Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Interview with Dr. James Wells

by Kindall Duke

The latest version of Henry IV Part 2, edited by BU English professor James Wells, was released in January as part of the New Kittredge Shakespeare Series. Dr. Wells is currently teaching a Special Studies in Shakespeare: Editing Shakespeare class which is involved in editing The Taming of the Shrew. Dr. Wells will be delivering the Simmons Lecture on February 24.

What led you to edit 2 Henry IV as opposed to another play?
I was asked by the series editor at the Shakespeare Association conference in 2007 if I would like to participate in this series called the New Kittredge Shakespeare that he was putting together, and a number of the plays were already taken. He asked me which of the plays I wanted to do and I said, ‘How about Coriolanus?” and he said, “How about Henry IV Part 2?” I love Henry IV Part 2, and think it is an incredible play. It is equally as accomplished as Henry IV Part 1, but it’s taught more rarely and is a bit more difficult to read. I was asked by the editor specifically to do this play, but really I’m glad I got to do it.

When editing a play, where do you start? Can you describe the process?
Where I start is reading the play again, and again, and again, and again and gaining that textual knowledge. After that there are a number of things that have to be done. There are source materials that need to be read. Shakespeare uses the history of Raphael Holinshed—his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland—so I had to go back and look at that. That was one of the principal sources. After that, what editors have to start doing is looking at other editions of the play. There are other editions that go back all the way to the early 18th century and the editions that go back even to the 16th century. The play was originally performed around 1597 and shortly thereafter it was published in a quarto version that came out. You’re looking to see what other people have said about this play in the past in order to come to the best understanding possible, so I spent a great deal of time looking at a compilation of all the editors and changes to the play and annotations going all the way back to the 18th century. Then I looked at all the modern editions of the play as well in order to figure out the best way to relate the material to readers.

When going through all that material, what are some of the challenges you encounter, especially with an author like Shakespeare about whom so much has already been written?
I’m going to start with the end of that question. There’s a little bit of a different activity that goes on with editing than with literary criticism and that type of scholarship. In literary criticism, what you’re aiming to do is be original, to contribute something that hasn’t been said before. Now, the category I’m about to place editing in does not exclude trying to be original, but you are first trying to be helpful and allow readers to come to a better understanding of the text—to make it more available to readers. The best editions I still think are those that are generous and make the reading process more rewarding and less forbidding. I think one of the main things about reading Shakespeare is that it’s a challenge for 20th and 21st century readers, for students and even scholars who study Shakespeare but are approaching a play they have not read for a long time. What we’re trying to do is bridge those gaps between modern understanding and the meaning on the page without limiting what the meanings are.
One of the challenges that I had was a dispositional challenge. I had to break away from wanting to engage in an ongoing conversation with other editors and start thinking in terms of a collaborative effort, even though the people don’t know they’re collaborating with me. You’re not trying to one-up another editor. That being said, I also want to say it’s very humbling looking at the work other editors have done because people have already done incredible work on this play. No one is going to come to a play as an editor and change anything, so that was a dispositional challenge I faced.
The other was the challenge of figuring out what needs to be annotated and explained to students and other readers and what does not need to be explained, trying to find that appropriate level of understanding. If you don’t help people enough you end up losing them, if you help them too much it becomes tedious and they keep looking down at notes they don’t need to look down at and eventually stop reading them. Then there was the even more challenging part of wording things in a clear and lively way. There are so many times when I would have worked very hard on how to phrase an annotation only to find another editor had done it in fewer words and much more clearly than I had done it.

Was there something you learned that surprised you while you were editing?

When I consider the volume of information I learned doing the play that’s the thing that is surprising. I learned so much. I consider that I know a pretty good amount of Shakespeare and about the plays that I’m teaching; however, there is no teacher like going through every line of the play trying to figure out what needs to be explained and what doesn’t. It taught me that as a reader I take hundreds of shortcuts. It was an eye-opening experience in that way.
When I think about information about the play itself there were a number of points I thought I understood, then when I started interpreting it on a new level in order to understand what all the metaphors meant I started to see larger patterns and could just stand in awe once again of Shakespeare’s genius.

In the publishing process, what kind of restrictions were you working under?
This was taking an edition of Shakespeare which had previously been published by George Lyman Kittredge, one of the original, we might call him, Shakespeare teacher scholars. I think he was the first to offer Shakespeare as a class in literature. Toward the end of his career he came out with a complete works of Shakespeare that he had edited, and he appended a glossary to the end of it. After he finished that, when he was in his 70’s, he started editing and annotating them individually. He got to 16 of them before he died. The proprietor of Focus Publishing wanted to bring these back out, so we were dealing with someone else’s textual editing without the annotations. I was given the freedom to do anything I wanted with the text and with annotations; however, this was designated as a student edition rather than a scholar edition. The difference there is that I was trying to mainly address the issues and the problems students would encounter reading, not the issues scholars have with this play. We were also asked to write about film adaptations. I have to say I found writing about film as one of the biggest challenges of doing this series. I enjoy and appreciate Shakespeare on film, but I’ve never been an enthusiast in the same way. I was a little bit timid, but I enjoyed watching the film versions very much. Those were the only restrictions other than the restrictions that were already a part of the professional standard.

According to the back of this book you are currently working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Is there anything else we can look forward to or anything you would really like to do?
The work I’ve got there is enough to keep me busy for the next year, and I’m working on a book about Shakespeare. That book is on the way Shakespeare uses experiences that audiences have willy nilly when they see or read a play and the way Shakespeare takes those experiences and intensifies them through the plot and themes. There’s a pattern in his plays. He finds a way of taking what audiences already enjoy in the experience of drama and making it more intense by representing it on stage.

Is there one play you would want to work on if you ever have the time or the option?
Can I add this plug in there?
I’ve got the class that is working on The Taming of the Shrew, and I just finished an article on it that’s coming out in a collection of essays in a couple of years. It’s an amazing play. It’s an earlier work by Shakespeare that really shows what he was capable of, even at a young age. Even though it’s a play that some would call problematic now—and it really is—it’s delightful.
I don’t think I would ever want to edit Hamlet. I can tell you something I don’t want to do. But editing is a very rewarding—not financially—in terms of the appeal it has for people who want to teach. I think there is an educational component to editing because even if you’re not looking at the people you’re teaching, you’re actively involved in teaching.

Is there anything you would like to add?
I just want to add—and I hope this is clear—that there are fewer things that are more humbling than editing a work of Shakespeare. It was an honor to do this project. And you can buy it! It will be on Amazon soon for $8.95.

Kindall Duke is a Senior BU English Major.