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What a piece of work...

In May 2002, the Royal Shakespeare Company asked Jonathan Bate if he would be interested in devising a new edition of Shakespeare – ‘an irresistible invitation to climb the Everest of literary scholarship’. Here, we publish extracts from his diary of the work in progress; the new Complete Works will be published in April.

April 2004

Having hired a brilliant assistant, I’ve made great strides with the explanatory work on Shakespeare’s language, but the work on finalising the actual text is painstakingly slow. I need some help. 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 a textual advisor in the person of Eric Rasmussen of Reno, Nevada: he’s the ultimate bibliographic high roller, whose devastating reviews have been known to drive sloppy editors to Prozac or worse. If he’s on the team, he can’t review me. ‘How much involvement are you looking for?’ he asks. As much as possible, I say. ‘Sure, I’ll do the text for you,’ he says in his unflappable way. I splutter into my beer. 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 coeditor, I’ll be able to complete the job. And that it’ll be good.


But why has he agreed? The answer is that I had a very simple idea about the text, and he loved it. Here’s the idea: What we mean by editing a text from the age before standardised spelling and ‘rational’ grammarled punctuation, is modernising (the spelling and the punctuation – but not the words themselves, we’re not talking about changing Shakespeare’s ‘thou’ to modern ‘you’), and 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 authorised 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, if we extend the rule and embrace ‘the published text authorised after the author’s death by his friends and closest colleagues, the people who knew his plays best because they performed them’ – 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 foliobased texts.

At that same New Orleans conference, there was a session on Shakespeare editions, at which one of the seminar leaders asked – why on earth do we need yet another edition? 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 it – in the sense of correcting and modernising it – since 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.

December 2006

The introductions are written, amounting to the equivalent of a 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, and Amazon offering a 30% discount: over two and a half thousand pages of Shakespeare freshly edited, in readable single column format, with introductions, illustrations and amazingly detailed explanatory notes all for £20 in a handsome hardback... I’m pinching myself to find the catch.

twelfthnight.jpgJanuary 2007

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.

Well, we’ve caught that one, but other errors will have escaped the net. But it’s too late to do anything about them now. All we can do is plan the launch campaign and sit back to wait for the arrival of advance copies. And then the dreaded reviews.