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April 03, 2007


The website of the RSC Complete Works Edition is now live, so this blog is moving house. Past history is being carried over, but will also remain live here. There will, however, be no more new entries on this Warwick Blog site, so in the unlikely event that you have bookmarked it, please change your bookmark to
The Editors’ Blog
There are two new entries there already, one of them by my co-editor Eric Rasmussen.

December 06, 2006

What is it and where did it come from?


This entry was originally written as a diary from the origins of the project through to the delivery of the book, but I’ve now turned it around to make it conform with the reverse chronology that is characteristic of blogworld. Query: if everybody starts blogging and gets used to reading personal histories backwards, as the form dictates, how long will it be before biographies begin to be written in reverse chronology? 1616-1564 instead of vice-versa would at least be a novel way of writing the life of Shakespeare … In a sense, what I’ve tried to do in a lot of my work on Shakespeare’s ‘afterlife’ is a kind of reverse chronological biography, treading the road back from Shakespeare Now to Shakespeare Then … So, read on, for the journey from delivery back to conception (gestation metaphor intentional – cf. figure of ‘begetting’ in dedication to WS Sonnets).

6 12 6: we’re only days away from the moment when the files are sent from the typesetter in India to the printer in China (ah, globalisation…), and I’ve just discovered that in the revised proof of The Rape of Lucrece line 731, which was fine in the first proof, but just needed an extra indentation, now begins “gl-end rid=“templ01118”/>”, which doesn’t actually sound like Shakespeare’s most elegant line of verse. What has obviously happened is that the setter failed to hit the ‘<’ key, with the result that the code for the indentation has gone into the text. It’s alarming that this has happened so late in the day—but this kind of thing happened in the Folio back in 1623, where there are examples of the compositor going in to make proof corrections and in so doing introducing new errors. In the end, editors are powerless to stop this sort of thing, because it’s the typesetter who is the last person to handle the text. I remember the fiercely accurate Christopher Ricks being shocked when I showed him that his Penguin edition of A E Housman printed that poet’s most famous line as “This is the land of lost content”, when it should have been “That is the land of the lost content”. He swore that it was correct on the proofs.

December 2006: the introductions are written, amounting to the equivalent of 350 page book in themselves. The texts are done: nearly a million words of Shakespeare, thousands of textual notes, some 300,000 words of explanatory notes on language. Tables, charts, key fact boxes which I’m particularly proud of (especially the lists of parts in descending order of size – who would have guessed that Sir Toby Belch has the largest role in Twelfth Night?). 2550 pages. Proofed, revised proofed, press proofed. Great pics of RSC productions, beautiful production values. Yummy jacket, especially – see it on the Amazon link ...
and Amazon offering a 30% discount: over two and a half thousand pages of Shakespeare freshly edited, in readable single column format (not ghastly double column like some competitors), with introductons, illustrations and amazingly detailed exlanatory notes all for £20 in a handsome hardback … I’m pinching myself to find the catch. I must stop: this is becoming a commercial, not a blog.

When I recover, I’ll offer something more analytic.

March 2006: one of the things the press got interested in at the launch was my suggestion that we’re not going to be coy when it comes to the ripe seam of bawdy innuendo in Shakespeare: this has now been followed up with a story in The Observer under the rather lurid headline Bard’s Secret Sex Text Message
... I guess all publicity is good publicity, but I want us to become known as the Folio-inspired Shakespeare and the theatre-focused Shakespeare, not the filthy Shakespeare. We’ve actually been rigorous in EXCLUDING many purported double entendres, particularly some of those that fester in Frankie Rubinstein’s Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Puns (1995). We’re much keener on the more measured and amazingly thorough analyses of Gordon Williams, in his 3 volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature (1994) – though we’ve also found a bunch of interesting stuff that he didn’t spot.

July 2005, top of the Telecom Tower in London: Things have moved very fast, mainly thanks to Eric’s phenomenal work-rate (and the quality of his assistants) together with the team I’ve recruited to work with Heloise on the explanatory notes (not to mention the seemingly endless process of checking, rechecking, reading back against Folio, correcting, debating hundreds of individual choices of punctuation, emendation and so forth). We’ve taken a high risk decision: we’re going to announce the edition in public, in tandem with the announcement of Michael Boyd’s extraordinarily ambitious plan to mount a Shakespeare Complete Works Festival. Over the course of a year in Stratford-upon-Avon, all 38 plays, plus the poems and sonnets, are going to be performed. There’s not been anything like it in the 400 years of Shakespeare’s stage life. The synergy is just too good for us to miss the opportunity of publishing the edition at the climax of the year’s work. So Eric and I are at a press launch, which includes a neat little film by Michael Wood where I explain what we’re doing that’s new. We’re atop the Telecom Tower, a London panorama revolving around us, at the invitation of Sir Christopher Bland, the RSC chairman, who’s also chair of BT, and whose energetic leadership has combined with that of Boyd to pitch the RSC straight from its worst times to some of its very best.
But a public announcement means that the pressure is on to finish on time. All stops need to be pulled out.

April 2004: I’m in a sweltering bar in New Orleans during the conference of the Shakespeare Association of America. Jazz on the street outside. My mission, over a beer, is to recruit the best and brightest young Shakespeareans in the world to my editorial advisory board. I’ve already got Jim Shapiro, the smartest Shakespearean of my generation in America. I hook Tiffany Stern from Oxford, who’s done brilliant work on Shakespeare’s original acting ensemble. As textual advisor I want Eric Rasmussen from Reno, Nevada: he’s the ultimate bibliographic high roller, whose devastating reviews of new textual work in the journal Shakespeare Survey have been known to drive sloppy editors to Prozac or worse. If he’s on my board, he can’t review me. “How much involvement are you looking for?” he asks. As much as possible, I say, though I know he’s busy on other things, like textual collation of every surviving First Folio in the world, not to mention work for the lovely Internet Shakespeare Editions. “Sure, I’ll do the text for you,” he says in his unflappable way. I splutter into my beer. “What, you mean all of it!?!” This man is offering to work through nearly a million words of Shakespeare, collating quarto and folio variants, modernising spelling, examining every punctuation mark, every speech heading, every stage direction.

I know at once that with Rasmussen as co-editor, I’ll be able to complete the job. And that it’ll be good.

But why has he agreed? The simple answer is that I had a very simple idea about the text, and he loved it. Here’s the idea:


I’m not going to get into the tehnicalities of Shakespearean editing here – lots of that will follow in the coming weeks and months, but here’s the thing, the key innovation.

What we mean by editing a text from the age before standardised spelling and ‘rational’ grammar-led punctuation, is (1) MODERNISING (the spelling and the punctuation – but not the words themselves, we’re not talking about changing Shakespeare’s ‘thou’ to modern ‘you’), and (2) CORRECTING the printing errors (of which there are a lot in early texts). But WHAT do we modernise and correct? What is our ‘copy text’? Editorial theory usually suggests that we should work from one of the following
(i) the author’s manuscript
(ii) the first published text
(iii) the final published text authorized by the author.
In the case of Shakespeare, (i) is impossible because all his manuscripts are lost, save for one scene he wrote for a play called Sir Thomas More, (ii) is OK for some plays but not others, because some of the first published texts (which were in ‘quarto’ format, rather like modern paperbacks) are of questionable provenance and riddled with errors, while (iii) doesn’t exist … except maybe an approximation to it does exist, if we extend the rule and embrace “the published text authorized after the author’s death by his friends and closest colleagues, the people who knew his plays best because they performed them” ... by which I mean the First Folio, the original “Collected Works of Shakespeare” published in 1623 and overseen by WS’s fellow-actors John Hemings and Henry Condell.

Nearly all Shakespeare editions offer a mix of (ii) and this extended interpretation of (iii), that is to say of quarto-based and folio-based texts.

At that same New Orleans conference where I recruited Eric Rasmussen, there was a session on Shakespeare editions, at which one of the seminar leaders said that she’d heard that Jonathan Bate was doing a new edition for the RSC and she couldn’t for the life of her see why – why on earth do we need yet another edition? The shelves are groaning with them, etc. etc.

I could see her point: I wouldn’t have taken it on if I’d just been going to do what all the other editions do. But I’d had my light-bulb-coming-on moment: I’d realised that there IS an edition we need, but don’t have. Why follow the crowd and offer a mix of (ii) and (iii). Why not go consistently for (iii)?

Proposition: THE SHAKESPEARE FIRST FOLIO IS THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF WORLD DRAMA AND YET NO ONE HAS EDITED ITIN THE SENSE OF CORRECTING AND MODERNISING ITSINCE (depending on your interpretation of ‘editing’ and ‘modernising’) EITHER 1685 or 1709. Yup, we’ve had facsimiles and modern-typography-but-original-spelling versions, but no proper edition. A FOLIO-BASED COMPLETE WORKS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THREE CENTURIES. That was what Rasmussen saw it would be worth signing up for.

Early 2004: the work has been going on: thinking through the theory, devising the editorial principles, digitising the base texts to give me a ‘shell’ on which to make the more complex editorial decision. I’ve hired a brilliant assistant, Heloise Senechal, to work on the explanatory notes – making the explication of Shakespeare’s multivalent language much stronger than that in rival editions such as the Penguin and the Norton will be one of the main aims of the project (the Oxford edition is not even a rival here – it has no explanatory notes, only a glossary at the back, which is more or less useless because readers don’t want to be thumbing back and forward to find it, and, besides, the glosses lack the specificity to context that is crucial to the understanding of Shakespeare). With several assistants working on the notes, we’re well on schedule with that aspect of the project. But the finalisation of the texts themselves is slow, slow, slow. Was it over-optimistic to say that this could be delivered in 5 years?

December 2003: Meanwhile at the RSC … an amazing turnaround is under way. New Artistic Director Michael Boyd has reversed Noble’s three key errors: the Stratford theatre will be transformed rather than razed down, the ensemble principle will be not just sustained but extended, and there is to be a commitment to regular playing in London. Noble’s ill-fated metaphor of turning Stratford into a “theatre village” is replaced by Boyd’s metaphor of the Stratford “campus”. In his vision, “research” is an integral part of the process of making Shakespearean theatre. He and I have been doing research together on the text and interpretation of Hamlet. And he’s balancing the financial books, so the suits on the Board are happy bunnies.

March 2003: the two long poems, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece are done – but they’re the easiest part of the project, since Shakespeare authorised their publication and the original printing is very good.

December 2002: my biography of John Clare is delivered and I’m still on a full-time research fellowship, so I get seriously stuck into the establishment of editorial principles and the initial work on preparing the text.

June 2002: almost before turning round, I find myself on a flight to New York. Mighty Random House are interested. They were on the point of revamping the superannuated Shakespeare in their Modern Library series of classic texts – a Shakespeare prepared in the 1920s, using the editorial principles of the Victorian Globe edition. They can’t resist the opportunity to create a marriage between a very high-class American literary brand and a world-class Shakespeare brand.

May 2002: another meeting, this time with the managing director, Chris Foy, and the man that the RSC has hired as its literary agent: Andrew Wylie. Wylie is known as The Jackal – the man whose roster includes Roth, Mailer, Mamet, Amis (famously poached), Rushdie, the Joyce Estate, the Borges Estate, the Bellow Estate. Now, it seems, he’s representing Shakespeare. Could be interesting. The RSC is not happy with the very limited benefits of its endorsement of the Penguin Shakespeare edition. It wants closer involvement with Shakespeare in print.

Penguin cannot be players: they’ve just commissioned new introductions for their editions and are not up for the investment of time and money that would be required for them to redo the text and notes. But the text and notes are a disaster: forty years out of date, oblivious to the revolution in Shakespearean editing brought about by the Oxford edition in the 80s and the needs that 21st century students and playgoers have when it comes to Shakespeare’s
language. See my review

April 2002: a meeting with the Chairman, Bob Alexander, over tea and scones in the House of Lords. He persuades me to come on board and drops a hint that my worries about the direction in which Noble is taking the company should not be a deterrent. Little do I know that earlier that afternoon he has taken Adrian’s phone call offering his resignation.

March 2002: a call from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stanley Wells is soon to retire from the Board. Would I be interested in a conversation about succeeding him in the role of academic voice in the running of the company? I agree to a meeting, though harbour serious doubts: the company is in freefall as a result of Adrian Noble’s plans to quit the Barbican, pull down the theatre in Stratford and abandon the ‘ensemble’ principle of keeping an acting company together for long runs of repertory work. Not to mention a massive financial deficit.

July 2020

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  • great blog more please. by christopher bland on this entry

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