Monday, September 27, 2010

Notes on Shakespeare's Punctuation

It's time for another British Academy Shakespeare lecture! This time I'll be compiling notes from Peter Alexander's 25 April 1945 Annual Shakespeare Lecture entitled "Shakespeare's Punctuation." Punctuation in Merry Devil seemed a bit willy-nilly, although every now and again a pattern seemed to emerge, it was almost as quickly contradicted by some other evidence. The result of multiple authors or compositors, perhaps? I can't say, but my actors were able to clarify a reading of the text with the insertion of a simple comma, so this is definitely worth a read for my continuing adventures with this project.

18th century editors revised both Shakespeare and Milton, and routinely found veils of imperfection to which they could ascribe faults in the genius which they alone could see through. Bentley blamed Milton's scribe, and Pope similarly blamed the actors of Shakespeare's stage, and when men were so concerned with choosing to add or remove words wholesale, they could be little concerned with something so trivial as punctuation, thus the field has remained relatively unexplored (3 - 4). Although, to this last point, it is necessary to recall that Alexander is delivering this lecture in 1945. Still, the sentiment gives me pause. Is my treatment of the ending page of Merry Devil any better than Pope's treatment of Shakespeare's text? Hmm...

Since modern scholars will tend to agree that any edition of a text must proceed from a reading of the text itself, and not from the editors attempt to see through the veil of the text to the genius of the author, the same must be true of punctuation (5 - 7).

"Knowledge of Documents should precede final Judgment upon Readings" (7 - 8), Alexander here quotes Hort and Westcott's introduction to The New Testament in the Original Greek, citing page 20, but providing no other information about the book.

"Knowledge of any document as a whole has to be built up from judgments on individual passages" (8).

Alexander cites Hort and Westcott a second time in stating that "all trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history," and that this applies to all texts of all fields of inquiry (8).

Q2 Hamlet and Coriolanus (found only in F) are both thought to derive from authorial manuscripts, and both texts are replete with commas and colons, featuring full stops only rarely. The punctuation of these texts must be thought of in the context of the authorial manuscript upon which they were based (16 - 17). A very fair point; if the print shop wasn't in the habit of changing the words of plays, why would they change the punctuation? I find myself questioning my previous assertion that Merry Devil is punctuated without much reason, although it still seems like it is fairly irregular.

c.f the punctuation scheme outlines by Alfred E. Thiselton.

Dover Wilson, in setting Hamlet from the Q2 rather than the Folio, has done so inconsistently, and while Q2's punctuation, especially in the "what a piece of work is man" speech can provide insight into the text, than it ought to be able to provide insight into the whole text and not just some of the parts that Dover Wilson has chosen to apply this punctuation schema to in his own edition (22).

Further reason to take punctuation from the Q2 Hamlet as being authorial can be found in its similarity to the manuscript of Sir Thomas Moore, which of course, is thought to be the only manuscript in Shakespeare's hand (23).


Tom Berger's exhortation to not apply post-Enlightenment thinking to this problem is ringing in my ears again, and while Shakespeare may have used commas internally to punctuate lines for emphasis (23), it would be a mistake to read Shakespeare's use of punctuation as necessarily consistent with our own.


  1. Having performed Shakespeare myself, I can say with certainty that earlier punctuation should be maintained for the benefit of those who will perform Shakespeare's plays. Of course, you can go _too_ early. Look at Hamlet's Q1. You won't be performing that script in the first place, so you probably won't want to use its punctuation.

  2. Actually, as the Artistic Director of Bad Quarto productions, I would be VERY interested in performing Q1 Hamlet, punctuation and all. I know that the American Shakespeare Center has also performed that particular iteration of Hamlet in the past, but I don't know as they have preserved the original punctuation in their rehearsal scripts, or if the actors paid much mind to it in performance.

    Some of my other work looking at rhetorical punctuation and how that can influence performance ( has lead me to believe differently than I did when I was compiling these notes, though, which is one of the reasons that the edition of Merry Devil that was always the ultimate goal of this project has been delayed.