The Editorial Problems of Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s plays abound in difficulties of reading and interpretation. These mainly arise from printing errors. When such misprints are apparent, the problem or difficulty is not so acute but very often whole phrases and even sentences become the victims of such printer’s devil making them unintelligible even to the learned and erudite. Moreover, the plays were originally meant for performances and not for printing, having served as scripts for actors and not texts for a reading public. Shakespeare also did not edit his own works as did Ben Jonson, which in fact rendered possible variations in reading thus aggravating the editorial difficulties. Pirated editions of Shakespeare’s works and the vagaries of unscrupulous shorthand reporters of Shakespeare’s plays further complicate the matter. It is here that the function of an editor comes into play for he has to cleanse the mess to arrive at a readable text in good print. The editor has to collect or compare the various available texts and make additions and alterations for presenting the text in an intelligent form to the reader. Needless to say, the editors are men of high erudition and in most cases noted Shakespearean scholars.

Shakespeare’s first editors were his friends and fellow-actors, Hemminge and Condell, who claimed F1 as the first definitive edition free from the frauds and stealthiest of unreliable Quartos. Three more Folios, all by editors unknown, came out by 1685 (the date of the Fourth Folio). Rowe brought out his edition in 1709, Pope in 1725, Theobald in 1733, Hanmer in 1744, Warburton in 1747, Dr. Johnson in 1765, Capell in 1768, Steevens in 1773, Malone in 1790. The three Variorum editions came out between 1803 and 1821.

The constant endeavor of the editors has been to find out and present correct texts of the poet’s works. Until very recently, be original texts, be they Folio or Quarto, were not much valued. The Elizabethan printers were assumed to be ignorant men unable to produce correctly the copy before them and such an edited text was preferred to an available original. In the absence of a play manuscript used by a printer and none such of Shakespeare remains, the next important text is that printed directly from the manuscript. However, a later edition revised by the author himself may provide a better text. In fact, it sometimes happened with Shakespeare whose second Quarto of hamlet (1604) was most possibly printed from Shakespeare’s manuscript copy, the first Quarto (1603) having been a bad pirated edition. Constant reprints also lead to variation in reading in subsequent editions. There is no need, however, to assure that Elizabethan printers were all ignoramuses, which in fact they were not. In fact, Elizabethan method of printing differed in principles from ours and modern editors have taken due note of that. Revision and collaboration are regular features in Elizabethan plays and Shakespeare’s plays also show signs of many alterations.

Scholars generally agree that some parts of Macbeth ( Bloody Sergeant’s speech and Hecate scene) are not by Shakespeare. Unevenness in King John is explicable by collaboration alone. Another problem consists of the fact that sometimes play manuscripts were copied out by professional copyists to cater to the demands of literary gentlemen for such copies in their personal libraries. A good deal of confusion and errors could ensue in the process of such copying.

From the maze of problems and difficulties narrated earlier, the editors tried to discern the perfect texts of Shakespeare. It was a difficult task to which editors, particularly those of the eighteenth century, gave much patient labour along with greater erudition and scholarship. Their main weapon was collation (comparison) of different texts and from Rowe to Capell it is broadly a history of textual examination. Rowe also wrote the first life of Shakespeare. Pope based his edition on Rowe’s text. Theobald was a great Shakespeare scholar, who collated Quartos and made many brilliant emendations. Both Hanmer and Warburton worked from Theobald’s text, although Hanmer added something from and Warburton maligned him. Dr. Johnson based his text on Warburton’s but added nothing of value except his splendid preface. Capell was the first to realize the value and importance ot’ the Quartos, which he collected and collated. Malone supported him ably. They accepted some and rejected others. It was left for Pollard in the twentieth century to name the accepted Quartos as good and rejected ones as Bad Quartos.

Learning and erudition are necessary adjuncts of a free editor. Capell typifies this, being the first of the great Shakespearean scholars, learned not only in the collation of Quartos but interested deeply in the sources of Elizabethan stage and literature, His work in these fields was ably carried on by Steevens and Malone, Particularly the search for Original material. Steevens who used Johnson’s text, brought out an edition in 1778 containing a mass of new materials. Malone is just famous for his great attempt to ascertain the order in which Shakespeare’s plays were written. He was again the first to write the history of the Elizabethan stage and is the pioneer in this direction which had its grand fruition in E. K. Chamber’s monumental four volumes Elizabethan Stage; He is also sometimes called the first true biographer of Shakespeare, the accounts of Rowe being dismissed as anecdotal and exaggerated.

Although Malone is a landmark in verbal criticism, he and along with him the editors of the eighteenth century were too much engrossed first in Shakespeare’s texts and then in his theatre, life and times. They missed his great poetry. As a matter of fact, the first two Variorum Editions do not even print the poem. Malone himself lacked sharp imaginative sensitivity and delicate responsiveness without which aesthetic criticism cannot grow. Steevens lacked them still more so that Malone had to defend Venus and Adonis and the sonnets against the attack of Steevens. Aesthetic criticism had to wait till nineteenth century when Coleridge and Hazlitt appeared on the scene to launch the glorious age of aesthetic evaluation. There were many editions of Shakespeare’s works in the nineteenth century of which the most valuable and important are Cambridge Shakespeare o’ Clark, Glover and Wright (1863) and the New Variorum of H. H. Furness

In twentieth century the most famous editions are the Yale, Arden, New Arden and New Cambridge. We have observed the various editorial problems and how editors have tried to tackle them. A modern editor also faces some peculiar problems especially when he tries to produce an edition for the common reader. He cannot follow the principles of Elizabethan printing which may lead to awkward mistakes. Yet there is much of value in punctuation and stage direction and in the use of free verse in the original Elizabethan texts, which should not be missed. The editor, therefore, has to compromise both printing and in matters of arrangement. The default can be highlighted by referring to Shakespeare’s short lines appearing in the midst of blank verse. Hitherto editors have tried to solve the riddle by simply joining them to make complete blank verse lines and so re-arranging the rest of the speech. But such devices of editors do not always succeed to solve the problem as when they fail to rearrange the lines finally and are compelled to leave a broken line at the end. A close study, however, proves the earlier editors as wrong in that it is clear that Shakespeare very often wrote in a free verse and that he used short lines for specific purposes such as laying emphasis etc. Much of Macbeth and some parts of Antony and Cleopatra are written in a rhythmic free verse, a bit different from formal blank-verse. These are the difficulties and problems for the modern editor who has to exercise his own judgment after all to extricate himself out of thee difficulties. He must build his own principles and follow them intelligently expecting either praise or punishment as befell his predecessors. He is not a scientist and there is no fool-proof solution to the besetting problems that Shakespeare texts offer in abundance. He is an artist editing the works of the supreme artist of literature and editing Shakespeare, in the words of G. B. Harrison, ‘is, indeed, more of an art than a science.”


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