Shakespeare and Versions

This was something that came up in another class of mine that made me think of some of the issues we were dealing with in this one. I’m reading Julius Caesar, and I found an interesting footnote about how Shakespeare portrayed Brutus’ reaction to the death of his wife, Portia.

Mark Antony gives a dramatic, involved speech that draws in the crowd
Mark Antony gives a dramatic, involved speech that draws in the crowd

Some context: In Act 4, scene 3, Brutus and Cassius, two of the main conspirators responsible for Caesar’s death, are having an argument over Cassius’s corrupt practices (he wanted Brutus to pardon a friend of his who was caught accepting bribes). Shakespeare is always trying to portray Brutus as a righteous senator, a man thoroughly dedicated to his honor. He also makes it clear that Brutus is a great proponent of Stoicism: one of the most famous points in the play is how Mark Antony is able to manipulate the crowd of plebeians with his common-man persona while Brutus is too emotionally detached to effectively reach out to them.

Now as Cassius and Brutus argue, insults and accusations fly, but they eventually calm down and apologize to each other. Cassius remarks that he’s never seen Brutus so angry, to which Brutus replies that his life has taken a grievous turn: his wife, Portia, has “swallowed fire” in order to take her own life, being unable to cope with her anxiety about her husband’s predicament (he’s about to go up against the armies of Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar). Cassius remarks even before Brutus’ confession that he doesn’t seem to be following his usual “philosophy” of Stoicism, being as wracked with emotion as he is. Afterward Brutus implores him not to speak of Portia anymore and tries to return to their discussion, but drinks heavily.

Enter Titinius and Messala, two military allies to the senators, and Brutus is all business again, completely obscuring the grief he showed moments before. Messala, thinking that Brutus has not heard the news, tells him of Portia’s death. Brutus responds as follows:

“Why, farewell, Portia. We must die, Messala./ With meditating that she must die once,/ I have the patience to endure it now.”

Cassius remarks that even though he is theoretically as much a Stoic as Brutus, he could never endure such a blow and hold so steady. Brutus then dismisses the topic, saying, “Well, to our work alive.”

Brutus and Cassius, Act 4 scene 3
Brutus and Cassius, Act 4 scene 3

So here’s the quote from the footnotes of my copy of Julius Caesar that really piqued my interest:

“Some editors suggest that this was the original version of Shakespeare’s account of Portia’s death and that he later deleted this and wrote in lines 142-57, preferring to demonstrate Brutus’ humanity rather than his Stoicism; the Folio printer then set up both versions by mistake. Line 158 would follow 141—as 195 would follow 179—neatly enough to make this an attractive theory.”

This is to say that originally, Shakespeare wanted to have Messala be the first person to tell Brutus of his wife’s death and to have Brutus actually be as impervious as he tries to seem, but he later changed his mind and chose to portray Brutus in a more human and relatable light, cutting Messala’s role as the bearer of bad news and limiting the discussion of Portia to the more emotional exchange between Cassius and Brutus.

This snippet related so much to what we’ve been reading about in this class, particularly in the Broadview Reader, that I got really excited. Not only does it tie in the history of printing with a little allusion to the state of printing in Shakespeare’s day, but it brings up the ever-controversial topic of versions and authorial intent: the words are all Shakespeare’s, but there are many possibilities as to what he actually wanted to say. The slightest edit can change the meaning of the scene and of the entire character of Brutus, and so create an utterly different version. We’re uncertain of what Shakespeare wanted to keep and what he wanted to cut, so we reproduce all of his words, but if he were able to choose, he might want to convey one version over another. It is up to editors to do Shakespeare justice and make sure that readers understand the possibilities.

2 comments

  1. “It is up to editors to do Shakespeare justice and make sure that readers understand the possibilities.”

    I like this post a lot! It’s interesting to consider the works of Shakespeare as “fluid,” living texts that of course change throughout time as different readers observe them, but also were perhaps never as concrete as we think they are. I would love to hear more about what you think the role of an editor is here; is it the job of an editor to inform the public of different iterations of a text? To identify and explain his/her choices in selecting one version over another? Basically, is it irresponsible to call something “Julius Caesar,” and not identify which Julius Caesar it is?

  2. I think most editors of Shakespeare and many antiquated writers have it down to a pretty practical science: the footnotes are used to explain outdated terms or concepts and increase accessibility for modern readers. Of course, with Shakespeare, editors have their work cut out for them considering the physical appearance of the language itself has changed so much. The letter ‘s’ is almost unrecognizable in original copies of his work. His themes, however, remain shockingly relevant: the stagnant state of politics in the Roman senate is remarkably similar to the problems created by bipartisanship in our own government. I think the job of an editor is to try to preserve Shakespeare’s themes and intention as accurately as possible to enable comprehension despite the metamorphosis of culture and language that divide him from today. I think it’s important to preserve the poetry of his original words, but it’s equally important to translate some of them in the clearest and most direct way possible via footnotes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *