How do you spell Shakespeare?

Frank Kermode

  • William Shakespeare. The Complete Works: Original-Spelling Edition edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor
    Oxford, 1456 pp, £75.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 19 812919 X
  • William Shakespeare: The Complete Works edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor
    Oxford, 1432 pp, £25.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 812926 2

When Oxford decided to do Shakespeare they clearly made up their minds that the scale of the operation must be very grand, and a team of scholars has been working hard for eight years to get it done quickly, done right, and done with the greatest possible display and novelty. One has to admire not only the industry of Professor Wells and his associates, but their flair for publicity, as evidenced by the enormous solemn fuss about the poem ‘Shall I die?’, now accorded an honoured place in their canon, and also by the proclaimed scope and originality of their enterprise, which, though not essentially different from other such enterprises, is different in many eye-catching ways, and must have set the Press some unique problems.

The work is not yet fully finished. What we have at present is two vast volumes, the Complete Works in modernised and again in original spelling, and a fair number of the single-play volumes edited by a lot of able people who are presumably in agreement about the general editorial line and who can provide the detailed introductions and notes missing from the big collections. Of these more portable and more useful books I can’t say much; they will be judged by comparison with the New Arden editions, some of which are now showing signs of age (some of them always did), and possibly with the New Penguin. There is a Cambridge set now well under way; the Oxford Hamlet is the third considerable edition of that play in five years, following hard upon Harold Jenkins’s magisterial Arden and Philip Edwards’s serious Cambridge version.[1]

It may well be asked by non-Shakespearians and non-publishers whether all this editorial activity is needed, and by whom, and the Oxford team anticipates the question by asserting the boldness as well as the unparalleled scope of its enterprise. It is worth asking how much there is in this claim.

The Original-Spelling volume greatly increases the size of the undertaking and is probably the greatest novelty. In some respects it is a very odd compilation. Back in 1960 John Russell Brown wrote an article, celebrated in the trade, in which he argued against the value of old-spelling Shakespeare, saying among other things that the amount of ‘silent alteration’ an editor would have to introduce would make such a text almost useless for close study; that it would be naive to suppose the spelling reproduced was that of the author; and that to believe the old spelling imparted ‘an Elizabethan flavour’ to the words was a pseudo-historical nonsense, for the strangeness of the spelling isn’t something the Elizabethan reader could have been expected to notice. Brown’s article caused a stir because, as he remarked, it ran counter to assumptions rarely questioned. W.W. Greg had been firm about it in the Prolegomena to his authoritative book, The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare (2nd ed., 1951), where he argued that modernisation seriously misrepresents Elizabethan English when it changes ‘murther’ to ‘murder’, ‘mushrump’ to ‘mushroom’, ‘vild’ to ‘vile’, ‘wrack’ to ‘wreck’, and so forth. Less controversially, he indicated that modernisation can in some cases destroy rhymes, and hinder the business of emendation (but surely nobody would be ass enough to try that without recourse to the original). Greg’s case really depends upon a conviction that the needs of critics and of ordinary readers are different, which is true, and another conviction, that there is always a chance that the original spelling has some trace of the author’s hand and should therefore be preserved. Of course he knew better than anybody how slim this chance was.

Brown saw that Greg’s general case, though somewhat dogmatically stated, was less strong than it appeared. Why not work from photographs instead of type facsimiles or old-spelling editions? His opponents minimised the treachery of type facsimiles and stressed the fallibility of photographs: but that was before Hinman’s Norton Facsimile of the First Folio (1968) – a remarkable achievement. By using only the best leaves of a great many copies of the Folio, Hinman produced photographs of an ‘ideal’ version, so that his facsimile is in practice a better copy than any genuine exemplar, and anybody who wants to see what Jaggard’s compositors actually printed, without modern editorial interferences except for line numbers, should look there.

In 1965 Fredson Bowers, who more or less inherited Greg’s authority, took a look at the problem in the light of the enormous recent expansion of bibliographical techniques, in part at least brought on by himself. Though he did not deny that an original-spelling text was desirable, he maintained sadly but strongly that it couldn’t yet be achieved: there was still so much to be done in the way of studying printing-house practices, compositors’ vagaries and so forth, along the lines of Hinman’s extraordinary investigation of the printing of the First Folio, published in 1963. A great deal of recondite research has gone on since then, but work of this kind, as the present Oxford editors admit, usually opens up rather than closes the prospect of more work, and one would have expected Bowers’s prediction, that an old-spelling edition of Shakespeare was a matter for the 21st century, to have held at least into the Eighties.

It is also a reasonable inference that such an edition would take a lot of people a long time: yet this has apparently not proved to be the case. An old-spelling Oxford edition was mooted long ago by R.B. McKerrow, but he produced only the Prolegomena (1939) before he died, and Alice Walker, who took over the project, did not issue a single play. With this discouraging history behind him, Professor Wells seems not to have been thinking of old spelling when he mounted the present assault on the Shakespearian summit. ‘The newly proposed Oxford editions,’ he wrote in 1979,

will be in modern spelling. This procedure, traditional in editions of Shakespeare, removes unnecessary barriers to understanding, making it possible for the reader to concentrate on the text itself, undistracted by obsolete and archaic accidentals of presentation. Thus, his reading experience is closer to that of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who also read the plays in what was, for them, a modern form. We plan both a new single-volume edition of Shakespeare’s works for the Oxford Standard Authors (OSA) series, and a detailed scholarly edition, devoting a volume to each play, for the Oxford English Texts (OET).

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[1] Edwards’s Shakespeare: A Writer’s Progress has now appeared in paperback (Oxford, 204 pp., £4.95, 23 April, 0 19 289166 9). It is far from being the usual routine survey, for Edwards is a distinguished veteran Shakespearian, who for many years has displayed much critical independence: his book is brief but useful. Another introductory volume is The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 329 pp., £27 and £8.95, 4 December 1986, 0 521 26737 4). This is Mark 3 of the Cambridge Companions, and contains chapters by well-known hands on the Life, the Thought of the Age, the Language, the Playhouse, comedy, tragedy, history, text, stage history, and history of criticism. A distinct improvement on Mark 2. Meanwhile studies of Shakespeare’s nachleben, like all other Shakespeare studies, continue without remission. Notable is Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (Oxford, 276 pp., £22.50, 5 June 1986, 0 19 812848 7), a study of something we thought we knew about but largely didn’t. Richard Foulkes’s Shakespeare and the Victorian Stage (Cambridge, 311 pp., £30, 14 August 1986, 0 521 30110 6) is a lively and sometimes surprising collection of essays about stage design, historical verisimilitude, Irving, Victorian interpretation, German and Italian Shakespeare, and the productions of provincial companies more impressive and influential than we might nowadays expect.

[2] 248 pp., £19.50 and £3.95, 19 March, 0 19 812917 5.

[3] 406 pp., £19.50 and £4.50, 19 March, 0 19 8129106.

[4] David Bevington, the editor of the single-volume 1 Henry IV (Oxford, 324 pp., £19.50 and £3.95, 19 March, 0 19 812915 7), stubbornly calls the character ‘Falstaff’.