pages long; the second volume is 448 page of primary documentation relating to Shakespeare’s life and works: 1,024 pages of serious, exhaustive (and exhausting) scholarship.
In 1933, Oxford UP’s Clarendon Press commissioned none other than our own Charles Williams to produce what would now probably be entitled Chambers’ Shakespeare for Dummies: a 260-page condensation of the original work. Here is a size comparison of Chambers’ work with Williams’:
This is unquestionably one of the “pot-boilers” CW often completed as regular duties in his work or as extras to make a little more money. Besides writing a VERY brief introduction (only a page-and-a-bit), it looks as if CW just cut stuff out. It appears to me that he took his copy of Chambers, crossed out everything he didn’t want in his abridgment, and sent that off, saying “Print what’s left.” I did not find any instances in which he even changed a word.
For example: Chambers’ first sentence reads: “William Shakespeare was born of burgess folk, not unlike those whom he depicts in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” CW’s first sentence is: “William Shakespeare was born of burgess folk, not unlike those in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” He only cut out three words: “whom he depicts.” This is his general practice throughout, cutting, but not changing, material—much like the method most directors use when approaching Shakespeare’s own texts! So CW will compress two sentences into one, cut out words, paragraphs, pages, but leave the rest the same, even so far as retaining untranslated Latin and 16th-century spellings.
How does he manage to shorten the book so much, then, and what is the purpose of his abridgement?
To take that second question first: What is the purpose of this shortened version? To answer it, here is CW’s introductory “note” in its entirety.
So he has made this book for people who are (a) too poor or (b) too uneducated to own or understand Chambers’ book. He includes the disingenuous claim that he is “one of” such readers. Hogwash. Obviously he had access to a copy at work (whether he could afford to own one privately or not), since he made the abridgement. And obviously his bosses, at any rate, considered him educated enough to understand the original deeply and thoroughly, since they trusted him to abridge it. So I find that false humility actually arrogant and obnoxious, as if he is talking down to all the dumb poor people who don’t “get” Chambers, especially as on the next page he calls this a “base use” of the original material (quotation marks his). That’s insulting, even if the scare quotes are supposed to indicate that he doesn’t really mean it.
Furthermore, if he really wanted to make it accessible to working-class readers, he could have translated the Latin, modernized the spellings, paraphrased the complicated sentences into simpler English, and explained some of the points in lay-people’s terms. Maybe he was not allowed to do so. Maybe his instructions were “Shorten it, without changing a word.” If so, then, I think his introduction could have been more honest. OUP wanted to sell more copies, most likely, and people will buy a little cheap book more readily than a really expensive two-volume scholarly work.
The Oxford University Press digital archives include the following record of the publication of CW’s work in 1933:
A short life of Shakespeare: with the sources, abridged by Charles Williams from Sir Edmund Chamber’s William Shakespeare: a study of facts and problems / Chambers, E. K. (Edmund Kerchever), 1866 – 1954 ; Williams, Charles, 1886 – 1945. — vii, , 260 p : front., illus. (maps) port.., facsims ; 19 cm. — Oxford : The Clarendon Press, 1933 Notes: Contents: Principal dates. — Pedigree of Shakespeare and Arden. — Shakespeare’s origin. — Shakespeare and his company. — The plays: publication. — The plays: authenticity and chronology. — The sonnets. — Appendix: I. Records. II. Contemporary allusions (to the First folio, 1623) III. Tradition (from 1625) — Index Held by: Manchester ; Trinity College Dublin.
Since it is called an abridgment, perhaps it was required to be merely a shortening, not actually a version more accessible to ordinary readers.
There are a couple of other points in CW’s introduction that are not strictly true. He claims that “the authorities, the evidence, the discussions, the delicate controversies are there.” That is simply not true.
For example, in a discussion of the confusing content of the Sonnets (to whom are they addressed? Are they autobiographical? etc.), Chambers writes: “It has been thought that the work of other men has been intermingled with Shakespeare’s,” and then there follows a page-long discussion of various scholars’ thoughts on the matter. CW retains that sentence, skips the scholarly discussion, and picks up again with “It is impossible, I think, to be dogmatic on the evidence available.” The words “I think,” with their attendant commas, are in Chambers but not in Williams. Indeed, CW often takes out qualifiers, making the claims stronger. But notice what he has left out: the one page that contained precisely “the authorities, the evidence, the discussions, the delicate controversies.” I don’t mind his leaving it out—that makes sense—but I mind his claiming that he didn’t.
He also claims that “the documents and the original anecdotes are here.” But they are not. That is precisely what he has left out, which leads us to the second question: How did he get it down to 260 pages from 1,024?
Well, here’s how:
- cutting out 267 pages of discussion of provenance, MS variations, textual difficulties, and sources for each of the plays, along with bibliographies of PhD dissertations on each play
- skipping sections on “Performances of Plays,” “The Name Shakespeare,” and “Shakespearean Fabrications”
- leaving out discussion of any of the other poems besides the Sonnets
- omitting most of Volume Two, the primary documents
- ending quotations from Shakespeare at 1825 (Chambers continued to 1862)
So that’s how he shortens it.
[How Chambers managed to compile all of that without the internet is beyond me. And the dude published like one major scholarly work every year or so. It boggles the mind.]
I don’t have any information about sales figures, but The Story of Shakespeare was successful enough to be reprinted in 1946. It’s a nice little volume, but probably fairly outdated by now. Any of you Shakespeare scholars know what the reputation of Chambers’ work is at this point? Has he been superseded? By whom?
Anyway, my biggest surprise was to find that CW ever made anything SHORTER. With his long sentences, lush descriptions, and labyrinthine syntax, I didn’t think he could ever do that. He could and did. Now I want to do the same to many of his works. 🙂