Saturday, July 24, 2010

Making Shakespeare Notes: Chapter Seven

Rules of punctuation and spelling were highly variable in early modern printed texts. In the "Shakespeare" portions of the Thomas Moore manuscript, the author has punctuated, capitalized, and spelled words, sometimes within the same line, seemingly at random (138).

It was common practice for scribes and printers to add punctuation (and perhaps capitalization) according to their own tastes. It is unlikely that punctuation that has come down to us is original, and there are examples where the words may remain the same, but the sense of a line is altered by the punctuation (139).

From the evidence of the Thomas Moore manuscript, it seems as if Shakespeare in some cases wrote lines first, and then parceled them out to characters later. This might account for the confusion of the name of Pistol's wife in Henry V, and of the names of the Nurse's and Romeo's serving men in Romeo and Juliet (141-142).

It may be possible to discern the source of a printed copy by looking at descriptions of entrances. An authorial stage direction is more likely to provide an entrance for the character and scene, such as "enter gentleman on the walls of Rome," whereas a prompter will be more likely to write in terms of practical stage direction/architecture: "enter above." Texts that come from prompters also tends toward specificity in numbers; whereas an author may specify "lords and attendants," a prompter, who like any good stage manager would know who is available when, would be more likely to specify how many lords and attendants can enter at the given moment (144).

Prompters were responsible for editing play texts as required by the Master of Revels, such as removing swearing from the play, and then submitting those changes for official approval (144-145).

"Any Shakespeare text that can be traced to a prompter's book has already been repeatedly mediated by other hands" (145). Meditate on this: If the extant Merry Devil text has come from a copy that was cut for touring, it very likely comes to us from a copy of the touring prompter's book.

Since revenues from touring plays when the London theatres were closed were less than home performances, non-sharer members would not tour, and the plays would be altered to accommodate a smaller cast. Lines might be dropped, or characters might be amalgamated into one. Also, country audiences were not as sophisticated as city audiences, and thus the plays were cut to a shorter running time than they would have enjoyed in the London playhouse (145-146).

Since playwrights incorporated timely events and jokes into their plays, a very popular play, which might run for over a year, would need regular revising in order to keep the material fresh (146).

It is likely that many of the texts do not come to us in the form in which they had enjoyed life in performance at the time they were printed. Foul paper, one off, or otherwise deprecated versions of texts, would not have been discarded due to the cost of paper, but would have been kept in the company's reserves in case something had happened to the book then in use. The company could afford to send these archived copies, no longer necessary for the performance of the play, to the printer for publication where they may have been more reticent to part with a more practically useful text for that purpose (146-147).

Since print is easier to read than manuscript, a printed text, even if it was outdated, might find its way back into use by the company. A printed quarto could be augmented with manuscript emendations to reflect the play as it then existed in the company's repertory. This is what appears to have happened in the case of Romeo and Juliet, as the Folio text tends to closely follow the spelling and punctuation of the good quarto, but presents several changes over that text (147).

The realities of printing house practices also affect the plays that come down to us. Just as even good typists will make typos, even a good compositor will occasionally choose the wrong letter. Since compositors had to work quickly, like their modern touch-typist counter parts, they had to rely on their sense of touch and their knowledge of where certain letters were to lay them out quickly. Letters that felt similar and which were arranged in close proximity in the type case, could easily be confused (150 - 152).

Photo of type case layout from Tiffany Stern's Making Shakespeare. The website she has credited is no longer in service.
 It is also possible that decisions about spelling and punctuation would have been made to reflect the quantities of type available vs. those used heavily in the text. The speech prefix of "Bastard" for "Edmund" in King Lear may be a function of the heavy use of magiscule italic Es in the text, and thus the decision to refer to the character as "Bastard" may be nothing more than the printer's way of preserving E for other uses (Enter, Exit,  and Edgar) (153).

Compositors were expected to edit the texts they were given to make them legible to their readers, but in the process of so doing may have altered the sense of the lines by mis-interpreting the playhouse text (154).

It is also possible that disfigured or poorly inked (or over inked) pieces of type have altered the sense of the texts. A damaged f resembles a long s, and this is why Ferdinand exults at having "So rare a wondred Father, and a wise" instead of "So rare a wondred Father, and a wife" (154-155).


The plays from early modern London that come down to us are many times removed from the hands of the men who wrote them. While it may be possible to spot some trends behind "the veil of print," the hand of the author is not one of them. Who wrote Shakespeare? is an irrelevant question. Who edited him is much more useful for the purposes of determining how the play may have been performed, and how the texts that we have might best be presented.

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