More Musings on Shakespeare


The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (edited by Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, Penguin Books, 2002) has a short but insightful essay on the texts of Shakespeare that illustrates the choices editors have made when dealing with the texts they want to present their version to the public. It uses a single, well-known verse from Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Sc.2, lines 40-44 in the Pelican and many other editions) in which Juliet speaks:

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

We all know those lines. We’ve read and heard them for many years. In fact, they’ve been the standard reading in published texts since the 18th century. Many readers can repeat them from memory, years after they were heard in some classroom study. But as the essay points out, they don’t appear like that in any of the original texts of the play. They’re an editorial decision, an invention, as the essay says, a conflation made from the three extant texts of the play. 

For example, here is what was printed in the First Quarto version (1597; spelling modernized):

What’s Montague? It is not hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By another other name would smell as sweet.

And in the Second Quarto (1599, spelling modernized), it appears as:

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face. O be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What’s in a name that which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet.

And finally, here’s the version in the First Folio (1623; spelling modernized):

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot.
Nor arm, nor face, O be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What? in a names that which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet.

You can see the differences. As the Pelican edition notes,

There is in fact no early text that reads as our modern text does — and this is the most famous speech in the play. Instead, we have three quite different texts, all of which are clearly some version of the same speech, but none of which seems to us a final or satisfactory version. The transcendently beautiful passage in modern editions is an editorial invention: editors have succeeded in conflating and revising the three versions into something we recognize as great poetry. Is this what Shakespeare ‘really” wrote? Who can say? What we can say is that Shakespeare always had a performance, not a book, in mind.

First FolioIn the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the Complete Works (RSC, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Modern Library, 2007)  these lines instead show up in Scene 2 Act 1 (lines 87-91). The RSC edition is a modernized version of the First Folio, shedding the later editorial selections and amendments. The essay on The First Folio Restored (page LI) speaks of “abandoning the modern model of literary authorship.” That also means abandoning many of the editorial changes and enhancements made later.

Roughly half of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto editions before the First Folio was published in 1623. Some of the quartos may have been reconstructed through recollections of the actors, rather than their playbooks, and thus not always accurate. Some were so popular, they went through multiple editions (six for I Henry IV, Richard II, and Richard III, three for Hamlet, Pericles, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet). The texts in the various quartos often differed from the plays as printed in the First Folio, sometimes by only small amounts, sometimes quite significantly. King Lear is an example of the latter. The 1608 quarto was titled as a “history” while the 1623 folio version was a “tragedy.” As noted about the two version on the University of Chicago’s web page:

…there are over one hundred differences between the Quarto and the Folio (these differences of Folio from Quarto include the addition of whole lines of text, the deletion of words, phrases, and whole passages, the alteration of words and phrases, the addition of punctuation marks, the transposition of sentences, etc.). The Quarto (1608) contains approximately 300 lines that are not in the Folio (1623) and the Folio contains approximately 100 lines that are not in the Quarto.

Quartos also had misprints and errors and, as the RSC notes, “lines that don’t make sense.” Two plays — Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen — were not included in the First Folio, and existed only in quarto editions until their inclusion in later Folios.

The second editions of the quarto for both Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were noted as corrected editions on their title pages, suggesting that the public (or at least the printers) must have been aware of the errors in earlier quarto editions. In their preface to the First Folio, Heminges and Condell claim their texts were the “authoritative” versions, replacing “diverse stolen and surreptitious copies.” Half-dozen of Shakespeare’s plays are known to have been pirated and published anonymously during his lifetime. His name started appearing on quarto editions in 1598.

Quartos have also been called working drafts of the plays, earlier versions based on the actor’s “foul papers” or memories, and that the plays later were rewritten, updated, edited and reworked by their company’s writers (i.e. Shakespeare) to improve their stage performance. After all, these were all meant for the stage, not for reading in book form. It is likely the compilers of the First Folio had as a base their working texts (“prompt books”) the company still held. Eighteen of the plays in the First Folio have no surviving quarto editions and are known only from the folio version.

Printers also introduced their own errors when transcribing from handwritten notes. Some of these are the obvious “typos” we see even today, substituting words or letters, misread words, skipped lines when transcribing, etc. Others were more serious and affect the reading. Such typos were also found in the First Folio, and are among the corrections made in subsequent folios.

So you can appreciate the challenges an editor faces. Which was the “true” version as seen and heard by contemporary audiences? What makes sense, what is the proper line, or word? What scans the best? What did Shakespeare intend?

That’s where Nicholas Rowe comes in. He was the poet laureate of Britain in 1715, and the first post-folio editor to modernize Shakespeare (his edition was published in 1709). For which he has been cursed and lauded ever since, but his version has been the basis of many subsequent editions.

In part, he has been cursed because Rowe based his version on the “corrupt” Fourth Folio, not the First Folio. The Fourth Folio was printed in 1685 with revised spelling and punctuation, but also new errors. More controversially, it contained several plays not found in the First Folio, all of which were added to the canon in the Third Folio. Six of the seven additional plays are clearly not by Shakespeare and have since been dismissed as apocryphal (only Pericles is considered Shakespearean these days, although likely a collaboration).

After the First, the subsequent editions of the Folio were all subject to editing in some manner. The Third Folio contained “943 editorial changes to this edition, 300 of which are still accepted today.” Editors since then have generally conflated the quarto and folio editions, although the RSC editors use the quartos only sparingly, mostly to correct obvious printing errors. 

The Collins Complete Works (1994) is based on the Alexander text, an edited version of the canon created by Peter Alexander and first published in 1951. In the book’s essay on the text, Alec Yearling wrote,

Shakespeare’s plays are and always were words requiring mediation… Since the eighteenth century, editors have amended the readings of those early editions in an effort to restore what they think Shakespeare must have meant. Some of their alterations have been inspired, and many highhanded or prejudiced or myopic.

The Norton Shakespeare (ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Haus, W. W. Norton, 1997), has a section titled “The Dream of the Master Text” which discusses the issues of originals and editing:

The dream of the master text is a dream of transparency. The words on the page should give the reader unmediated access to the astonishing forge of imaginative power that was the mind of the dramatist… The careful weighing of alternative readings, the production of a textual apparatus, the writing of notes and glosses, the modernizing and regularizing of spelling and punctuation, the insertion of scene divisions, the complex calculation of the process of textual transmission from foul papers to print, the equally complex calculation of the effects that censorship, government regulation, and above all theatrical performance had on the surviving documents all make inescapably apparent the fact that we do not have and never will have any direct, unmediated access to Shakespeare’s imagination. Every Shakespeare text, from the first that was published to the most recent, has been edited: it has come into print by means of a tangled process and inevitable exists at some remove from the author.

The lines by Juliet, above, also appear in Act 2 Sc.1 in the Norton edition (its text based on the Oxford edition):

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

The Oxford Shakespeare, on which the Norton is based, was first published in 1988, in both archaic and modern spelling editions. The Norton edition derives from the modern spelling version and differs in its notes, glosses, essays, and in including a conflated version of King Lear (both editions contain the quarto and folio editions, however). The essay on the Norton text concludes: “…with Shakespeare the boundaries are and must remain forever open.”*

I lean towards the RSC’s decision to use the First Folio as the base text and not conflate the plays with quarto content, but my familiarity is with later edited versions, so at times the First Folio text seems odd. Plus, there are scenes and lines in the quartos that seem to me to add to the value of the play. I still prefer the Norton edition as my “go-to” complete works, but I refer to the essays and notes in every edition I have, as well as other books, for a fuller appreciation of the plays.**

Do these editorial changes and additions contribute to or detract from the texts? I’m not qualified to decide, but I have read arguments for both sides. All I really know is that I continue to read and enjoy Shakespeare, including reading about him, his times, his art, and his plays, and expect to continue to do so for many more years.


* The general editors of the Oxford edition are Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with other editors being John Jowett and William Montgomery. The Norton essay notes, “…Wells and Taylor are deeply committed to establishing a text that comes as close as possible to the plays as Shakespeare wrote them, but they are profoundly aware that he wrote them as a member of a company in which he was a shareholder and an actor as well as a writer… compromise and collaboration are part of what it means to be in the theatre.”

** As I’ve written before, this includes Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. I recently received a copy of Marjorie Garder’s Shakespeare After All, which I intend to start reading shortly.

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One comment

  1. Just FYI, I did write about some specific and entertaining word use in Shakespeare some time ago:

    First, on the “fretful porpentine”:
    Like quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?

    Next, on the Bard’s use of words like scamels and prenzie:
    Were they more of his 1,700-plus famous neologisms like accommodation, castigate, frugal, inauspicious, premeditated and sanctimonious?* If so, no one today knows for sure what prenzie and scamels refer to.

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