There and Back Again: Page and Stage in Shakespeare

When some scandal about Shakespeare enters the news, certain camps seem to form quickly: scholar vs practitioner, casual fan vs expert. One of my hopes in my career overall is to break down these categories, and recognize that while they do have differing methodologies and goals, there is a great deal that each can offer the other. There is a lot of really interesting scholarship that hasn’t yet made its way into the mainstream theatrical conversation, but provides interesting perspectives and areas of inquiry for artists. As one example, I want to talk about how Shakespeare’s plays got from the page to the stage and back again.

This might sound like the least relevant topic possible. After all, deeply examining text and print seems antithetical to the belief that the plays were created for performance, not as literature. But understanding how early modern printing and editing processes differ from our own– and how our own combine with those to create the editions that we read– can transform our understanding of our relationships as artists to the text.

The study of early modern print culture has been a widely covered topic in the last few years, but I’d like to try and approach it from a slightly different angle, and look at the journey from what an actor in Shakespeare’s company would have seen, and how that translated to and relates to the text an actor today receives.

          Cue Scripts 

Elizabethan and Jacobean didn’t get the full text of play they were performing because it was too expensive and time-consuming. The company’s copy of the script was written out by hand, and making twelve or more hand-written copies would have been preposterous. So actors got hand-written cue scripts, which contained only their lines and a few iambs of their cues.

We only have one surviving cue script from the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. It belonged to Edward Alleyn, star actor of the Lord Admiral’s Men (played by Ben Affleck in Shakespeare in Love), for the title role in the play Orlando Furioso. You can look at it here, and read more about it here.

It’s missing a lot of things we would consider key information for an actor. The other charcters’ lines, obviously, but also subtler information actors and writers today think of as essential to meaning: punctuation, line breaks, consistent capitalization. However much attention the playwright paid to those things when preparing his script to be printed, they apparently weren’t considered terribly important for actors. We can even see several places where the lines are filled in by Alleyn himself, adding yet another degree of separation between whatever the playwright may have originally written and what ended up being spoken onstage.

         The Printers (and The First Folio)

How much attention did playwright pay to spelling, punctuation, line breaks, and the like when a play was being printed? Often, the answer was not much. For Shakespeare, the answer was very possibly none. It was usually the playing company, not the writer, who was seeing a work (which the company, not the writer, owned) into print. Some writers composed prefaces explaining the play’s reception or even (in the case of Ben Jonson) changes that had been made between performance and printing, but Shakespeare never bothered. And of course, by the time the first folio was bring printed, his opinions could not be consulted because he was dead.

Printers, on the other hand, had more to keep in mind than just copying down exactly what was on the page (assuming they count even read it clearly, which evidence suggests they sometimes couldn’t). Printers set every page by hand, one page at a time. They also only had a limited amount of type, so there are examples of printers running out of, for example, the letter E and suddenly and temporarily dropping Es from the ends of names and words. The same could happen with punctuation marks.

To be as efficient as possible, printers estimated in advance how long a play would be, and divided up on the manuscript how much would ideally fit on each page. Sometimes this didn’t work out. Because of the way books were constructed, however, readjusting pages was incredibly difficult– better to squeeze things in if you could. Which they did, by altering spelling, changing punctuation or even the placement of line breaks in the verse– and there is even evidence of words and lines being quietly removed to make sure the pages came out as expected. You can also see gaps and empty spaces at the bottom of pages that didn’t end up taking up quite enough space.

The first folio of Shakespeare’s works claimed to offer corrected and updated versions of the text. And sometimes it did! But mostly it didn’t. When there was a good quarto version available, the folio almost always just copied it directly, because a printed script is much easier to read than a handwritten one, and thus easier to accurately set type for. But there is no evidence, as Patrick Tucker notably asserts, to believe that the Folio contains performance clues that the quartos lack– partly because most of it is derived from the quartos, and partly because, as discussed above, even a play set directly from a prompt book wouldn’t actually look like the texts that the actors were working from.

         Modern Editions

Most Shakespeare fans know about the textual quibbles that plague Hamlet and, more extensively, King Lear. Does Hamlet wish his ‘solid’ or ‘sullied’ flesh would melt? Are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, or ours? Does Lear spy stirrings of life in Cordelia, and how many O!s are there, anyway? But these are only the most famous examples: these questions plague almost every play (and plays with only one extant version, like Macbeth and Pericles, tend to come with their own set of problems). Previously, the editorial tradition preferred to examine all of these options in search of a theoretical ‘perfect text’ from which all these versions were theoretically derived. More recently, some scholars have chosen to accept each version as a whole, valid text in itself (as evidenced by, for example, the Norton Shakespeare printing two King Lears). What either tradition means is that choices are being made in the modern edition that we read. When people complain that a production or adaptation isn’t faithful to The Text– well, you have to stop and ask yourself what ‘The Text’ means, anyway.

Some editors, like the RSC’s line of Shakespeare editions, like to print their plays like modern play texts, including more contemporary style character lists and stage directions. But this can be misleading, too– because, as discussed above, punctuation and spelling are unreliable. And by modernizing both of these things into a script form where actors are used to taking punctuation and stage directions as important clues, readers who don’t know better than find themselves taking commas, periods, and even question marks as Shakespeare’s gospel, when in fact they may not even appear in any of the printed versions (and, as mentioned above, their inclusion or exclusion isn’t really a reliable indicator of what Shakespeare wrote or the actors read).

Now, I’m not actually advocating for ignoring punctuation, spelling, and line breaks in Shakespeare. Lots of interesting things emerge from delving into them, and there is immense value in the scholarly practice which accepts the text as we have received it as a starting place more important than theorizing about what the perfect version may have been. But recognizing that these things aren’t set in stone– that there aren’t, in fact, pat rules to learn– is also immensely liberating. Knowing that a single line is a question in one version of the text and a statement in another suddenly doubles the potential deliveries, and raises twice as many questions about what that line and moment can mean. A better understanding of how the text came to be doesn’t shut down possibilities with pedantic, rigid rules, but in fact (and this is going to become a theme) opens up the text to even more creativity on the part of the artists working with it.

Some further reading: 

The Henslowe-Alleyn Archive: an amazing resource with essays on and transcriptions of the extensive documents (including business documents belonging to theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe) that actor Edward Alleyn donated to Dulwich College upon his death.

Shakespeare and Text by John Jowett: an introduction to the history of book editing and publishing, and how our changing knowledge has impacted the field of Shakespeare scholarship.

Making Shakespeare by Tiffany Stern: an examination of how a play made its way from the playhouse to the printing house.

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