Saturday, August 28, 2010

Notes on Re-Editing Shakespeare for the Modern Reader: Chapter 1

"Old and Modern Spelling."

Most font families lack the long-s character that is common place in printed books of the late 16th and early 17th century, and thus there is an immediate impediment to producing old spelling editions. The technology is there, but requires some extra research, although in all fairness this is easily overcome, many readers are apt to look at a long-s and pronounce it as an "f," or simply not know what it is. The typographic conventions of the early 20th century have relegated this character to an historical curiosity. This begs the question, to long-s or not to long-s? 

Is the long-s a stylistic curiosity, or a more telling bibliographic marker? The answer lies mostly in the mind of the reader, and as I prepare this new edition of Merry Devil that target reader is ever in my mind. Wells, in this chapter entitled "Old and Modern Spelling" notes that while some students who are more directly focused on the language would prefer an old spelling edition of Shakespeare's works, those who are more interested in critique or production are generally satisfied with a modernized spelling edition (7). 

Wells counters Gaskell's argument that modernizing spelling may imply a modern meaning to a word on two points. The first is that many words are spelled now as they were then, the second is that meanings may have shifted either subtly or substantially, but the spelling of the word will provide no clarification as to its meaning in the mind of the reader. Furthermore, the old spelling of the word may obstruct a modern reader from discerning any meaning from it (8).

Gaskell's second objection to modern spelling is that it will conceal 'puns and rhymes,' and his third that it 'causes the editor to choose when the author was ambiguous.' Wells notes that a pun is not necessarily suppressed by the editor's destruction of ambiguity, and that much ambiguity is restored anyway when the text is received from the mouth of an actor (as it was intended) (9). I have mixed feelings on this last point; on the one hand, he's completely correct. On the other, the meaning created by the editor is interpreted by the actor. Then again, given that the period allowed for rehearsals shrinks every few years, I see nothing wrong with giving the actor the tools necessary to make some choices easier.

Bowers makes the argument that old spelling can preserve a double meaning to a word: for example "travel" and "travail" could mean either the same thing, or slightly different things. Modernizing all "travail" spellings to "travel" when the editor determines that travel is the primary sense intended robs the reader of the experience of both meanings. Wells argues, however, that the distinctive spellings of the words in modern English would inhibit such understanding anyway; he suggests that an editor would do well to choose the primary meaning of the word, and make a notation of the secondary (9-10).

If the point of an old spelling edition is to preserve the vagaries of present in the original text, it must also take the same care with the incidentals of the text (i.e. punctuation). In 1939 McKerrow argued that we might never knows how educated Elizabethans would differentiate definitively correct or incorrect punctuation, and that argument still holds to this day. If an editor wishes to preserve the obscurities of language, they must also be faithful to the incidentals of that written language (11).

While a modern spelling edition of a text may obscure some rhymes, it is noteworthy that even original spelling editions of certain texts will do this some of the time (11-12).

While Gaskell's fourth argument, that modernizing 'deprives the work of the quality of belonging to its own period' similarly disintegrates when one considers factors beyond the printed text. Modern text, whether or not they retain original spelling, are printed on modern paper, with modern ink, in modern bindings, and are likewise sold in modern bookstores (12). The time the work belongs to is the one in which it is produced.

John Russel Brown has argued at the "Elizabethan flavour" of a work produced in this period is a modern construction. The Elizabethans would have considered these works modern (12). I'm typing this in a medium that will almost certainly never be printed on paper, but which will be instantly readable by anyone in the world at the click of a button. Hand-press books may seem quaint by comparison, but let us remember that to the Elizabethans hand-press books were high-tech.

Modern editors may make decisions limiting the range of possible meaning, and which may create difficulty with rhymes. Such an editor is also likely to punctuate the text more precisely, and may make questionable decisions in the process of so doing. Depending on the reader of the work, these changes may make the edition useless for their study, or they may never notice that emendation has taken place. "There is no moral superiority in belonging to the class of readers best served by an old-spelling edition" (13-14).

In On Editing Shakespeare (155-6), Bowers states that "an old spelling edition is likely to be a work of scholarship," but the the editor of an old spelling edition may mangle the text just as easily as the editor of the modern spelling edition (14).

Provided the editor of the modern spelling edition does not simply re-create the mistakes of past editors, and that he thoroughly considers the implications and repercussions of the modernizing process, the development of new modern spelling editions may be more likely to lead to new explorations of the text than creating yet another old spelling edition (16-17).

While some will argue that original spelling preserves original pronunciation, Fausto Cercignani establishes that spelling is only a partial guide to pronunciation at best in Elizabethan Pronunciation and Shakespeare's Works (19-20).

Wells finds it more than slightly ridiculous to print original spellings when the modern word is pronounced the same, even if it would be pronounced differently if the pronunciation were phonetic. He offers, as an example, the Riverside's propensity for printing "We'nsday," "as if anyone in his senses... would ever be in danger of saying 'Wed-nes-day'" (20).

A modernizing editor needs to take care to modernize foreign words to their modern usage, unless it is clear that the word is being mispronounced (26). English has easily adopted certain words or phrases from French, but the editor needs to consider carefully whether a mis-spelled French word is the result of the authors unfamiliarity with the correct form, or if the author is trying to make a point with the character's mis-pronunciation. Huck Finn's "pooley voo franzie" comes to mind. Certainly, the word adieu appears in Merry Devil, although it is spelled as "adew." Should I modernize to "adieu," which could imply a correct pronunciation, or should I leave it as "adew," implying the pronunciation as "a-doo?" Context is key.

I think Wells wraps up this chapter nicely, and so I'm going to quote him here:
Sometimes I think I ought to be more radical than I am prepared to be at present: in these moments I ask myself whether, for example, any point is served by printing 'owe' where we should say 'own'... Certainly I should have no objection to a theatrical production in which such changes were made, and I could well believe that such a production would bring me closer to Shakespeare than one in which the actors laboriously pronounced-as some of them do-'pioner' for 'pioneer'.... What I hope I have shown is that modernizing itself is not, as I was once told, merely a 'secretarial task'; that current practice leaves much room for improvement; and that when thoughtfully carried out it can yield worthwhile results (31).

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