CW Made Something Shorter?!

IMG_2673Charles Williams Book Summary #29: The Story of Shakespeare

 [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.

CW on WS1 CW on WS2So 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, [1], 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.

sonnetsFor 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.]

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623I 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. 🙂

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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6 Responses to CW Made Something Shorter?!

  1. How does one get to become an “abridger”? I feel like I could be good at that.


  2. chicomartin says:

    Abridgment is easy – and fun! You cut out everything that contributes to the sense of things, exposing the spine and other bone-like apparatuses of plot structure, character development, etc,, and, providing some vague notion of the original is commonplace, you leave the audience in stitches.
    To become an abridger, you need only cultivate affection for the absurd.
    I hope you find this encouraging,
    Your ally,


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An very informative undertaking and presentation – thank you!

    “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?”

    Well, back in 1974 in The Riverside Shakespeare, Gwynne Evans, in his introductory note to Appendix B, “Records, Documents, and Allusions”, says, “for fuller collections the reader may consult” – and lists four works, from 1879, 1886, 1930 (which is Chambers, vol. II), and 1941. He also note neither Chambers nor his 1941 successor, B.R. Lewis, “is always a safe guide” in respect to presenting “accurate texts”. In the introductory notes to its various sections he repeatedly refers the reader to Chambers for “further information and discussion”, or “full information” and follows “Chambers’ practice” in editing the grant of arms to John Shakespeare. Chambers is also among the 15 “principal references” drawn upon for Appendix C, “Annals 152-1616” (another of which is his 4-vol. work, The Elizabethan Stage, from 1923). The first entry in the “Select Bibliography” under “Biography” – preceding the alphabetical arrangement of the rest of the list! – is Chambers, ending “There is an abridgment of it by Charles Williams […].”

    I don’t know what the Chambers volumes cost, but Williams had a salary of 50 pounds a year, then, and I can well believe that, if he had not worked for the OUP or lived near the British Museum Reading Room (though I am not sure if he ever had time off when it was open), he would have found himself among those who “cannot possess and perhaps do not find it easy to consult the major work”, and would also have felt even more strongly than he already did the “antagonistic economic and cultural circumstances of our time”. (I can also imagine that, even with access to the original, he might himself have found his abridgement a handier first resource for convenience of reference.)

    I don’t see anything that has obvious reference to being “uneducated”. Nor do I find anything that specifies “working-class readers” (though I don’t suppose they are excluded, either). I think any charges of “false humility” need a lot more elaboration. I would contend that, far from seeming to be “talking down to all the dumb poor people who don’t ‘get’ Chambers” by calling “this a ‘base use’ of the original material” he is underlining an allusion which in fact he expects his audience to recognize, from Hamlet (V.i), “To what base uses we may return, Horatio!”, soon linked with another that he does not think he needs to signal with quotation marks now that he’s got them thinking of such things, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I.i) where Lysander says, “So quick bright things come to confusion.” (Unlike Williams’s anticipated audience, or, say, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, I could not immediately place either quotation, but sensing that something was up, had to refer to a concordance!)

    It’s also worth stressing that when “He claims that ‘the authorities, the evidence, the discussions, the delicate controversies are there’ ” that “there” refers to Chamber’s “two-volume work” and is immediately contrasted with “here”: “nothing is here which is not fully justified by those volumes.” As to his claiming that “the documents and the original anecdotes are here”, which of the documents and the anecdotes listed in the sentence preceding that one have been left out? (The Grant of Arms and the Will, for instance, only occupy a couple pages in The Riverside Shakespeare.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your account of the readability of Williams as detective-story reviewer followed by your careful attention here to the possible specific conditions of abridgement have me eagerly looking forward to your attention to ‘Williams as Reteller’ – of Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1934) and The Story of the Aneid (1936). I cannot recall that anyone has mapped his prose style(s) in the way you are doing!


    • I don’t think I have access to those volumes. My library resources are severely limited.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I think I only ever saw them in the Bodleian! – though I suppose all UK Deposit Libraries have them, and the Wade appears to (and the Williams Soc has The Story of the Aeneid [correctly spelled this time!]). Perhaps you have a Wheaton or UK contact or two whom you could sound out to guest-review them – or put out an open call. Of course, after 1 January 2015 anyone with a copy could legally make it available online (at least in the UK). (Hmm… Is anyone planning a Digital Williams Library?)


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