Friday, December 24, 2010

Notes on "The Treatment of Shakespeare's Text by His Earlier Editors"

While the editions of McKerrow's contemporaries may be more textually accurate than those produced by Shakespeare's 18th century editors, many of those who read Shakespeare purely for pleasure do not need an edition filled with extensive scholarly scaffolding; this might actually hinder their enjoyment of his work. Shakespearean scholars therefore owe a debt to the "less careful, I might almost say less respectful, treatment accorded to him by [Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Johnson, and the other eighteenth century editors]" (1-2, quotation on 2).

The alterations in the 1632, 1663, and 1685 folios tend to be of the sort one would expect to see in reprints of the works of a contemporary or recent author: they correct errors and modernize spelling and typographical practice. Where Rowe significantly diverges is that he regularly substitutes modern forms of words: i.e. 'whilst' for 'whiles,' 'been' for 'bin,' 'an' for 'and' in the sense of 'if,' 'he' for 'a,' &c (3).

Rowe's edition is largely a reprint of F4, but it is a careful and intelligent one for its date and purpose. Rowe was conservative, and seldom made changes to the text where the text made sense, excepting the case of Hamlet, where he collated with a later (probably post-1676) quarto copy (7 - 8).

More important than Rowe's textual work was his insertion and regularization of lists of dramatis personae, the correction of stage directions (especially entrances and exits), the addition of act and scene divisions, and the addition of scene locations. These emendations to the text of Shakeseare's works make them more convenient for a reader of the plays (9).

Rowe likewise normalized character names, such as Aegeon in Comedy of Errors. It is noteworthy that McKerrow perceives the author as thinking in terms of dramatic function when he writes speech prefixes for the character; while that may be telling information about the playwright or for an actor, it is likely to confuse the casual reader (9).

Rowe seems to have carefully made sure that entrances and exits for characters were correctly indicated, but otherwise did not make extensive additions to them, although he sometimes used different wording (10).

In F1, six of the plays are printed without any kind of act or scene division, Hamlet is divided up to the second act, but no further divisions are given, eleven plays are divided solely into acts, and the remaining eighteen into both acts and scenes (11).

While it may be true that Shakespeare provides the scene locations in dialog when it is necessary for an audience to know, or that seeing the characters on stage will otherwise be sufficient for an audience to understand the action on stage, readers of the plays do not have the latter frame of reference, and thus are incapable of seeing the action in their minds eye. Rowe's addition of scene locations thus makes Shakespeare's plays "more generally readable" (12).

On 2 August 1721 Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, sent a letter to Pope claiming that "the hardest part of Chaucer is more intelligible to me than some of those scenes [of Shakespeare]...there are allusions in him to an hundred things, of which I knew nothing and can guess nothing. And yet without some competent knowledge of those matters there is no understanding him. I protest Aeschylus does not want a comment to me more than he does." It is noteworthy that Atterbury was a learned and well read man (13).

When creating his edition, Pope relied on F1, F2, and quartos published before 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death; he seemingly regarded later quartos to be without authority. He kept Rowe's dramatis personae lists, and expanded act and scene editions to follow French-scene customs that create a new scene every time a major character enters or leaves the stage (14 - 15).

Despite Rowe's claim to have compared his copy text with several editions, he appears to have done very little of this, and Pope seems to be the first Shakespearean editor to attempt to gather all authoritative texts to create the best text possible for his own edition (17).

"New readings of authority can never be obtained by comparing texts in the same line of descent, where the earliest must obviously be the most authoritative, but only by comparing texts in different lines of descent." This is because later editions of a print text tend to be compared to earlier printed versions and not to authorial draft copy (18).

"It seems to be customary among editors of English classics to use as the basis of their own edition that particular earlier one which in their preface they most vehemently condemn; and Theobald follows the custom by using Pope's" (22).

Edward Capell, by leaving his extensive collection of original quarto copies to Trinity College, facilitated the creation of the Cambridge editors in 1863-1866 (27).


Each of the eighteenth century editors of Shakespeare made contributions to the readability of Shakespeare's text for their audiences, even if they did not arrive at readings that New Bibliographers would call more authorial. McKerrow praises Capel, especially, for collecting a great compendium of facts, but notes that he didn't seem to know what to do with it (27). In a way, McKerrow is guilty of the same offense: he has compiled an index of noteworthy contributions to the development of Shakespearean readership and scholarship of Shakespeare's early editors, but cannot help but see them in light of the New Bibliography. By viewing the eighteenth century editors in terms of their failure to live up to the standards of the New Bibliography, McKerrow cannot see how each of these editors addressed specific needs within their market place, and thus unwittingly links himself with the failings he has accused these editors of.


McKerrow, Ronald B. "The Treatment of Shakespeare's Text By His Earlier Editors." Proceedings of the British Academy Annual Shakespeare Lecture. Red 26 April 1933.

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