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Editing Shakespeare

By Stanley Wells


In 1979 Oxford University Press appointed me as the founding head of a Shakespeare department. The Oxford Shakespeare, first published in 1891, had been rendered seriously out of date by advances in scholarship. Other editions of the Complete Works, especially that prepared by Peter Alexander and published by Collins in 1951, were cornering the market. The main aim of the new department was to be the preparation of a new Oxford Complete Works, and I started by embarking on a series of editorial guidelines. Before long, however, we realized that there was a gap in the market for a one-play-per-volume edition based on the latest scholarship which would offer a comprehensive overview of current scholarship and criticism with helpfully detailed annotation.

A major part of my work in drawing up a series of editorial principles for the one-volume edition of the Complete Works was a detailed study of the principles and practice of modernizing Shakespeare’s spelling and other features of the presentation of his texts. Surprisingly, no one had ever done this. Editors since the late eighteenth century had proceeded by marking up a previous edition, with the result that many features of the text that did not affect meaning had remained unchanged. During the 1950s, particularly, there had been a tendency to a reactionary conservatism, resulting in the preservation in some editions of forms such as ‘murther’, ‘burthen’, and ‘mo’. I was particularly impelled to action by my irritation with the practice in one edition, published in 1974, of incorporating what its editor called ‘a selection of Elizabethan spelling forms that reflect, or may reflect, a distinctive contemporary pronunciation’.  I remember saying, somewhat pompously, when I first saw this edition, that it represented ‘a retrograde step in Shakespeare editing’. It had the practical disadvantage of calling for many more glosses than normal, most of them serving no purpose beyond reassuring readers that the weird spellings they saw before them were not ghastly errors. So, for example, ‘A single opening of Riverside’s 2 Henry IV includes kinreds: kindreds, idlely: idly, heckfers: heifers, Saint Albons: St Albans, and chevalry: chivalry’.  But more importantly it created a spurious impression of an equivalence between scholarship and antiquarianism.

My policy did not meet with universal approval. For instance in my edition of As You Like It in the Complete Works I printed ‘Ardenne’ instead of the more usual ‘Arden’ because of the many indications in the dialogue that the action takes place not in England but in the lowlands; I was not able to persuade Alan Brissenden, who edited the play for the multi-volume series, to break with tradition in this way.  This points to the fact that I felt it right to allow individual editors to exercise a degree of autonomy. They are all experienced scholars, chosen because I had faith in their judgement, and I was willing to accept that they would not necessarily agree with me in every detail of their work.

I thought hard too about many other features of the ways in which the plays were commonly presented in editions. A major development in critical and educational approaches to Shakespeare since the inception of the New Cambridge and Arden editions was the increased scholarly interest in the plays as works written to be performed, and which didn’t reach full fruition until they were performed. Dover Wilson’s editions had included bald potted summaries of the plays’ stage histories – a useful enough resource but one that had no critical function. The Arden editors, with a few honourable exceptions, had largely ignored the plays’ theatrical dimensions. I thought about recommending editors to include a critical stage history of each play as a separate section of their introduction, but rejected this idea as it would result in a kind of ghettoization of the theatre, something which readers could read if they liked but ignore if they preferred. Instead I recommended the incorporation of discussion of the critical implications of performance decisions in the introduction and of theatrically relevant information in the notes. I wanted editors to rethink the stage directions, which is the area of the text that permits the greatest freedom.  And I recommended the inclusion of illustrations which could include photographs of the plays in performance, a feature which was surprisingly absent from rival editions. This did not meet with total approval within the Press. An internal editor was strongly opposed to the notion of including ‘pictures of actresses’ in Oxford books. But I won the day.

Although I wanted the Oxford editions to reach the highest standards of scholarship, I hoped also that they would be able to combine this with civilized, readable methods of presentation. The introductions to some other editions presented their material in a baldly schematic manner, often opening, for example, with a section off-puttingly headed ‘The Text’ and discussing technical matters in a manner that is comprehensible only to specialists, and giving no indication of their wider significance. While I believe it is important that readers of Shakespeare should be encouraged to take an interest in the origins of the problems that they present to the editor, I think this can and should be presented in an intellectually engaging manner which reveals the critical implications of the scholarship that lies behind it. The same is true of discussions of the play’s date.

While the subject of design of the printed page might seem irrelevant to editorial issues, in fact it can have a substantive bearing on the reader’s experience. For instance, Shakespeare’s plays were, so far as we can tell, written for continuous performance.  There are no act and scene divisions in any of the texts printed in his lifetime. Their imposition in the First Folio, followed by later editors, is only one of several ways in which the compilers of that volume, for all their excellent intentions, misrepresent the texts that it includes. Their attempt to impose neo-classical form on texts to which it is inapplicable was influenced partly, no doubt, by Ben Jonson’s practice in the 1616 edition of his Works. To return to the original practice of not marking such divisions at all would have resulted in inconvenience for the reader in finding citations in works of reference and elsewhere. So, working in conjunction with Oxford University Press’s brilliant typographer and designer Paul Luna, we devised a method of presentation which minimizes the impact on the reader of act and scene divisions. Even the kind of type used was a matter of concern, so as to avoid, so far as possible, turn-overs in verse lines.

An important task for the General Editor of a series is to select an editor for each volume. A wide range of qualifications is desirable. The ideal editor will be expert in a variety of demanding disciplines which vary somewhat from work to work but which include bibliography, textual analysis and criticism, source studies, the stages of Shakespeare’s time, the history of performance, lexicography, literary and dramatic criticism, and for some plays the history of the period in which the action is set.  Editing a volume for a major series is not a beginner’s task, so in selecting editors I have in general looked for scholars with previous editorial expertise. The editor has to be someone with the highest standards of accuracy, and an ability to meet deadlines is also a great help. I reckon that the task is unlikely to be completed satisfactorily in less than three years; some editors have taken longer – some, very much longer.

For one reason or another some of the editors I originally appointed fell by the wayside and the volumes had to be reassigned, with consequent delays, but by and large I have every reason to be immensely grateful to my team. Some of them have generously undertaken more than one volume – the most prolific is Roger Warren who is responsible for editions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry the Sixth Part Two, Pericles, Cymbeline, and (jointly with me) Twelfth Night.  John Jowett and Michael Neill have nobly each tackled two of the most textually difficult plays, Jowett with his Richard III and Timon of Athens (which definitively establishes the play as a collaboration between Shakespeare  and Thomas Middleton), and Neill with Anthony and Cleopatra and Othello. Colin Burrow’s edition of the Complete Sonnets and Poems, with its magisterial introduction, is ground-breaking in offering within a single volume a thorough critical and scholarly conspectus of Shakespeare’s entire non-dramatic corpus. My edition of King Lear exceptionally takes Shakespeare’s first version of the play, printed from his manuscript in the quarto of 1608, as its basis. G. R Hibbard’s Hamlet makes a strong case for the Folio text as Shakespeare’s revised version of the play. Stephen Orgel’s editions of The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest offer sensitive critical introductions. And many of the volumes have benefited from the scrupulous copy-editing of Christine Buckley.

Over the years the presentation of the volumes has varied. All have been published in hardback with the purple jackets that have become a hallmark of the series, and paperback covers have been refreshed from time to time, especially since the series was subsumed under the umbrella of the Oxford World’s Classics. I take pride in the fact that, with the publication of Richard II edited by Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin, I shall become the first General Editor to see through the press a complete edition of the established canon of Shakespeare’s works. It has been a fascinating journey taken in the company of a great fellowship of colleagues.

Born in 1930, Stanley Wells is a renowned authority on Shakespeare and other writers of his time. He has published many books and articles on the subject and lectured all over the world. He is Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham in Stratford-upon-Avon. He is Chair of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Honorary Governor Emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and member of the Board of Directors of the Globe Theatre. In 2007, he was awarded a CBE. Richard II, the final book in the Oxford Shakespeare series, publishes this month. Read more about the series here.

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