Friday, August 27, 2010

Notes on Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader: Prologue

Following William Proctor Williams' advice to treat anonymous play quartos like Hamlet, I continue my quest to formulate a cogent editorial theory that will serve the product of this process: a new edition of The Merry Devil of Edmonton. At the forefront of my reading list is Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader by none other than Stanley Wells, one of the men most responsible for the ground-shaking Oxford Complete Works

From the first page of the introduction, I'm feeling good about this book. Wells distinguishes himself as an editor, and says that he has prepared the lectures contained within from an editorial rather than a bibliographic perspective. Where W.W. Greg's approach was primarily as a textual critic, and McKerrow and Bowers concerned themselves primarily with producing diplomatic editions (i.e. facsimile reproductions of a certain text), Wells has devoted himself to not only understanding textual problems, but also providing workable solutions to these problems in application (1).

"None of us can avoid error; all judgment is both subjective and fallible" (1).

New editions of already available plays do not immediately deprecate older editions, nor should every new interpretation of a passage or proposed emendation dictate the publication of a new edition. A new edition is the result of a cumulative process of scholarship, and thus not every new edition need be radically different from those that came before. While texts will be re-examined periodically in light of new scholarship, it should also be expected that some new editions will simply re-package older texts in order to reach a new or larger market (2 - 3).

Editors must think conservatively in their process. When an editor is tempted to set aside primary evidence, he should consider whether he is motivated by reason, or by "a lazy-minded reluctance to disturb the status quo" (4). Of course, the opposite must also be true, and an editor must be conscious of whether nor not they are motivated by an emotional impulse to disturb the status quo as well.


Wells' agenda is pretty clear. The Oxford Complete Works deliberately challenged long held notions of textual accuracy. The facing-text presentation of King Lear introduced a new paradigm in the presentation of texts, which is grounded in a distinctly different flavor of editorial conservativism than John Dover Wilson had practiced in his earlier Cambridge Complete Works.

Returning for a moment to some previous discussion about versions as utterances and utterances of texts as participating in the larger story of a text, Wells seems more clearly interested in presenting a reconstruction of something more closely approximating an utterance of the text that Shakespeare himself may have heard. Still, this is only his reconstruction of that utterance, and it is both a product of Shakespeare's time and our own.

Lingering question: is the approximation of a 400 year old utterance the best one for the modern stage?


  1. Shakespeare has long been in the public domain, so any amount of editing, emending, translating and rewriting is appropriate as long as editors warn readers that they are doing so. Slightly glossed editions, heavily glossed editions, highly edited and emended editions, and complete translations should all be welcome without sparking controversy or prompting apologies. All these versions are legitimate entrepreneurial efforts taken to meet the needs of different readers. Those who adapt, tweak, or translate Shakespeare for the modern reader do not need the approval of top scholars and do not need to defend what they are doing. Readers can decide from among the many choices available what they feel is the best way to enjoy Shakespeare. Some will even opt to read Shakespeare in a foreign language translation if the English language editions are too challenging.

    I have been writing verse translations of Shakespeare for many years and am currently working on Julius Caesar (you can read excerpts of my work at As I work, I surround myself with eleven different editions and four dictionaries. Some are more useful than others for my purposes, but all of them seem legitimate, despite their differences, and each fills a niche in the Shakespeare marketplace. Rather than argue that this or that level of emendation is appropriate, let’s encourage every level of emendation and adaptation.

    Kent Richmond

  2. Thank you for contributing to the Merry Fringe blog. I agree with you, in principle, that Shakespeare is open to all forms of emendation and adaptation "as long as editors warn readers that they are doing so." Still, it is important for editors and adapters to be rigorous in their work, and admit potential variations and uncertainties as they occur. This is ultimately the argument that Wells is making, and I happen to agree with it.

    This is where I start to question your work on the modern verse translations you are working on at the moment. In Macbeth, for example, in your online excerpt, you have highlighted a number of verse lines as prose, which could more properly be set as shared lines. This package is the one to which I am specifically referring:




    Wait!—The next room, who’s in it?




    [Looking at his hands] This is a sorry sight.

    Since I think you would agree that most editors would choose to set this passage as shared lines of verse, alerting your readers to this difference would create a greater sense of transparency in your work. I think that is what Wells is getting at, at least.