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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Editing Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 31

Just what exactly does it mean to edit the works of Shakespeare, particularly since we have no surviving manuscript copies? Why is it that new editions of the plays continue to be published?

In this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited, Rebecca Sheir interviews Paul Werstine and Suzanne Gossett about the how and why of editing Shakespeare.

Since 1989, Paul Werstine has been the co-editor of the Folger Editions, along with Barbara Mowat. He’s also a professor of English at King’s University College in London, Ontario. 

Suzanne Gossett is co-general-textual editor of The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd Edition and professor emerita of English at Loyola University in Chicago. She has also edited the Arden Shakespeare edition of Pericles and is a past president of the Shakespeare Association of America.  

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 9, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “The Dedicated Words Which Writers Use,” was produced by Richard Paul.  Garland Scott is the associate producer.  It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Aileen Humphreys at WAMU-FM in Washington and Mary Gaffney at WBEZ, Chicago.  

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

At the time that this is being recorded, all 38 plays, as well as the sonnets and poems, that comprise the Folger Library Shakespeare Editions have been available to the public for the past five years. This isn’t an ad, and just to prove it, the third Norton edition of the works of Shakespeare is also about to be published. We’re taking this opportunity to examine just what it means to edit the works of Shakespeare.

Our guests are two people with the authority to discuss this. Since 1989, Paul Werstine has been the co-editor of the Folger editions, along with Barbara Mowat. He’s also a professor of English at King’s University College in London, Ontario. Suzanne Gossett is co-textual editor of the Norton Shakespeare. She has also edited the Arden Shakespeare edition of Pericles and is a past president of the Shakespeare Association of America. We call this podcast “The Dedicated Words Which Writers Use.”

Suzanne and Paul are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

REBECCA SHEIR: Paul, let’s start with you. My first question may appear to be self-evident, but I have to ask, if Shakespeare wrote his plays 400 years ago, why do we need new editions? What changes from edition to edition?

PAUL WERSTINE: Well, I think Shakespeare editing has been a kind of a dual process of conservation and mediation, so that what editors have tried to do is preserve the texts, but at the same time, from the very beginning, they’ve been mediating between the readership and the text.

From the beginning, texts get modernized. For example, the spelling gets modernized. And so you have that process of modernization, you also have, in addition to the editing and the establishment of the text, you have a commentary, you have introductions, and all of those things, of course, are addressed toward an audience, and toward facilitating the audience’s ability to continue to read the plays.

And so, it’s this process that’s really, in a way, trying to keep Shakespeare current. That’s one of the objects that editors have, that makes it necessary to continue to edit the text.

SHEIR: And I understand on a very basic level, that some editions just have more mistakes than others.

WERSTINE: Well, you mean early… You’re talking about the early printed texts?

SHEIR: Sure, yeah.

WERSTINE: Yes, some of the editions are faultier than others, and, in fact, there’s an ongoing debate, has been for hundreds of years, among editors about the extent to which the editor needs to intervene or intrude, in order to identify mistakes and correct them. That is, what is a mistake for one editor, is not always a mistake for the other, and so you have differences in emendation policies from edition to edition.

SHEIR: What does emendation mean?

WERSTINE: In very practical terms, it’s changing the word in the early printed text that is the basis of one’s edition to another word, in the belief that the word that’s being changed is corrupt or wrong, and needs to be altered in order to replicate what the author wrote, or, sometimes editors don’t try to hold themselves to such an exalted standard as capturing what Shakespeare wrote, but in order to replicate what was acceptable in the language of the time when Shakespeare was writing.

SHEIR: Now, Suzanne, let’s turn to you. In the new, third edition of the Norton Shakespeare, your introduction looks at the subject, how authentic is the text I am reading? And it also looks at how the play scripts became printed texts.

So, with that first issue, the authenticity of texts, how authentic is the text we’re reading when we read the Norton Shakespeare?

SUZANNE GOSSETT: I don’t know exactly who the audience for all podcasts are, but I’d like to remind everybody that we have no manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays and poems in his hand. Consequently, we have these printed texts which may, or may not, convey what Shakespeare had in mind at the moment that he was writing. We don’t even actually know whether Shakespeare ever revised any of his own plays, but we certainly have, for half the plays, more than one single text of such well known plays as Hamlet and Lear and Romeo.

The question then becomes, what does it mean to be searching for an authentic text? There were earlier editors who had in mind, indeed, just as Paul suggested, the idea that they could put down on the page what they were sure Shakespeare meant. I think modern editors have much less, either conviction or self-confidence, you can call it as you like, that we can get back to that magic intentionality and singularity of Shakespeare.

So, we in the Norton Shakespeare are following what is the most, a very modern, belief in what’s called single text editing. We are sticking as close as we can to the texts that we actually have, with, at the same time, the recognition that texts need to be comprehensible. So, if there is some meaning that can be made out of a line with knowledge of early modern English, and it may not be completely smooth, but it makes sense, we don’t change it.

You get an 18th-century editor, you get somebody like the great poet Alexander Pope, and he had no difficulty whatsoever announcing what was Shakespeare’s and what was not. He took some lines and put them in the footnotes, because he thought they weren’t worthy of Shakespeare. We’re pretty far away from that. We are, nevertheless, trying to create a comprehensive text, and we will emend, when it is necessary.

SHEIR: So Paul, this process Suzanne describes for the Norton Shakespeare, is it similar to what you do with the Folger editions?

WERSTINE: I was impressed, as I was listening to Suzanne, about how much in unison we were about this, and hoping that you weren’t looking for a debate, because I didn’t think you were going to get one. I would subscribe to precisely what Suzanne has been saying.

GOSSETT: I could say to help… I didn’t expect to have a debate with Paul, seemed terribly unlikely to me.

But, just so that you have a sense that not everybody at all points has had such an idea in mind, the Norton Shakespeare first and second editons were based on the Oxford text, that was the most important text done in a hundred years.

On the other hand, there were some texts, I’ll take the one, because I’m the Arden editor of Pericles, and it’s a play that’s dear to my heart, I’ll take the extreme case from the Oxford text. Pericles is a damaged text. We only have one text of it. It’s a quarto, not from the First Folio, and there are lots of things that don’t make a great deal of sense. The Oxford text was freely called a reconstruction. That’s where you would have a debate. Should we be reconstructing?

SHEIR: Interesting. Well, something I want you both to talk a little bit about is how you handle or how you present differences in the various base texts you’re working on. So, if we take Hamlet, for an example, Hamlet is notorious for having many different versions, so when you came to a passage of Hamlet where multiple versions exist for the same speech, what do you do? Suzanne?

GOSSETT: Well, that’s something that I can speak from the point of view of the Norton. We will have, in the Norton… First of all, the Norton is conceived as an electronic edition, from which the print edition is, in a certain sense, a spin-off. And we are going to edit the base texts of all the texts that we have. And in the electronic edition, there will be fully edited texts of all the base texts, including of plays like Romeo and Juliet, which has considerable differences in its two quartos.

In the print edition, we will normally, except for Hamlet and Lear, have only one text. For Hamlet, however, in the print edition we are presenting an edition of Q1, that’s the famous “bad quarto,” and what we call a conjoined text, which is based on Q2, the “good quarto,” with the Folio-only passages inserted. In the electronic edition, there will be Q1, Q2, the Folio, and that conjoined edition.

SHEIR: Can you give us some examples of what it is you’re talking about?

GOSSETT: Well, I’ll give you an example from Hamlet. In one of the texts, when Hamlet is sent off to England, he meets a captain on the road and has a few lines with him asking whose troops these are, and he learns they’re Fortinbras’s troops. I think there are about 12 lines.


GOSSETT: In the other text, there is a very considerable scene in which Fortinbras goes off. Hamlet doesn’t talk to him, but he does talk to the captain, and he talks to the captain at considerably more length. And then when he is left alone, he has a very long soliloquy, a famous soliloquy, beginning, “How all occasions do inform against me.” And it has such famous lines, lines students always cite, like, oh, what’s the matter with me? Am I “thinking too precisely on th’ event”?

We don’t usually want to conflate those. We are putting both materials together for the conjoined edition, because those are things that people expect to have, and because there’s a great deal of criticism that talks about Hamlet as if it was always this one thing, with everything there.

But we don’t do the kind of conflation that used to be meant by conflation. And here I will, if you don’t mind, switch to Othello, in which the editor picks and chooses, so that in one text of Othello, in reporting what Desdemona’s reaction to his life story was, Othello says, “She gave me a world of sighs.” And in the other, he says, “She gave me, for my pains, a world of kisses.” And what you used to get was a single text of Othello, in which the editor simply decided. If he was a Victorian, he sort of thought she should probably only sigh. If he was a modern, he probably thought maybe she was kissing Othello. But you can’t conflate those. And yet, traditional conflations would pick and choose.

SHEIR: So conflation, this is a controversial topic. Paul, how do you feel about it?

WERSTINE: Well, again, I think, yeah, Suzanne and I are very much on the same page. It used to be that critics and editors thought that they could reconstruct, determine, what the manuscript origins of these were, and what the provenance of, that is where those manuscripts had been, behind those printed texts. And it was out of that kind of conviction of their knowledge of these origins that they were able to put the text together.

I mean, if you think you know where each of those texts comes from, then you can make a judgment about when you should go with one, and when you could go with the other. For example, if you think that the Folio text of Hamlet is a theatrical text, is a playhouse text, then from our knowledge of playhouse manuscripts, one could make certain inferences about how that text came to differ from the 1604–05 text of Hamlet.

And what’s happened is that there’s a good deal less confidence now in the ability to know where things came from. And if you don’t know where things came from, you’re much less likely to want to get in there and start to make changes, because you don’t have the confidence of knowing how these differences arose.

SHEIR: I want to talk more with you, Paul, for a moment about the decision-making process that you have to go through. For instance, Hamlet’s mother in 1604 is Gertrard, and then Gertrude in 1623. And in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have the character we call Puck, called Robin Goodfellow in an earlier printing. So, could you walk us through what you have to do to make decisions like those?

WERSTINE: Well, partly it comes back to that, let’s take the Gertrude / Gertrard example, and actually there’s yet a different variant of the name in the 1603 Quarto, so you actually have three choices that you could make. What happens in that case, as far as most editing goes, is that you get the intersection of the two processes that I was talking about at the beginning, of preservation and mediation.

And Gertrude, which is the 1623 version of the name, is the name that is familiar to people nowadays as a name. And so, in the process of modernization, we end up going with Gertrude. The interesting thing is that it’s a name. The name, whether you spell it one way or another, is still going to refer to the same character. And so, in a way, it’s possible, if you’re an editor who has many decisions to make, to say, well, this one doesn’t make that much difference.

When you go to Puck and Robin Goodfellow, it’s thought, or we thought, and I say we thought, because I’m not totally convinced of this either, that the name “puck” or “pooke” is a generic name for a certain kind of imagined spirit, whereas the name “Robin Goodfellow” is a much more precise name for a particular individual of that genus. And so we went with Robin Goodfellow. But other editors have made the decision other ways, and we could hardly say that they were wrong to do that, in that the two different names for the same character appear in the 1600 First Quarto of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is our authoritative text. And so, in a way, they’re, in terms of this question of authenticity that we’re dealing with, each has the same claim to authenticity.

SHEIR: Paul, the Folger Magazine had an article a little while back where your partner on the Folger editions, Barbara Mowat, said that in many ways, the old definitive text was very largely nothing more than an edition produced by Nicholas Rowe, or is it [different pronunciation] Rowe?


SHEIR: Nicholas Rowe. First, who was Nicholas Rowe, and when did he produce that edition?

WERSTINE: Well, Nicholas Rowe was justifiably famous because he’s the first editor of Shakespeare whose name we know. He published three editions, two in 1709 and one in 1714. And his editing was, and is, extraordinarily influential. He was a playwright in his own time, and that really was what his qualification was to be selected by the publisher, Tonson, to do this edition of Shakespeare. And he introduced certain features of the text that are remarkably persistent.

So, for example, he’s the one who first divided up all the plays into acts and scenes. Of course, a great many of Shakespeare’s texts were not divided into acts and were not divided into scenes, especially in the plays that we think he wrote in the early to middle part of his career. So you get some very unequal divisions. For example, if you’re reading Love’s Labor’s Lost, and you’ve read the first four acts, you may think you’re 80 percent of the way through the play, but actually, you’re just getting started, given the length of the fifth act. So, he did that.

He also introduced dramatis personae lists, or lists of the characters, at the beginnings of the plays, something that not all the plays had, only a few of them had. He put in scene locations; he took it upon himself to say where each of the scenes was taking place. Now, this is a feature that we have given up.

He pretty much followed the Fourth Folio of 1685 for his text, but he wasn’t in any way, you know, completely devoted to that text. He was the first one that did any conflation. We were talking about conflation. And he brought in that speech that Suzanne was talking about, just a few minutes ago, the “how all occasions do inform against me” speech. This is in Act 4, Scene 4 of Hamlet. It’s not in the Folio, the Fourth Folio, or even in the First Folio, that we’re always following. But he knew of quarto texts, not the 1604–05 text, but he had a derivative text of that, the 1676 quarto text. And from that, he brought in that famous speech, “How all occasions do inform against me,” where Hamlet accuses himself of inactivity in comparison to Fortinbras.

So, he does deserve a lot of credit, and, I suppose, blame, for where we are in Shakespeare editing today.

SHEIR: Suzanne, how did that edition, this Nicholas Rowe edition, become, you know, Shakespeare, instead of Nicholas Rowe’s version of Shakespeare?

GOSSETT: It’s really, actually, a story of publishing. Paul mentioned Tonson, Jacob Tonson. Now Mr. Tonson, this is right at the beginning of the time of what we call “copyright,” though it didn’t work the same way, but the first thing that we call copyright is in the time of Queen Anne, right about the time that Rowe produces this edition. Tonson had control of this edition, and every time the copyright, I’m going to call it that, was about to expire, he would hire a new person to do a new edition. But you see, they all worked from Rowe, and that went on for about 100 years.

SHEIR: Paul, the Folger has the only copy of the quarto for Titus Andronicus in the entire world. Some other quartos just barely survived in two or three copies. How do you think those plays would be different today if all the quartos had been lost?

WERSTINE: Well, wow.

Yes, they would be… I don’t think that we would be talking, or that we would have been talking for hundreds of years, for example, about “Hamlet’s delay,” if we had lost the quarto, because we would have the first speech at the end of Act 2, Scene 2, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” that he delivers after he’s seen the actors perform, and he’s disgusted with himself that they show such a level of passion and commitment. And he doesn’t show any of that. He hasn’t killed Claudius yet, okay, so we do have that one speech in both the Folio and the quarto.

But the second speech, that one that I referred to before, “How all occasions do inform against me,” is the second time in the play that Hamlet rebukes himself for delay. That’s only in the quarto. And so, if we didn’t have that speech, we wouldn’t have Hamlet twice rebuking himself for delay, and perhaps we wouldn’t even be talking about Hamlet delaying.

We wouldn’t have… If we didn’t have the quarto of King Lear, we wouldn’t have the magnificent scene in Act 4, where Kent and a gentleman talk about Cordelia and how she is so affected by the suffering of her father. It’s a scene which almost sanctifies Cordelia, and it’s really important to the understanding of her.

So, even Titus Andronicus makes a difference, you know, when… That quarto didn’t turn up till the beginning of the 20th century, and so all editions of Titus Andronicus were based on the Second, what we now call the Second Quarto, of Titus Andronicus.

It turns out… Once we found the First Quarto, it turns out, we discovered that the Second Quarto had been printed, reprinted, in part, from a defective copy of the First Quarto, from which certain… a few lines were missing from the bottom of a leaf. And so, you had a few lines on one side, you know, on one side of the leaf,gone, and a few lines on the other side of the leaf gone. The printer of the Second Quarto replaced those lines with those of his, or somebody in his shop’s, own devising. And so, we were reading that as Shakespeare for hundreds of years. And then the First Quarto turned up, and we went, “Wow.”

SHEIR: Wow. When it comes to editing the plays, is the point of editing to make the plays more comprehensible, or more enjoyable, or should I not even use the word “or”? Is it more of an “and” thing? First, Paul, and then Suzanne, I’m curious how you would respond. So Paul, more comprehensible or more enjoyable?

WERSTINE: Well, we certainly want people to understand Shakespeare. We also want Shakespeare to be enjoyable, but I think that we don’t want to compromise the editor’s function of preservation in the interest of perhaps making Shakespeare more enjoyable. And so, I think that’s kind of the brake, B-R-A-K-E, that editors put on themselves.

SHEIR: And Suzanne, what’s your take?

GOSSETT: Well, I think I’d be a little bit straightforward about this. I think, in my mind, that there’s no question that the question of comprehension comes first. And the reason I say that is that there exists, you know, these, I can’t call them editions, these books that basically modernize the language of Shakespeare. It’s everything I most disapprove of, as opposed to, say, something like the small Folger editions, which are very widely used in high schools.

But we know that Shakespeare is so basic to Anglo-American culture, but actually to Western culture, that we can’t pretend that every student comes to Shakespeare because he either wants to or expects to enjoy it. So I think an editor’s job is to make it comprehensible. I think, frankly, many students discover they really enjoy Shakespeare when they first see it on the stage. Classrooms are complicated.

There are people, people probably like Paul and me, I mean I’m talking for Paul, who fall in love with this language, and these plays, and these poems, at a very early age and get enormous enjoyment. But you do have people who are there because they know how important Shakespeare is to our literature and our culture, and they want to read it, and it’s not the editor’s primary problem to make them enjoy it. Is that too strong, Paul?

WERSTINE: Oh, no. Not at all. I wouldn’t disagree at all.

SHEIR: Paul, when the Folger decides to make a new edition, what is it that brings on that choice? Is it changes in taste? Is it advances in scholarship?

WERSTINE: I think it’s both. Scholarship does advance, or at least scholarship, it certainly changes. I mean, we have a very different understanding of editing Shakespeare now than we did in the 1950s, and it was in the 1950s that the first Folger edition was done by the then-director of the library, Louis B. Wright, and his executive assistant, Virginia LaMar.

And by the time we got to the time that Barbara and I started to work on it, in the very late ‘80s, there had been… There was beginning to be, at least, a very marked change in our understanding of editorial function. I think that counts for the Folger, the sense of the advance in scholarship. So, for example, in the first Folger edition, we have pictures in the Folger editions, as you know. If you look at the pictures in the earlier editions, you’ll see that a lot of them are merely decorative, whereas the pictures that are in the present Folger Edition are always there in order to instruct, and therefore to complement, with an e, to complement the commentary that goes along with the play.

SHEIR: I’m hoping both of you can weigh in on this last question. Do you think there can ever be a definitive text of Shakespeare, and if not, why not? Who wants to go first?

GOSSETT: You, I’m about to say, Paul, you first.

WERSTINE: All right. That word “definitive” is a word that did exist in Shakespeare textual criticism about, I would say, 50 or so years ago. There was a marvelous editor and textual critic, he was regarded as the dean of Shakespeare editing in North America, a man named Fredson Bowers. He had actually worked in intelligence in the Second World War, and had been one of those who managed to break the Japanese Purple Code. I mean, he helped win the Second World War. There was nothing that he didn’t think was possible for the human mind to achieve, including a definitive text of Shakespeare.

In fact, at that time, he thought that we could do sufficient research that we could create, yes, an absolutely definitive text of Shakespeare that would never have to be edited again. It’s a remarkable dream, I suppose, and, in a way, a nightmare when you think about it. And it seems entirely alien to our historical moment. And so, I love to talk about Bowers and the “definitive edition” to my students, and they, too, are astonished at such a vision.

GOSSETT: I would say that there are moments in which I do really, really wish I could pick up a phone and call Will Shakespeare and say, “Sighs? Kisses? Which one?” Or did one come from the theater? But the fact is, I think it’s never going to happen, and I’ll tell you something about Fredson Bowers.

I love Paul’s description, because, of course, the point is that if you’ve been involved in breaking the Japanese code, you’re not only a great intellect, but you are sure that you are the intellect. But I’ve done a great deal of work on other of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, particularly Beaumont and Fletcher. Bowers was in charge of an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher. Fletcher was a very… He was the playwright of the King’s Men following Shakespeare. There’s a very large canon of Beaumont and Fletcher.

Bowers insisted that the Beaumont and Fletcher edition be done in old spelling. We take it for granted that we modernize Shakespeare in terms of spelling. We don’t change “doth” to “does,” but we do spell old “O-L-D,” and we’ve already talked about some of the modernization of names. Bowers was persuaded that that was wrong. One of the results is that his edition of Beaumont and Fletcher seems terribly remote. The plays, if you pick them up, give them to a student, seem so much more remote than Shakespeare’s plays. And that’s because we have been reading modernized texts of Shakespeare for hundreds of years.

So, no, I don’t think there’ll ever be a definitive text of Shakespeare. And I don’t think we can have that, but I’m a great deal more comfortable with the somewhat less self-assured, un-Bowers-like position of editors like Paul, than I used to be with that kind of position.

SHEIR: Well, Paul, Suzanne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

WERSTINE: Well, thank you.

GOSSETT: You’re very welcome. It was fun.

WERSTINE: And thank you, Suzanne. It’s been wonderful to talk with you.

GOSSETT: Yes, it’s very, very nice. Thanks a lot.

WITMORE: Paul Werstine is co-editor, along with Barbara Mowat, of the Folger editions of Shakespeare, and a professor of English at King’s University College in London, Ontario. Suzanne Gossett is co-textual editor of the Norton Shakespeare third edition, and professor emerita of English at Loyola University in Chicago.

The Dedicated Words Which Writers Use” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Aileen Humphreys at WAMU in Washington, DC, and Mary Gaffney at WBEZ, Chicago.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.