18 May 2008

A Little Bit About Bill

A post over at Fr. Z's got me thinking about Shakespeare again, which I haven't really done for a while, to that point that I feel like writing a bit down. If you feel like Shakespeare ruined your life back in high school, you may wish to skip this post.

One of the real problems that comes with studying Shakespeare is know which edition to use. There are so many different publishing houses out there firing off copies of Shakespeare, all of which appear to be slightly different from each other. How did this happen?

Let's examine the most complicated of Shakespeare's plays: Hamlet. Hamlet's complications begin with it's rather convoluted printing history. It is the only one of Shakespeare's plays that Shakespeare and his company actually printed in Shakespeare's lifetime. The reason why they did so is because what is believed to be a pirated edition was printed around 1604. That edition (referred to in scholarly circles as Q1, for First Quarto) was so bad and corrupt that Shakespeare and company decided to print their own copy, so people wouldn't think they would ever perform a play that bad. In general, however, Shakespeare's company did not want the plays in print, as there were no copyright laws to prevent other playhouses from putting on their plays, nor did authors receive money from sales of their books. Printing Hamlet was an extraordinary move. This edition of Hamlet is known as Second Quarto, or Q2.

Ok, so it should be a simple matter for editors: reprint Q2, and forget Q1. Not quite. Q1 seems to have been cobbled from the memory of an actor who played one of the minor roles. However, It is notable for some interesting stage directions. for instance, it is here that we learn that Hamlet leaps into Ophelia's grave. That should have been obvious from his words, but it was nice to have a little confirmation. Fine. But then there's another problem: there's a third edition.

The third version of Hamlet comes from the first collected works of William Shakespeare, known as the First Folio, known as- you guessed it- F1. This work was put together by Shakespeare's friends and colleagues in 1623, seven years after his death. The Hamlet in the Folio is mostly like Q2, but with some noticeable differences. Each one has several speeches and lines not present in the other. It seems Shakespeare may have changed his mind and rewritten a few scenes and speeches, here and there. OK, so mix in the lines from F1 missing from Q2 and you have the play, right? Not exactly. There are also variations. For example, Hamlet's first soliloquy begins with the line "Oh that this too too..." and there you have a variation. One has sallied, another has solid. Which one is correct? Both seem to work with the text, but only one can be chosen. By what criteria does one choose? Do you choose Shakespeare's first text, or his later altered play, assuming it was Shakespeare who made the alterations.

My favourite variation, which I mentioned over at Fr Z's, was Hamlet's line to Horatio, Iv. The usual version comes from Q2: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." F1 has instead: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy." A single letter here changes the entire meaning. On the one hand Hamlet is telling Horatio that Horatio is out to lunch. On the other, Hamlet is admitting they're both out to lunch, and the world is a very scary place indeed.

So there's a few variations here and there between the two texts. Yes, but as always with Shakespeare, the situation is a little more complicated than that. Careful study of F1 have revealed some peculiar problems. In order to explain those, I should explain first what a quarto and a folio are.

The books- or types of books, really- are named for the way they are made. Back in an era when paper came in sheets, rather than long endless rolls, the sheets had to be folded to be put into a book form, and the different ways of folding a sheet is what makes the main difference between quarto and Folio and any other type of book. Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. If you open it again and page through it as though it were a book you will see this one sheet of paper makes four pages for a book. This is the kind of folding that made a folio. If you take that sheet and fold it in half a second time, you will see eight pages. This is how the pages were folded for a quarto. You may notice that the pages wouldn't open properly, and that they would need to be cut. Exactly, and this is why in the books by the Bronte Sisters or Jane Austen, the girls are often running off to the boys with their books to get their pages cut. The boys were the ones with knives.

Incidentally, if you were to fold the page again so it made sixteen pages you would have the kind of folding necessary for an octavo book. There was also a weird sort of fold which resulted in twelve or twenty four pages call duodecimo.

Back to the folio. When printing off copies of the folio, the printers would start by printing off two pages, which would go on one side of the sheet of paper- one page on either side of the fold. It appears they would fire off one page and then send it to the proofreader. While it was at the proofreader- and here's the part that's really strange- they kept on printing more uncorrected pages. So then the page came back with corrections, they would stop printing, make the corrections, and fire off some more sheets, and hang the lot out for the ink to dry. So you would have some sheets which are right, and some which are wrong. Good. Now it's time to print on the other side. The dry sheets are taken down in no particular order, put on the press, and two more pages are printed. The first sheet is fired off to the proofreader, they keep printing, the sheet comes back, they make some corrections, and continue printing until the run is complete. Very good. So now you have sheets which are 1. right on one side, wrong on the other; 2. wrong on one side, right on the other; 3. wrong on both sides; and 4. right on both sides. Then you continue doing that until the entire collection of plays is complete. Confused? Wait, it gets better.

Some scholars went over the world's largest collection of First Folios, which are incidentally at the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, and compared every page of every copy, line by line by line, and they came up with this conclusion: no two copies of the Folio are the same. For our purposes, this means that not only does F1 have variations from Q2, it has variations from itself. So which ones of those do you choose?

For centuries editors have made their choices, and picked whatever word or phrase made the most sense to them. Sometimes they decided no variation made sense, and added their own solution. In all honesty, their choices ultimately come down to a best guess, and a lot of the guess work they use is of a sort that- well, lets say only a real idiot would risk ten bucks at a horse race on the kind of guess work they use to rebuild Shakespeare. At any rate, good for them. But it is no wonder that recently editors have more or less thrown their hands up, and have stopped making choices. In our relativistic world, after all, there is no sound ground upon which to even make a choice. So publishing houses have started to print out separate editions, not just of Hamlet, but of other plays with multiple source editions, like King Lear. It's as if to say "I give up! You choose." Or perhaps to look at the plays as a process, rather than a final product, which was a buzz phrase from my time at university. What they say now, I don't really know. I cut ties and left about six years back.

There is one version on line that I like for myself, called the Enfolded Hamlet, which uses a bracket and colour coded system to show you the variants. So it allows you to see the problems of the play, but it also allows you to make your own choices and solutions to these problems, rather than presenting you with some ready made solution from some egghead who in his efforts to present you a clearer look at Bill, is really only holding up a mirror to himself. Or herself.

On the other hand, because there is always an other hand, what about people who are interested in variations and multiplicities? People who just want to read the blasted plays, get their 'c' and move one? All they want is a steady Shakespeare, a book to which they may refer, something they may quote if necessary, and move on. They are the ones who are lost in this mess, really. If this new tendency gets the upper hand, these students will be lost in the shuffle, and their 'c' will be ground down to a 'd' or lower, because they've fallen out of step. Or everyone else has. It's hard to tell sometimes.

These days there are no real solutions to the problem. There might be, some day, but this is where we are for now. But take heart, if you like Shakespeare. There's no reason not to like him. These problems don't exist for every play. Take MacBeth, for example- my favourite, incidentally- there's only one version, and it's in F1. That simplifies some things. Although there is this little problem with the scenes involving Hecate. A lot of scholars delete those scenes as non Shakespearean, because, well, they stink. And The Bard doesn't stink. He left that up to his editors and commentators.

Here endeth this post. Exit, pursued by a bear-i-tone.

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