Even Shakespeare Needed an Editor

Too bad he didn’t have one.

If you pay any attention to my “Currently Reading” status at the bottom of each post, you may have noticed a succession of Shakespearean plays lately. I recently acquired (read: shamelessly stole from my cousin) my late grandmother’s Complete Works (edited by G. B. Harrison) and have been reading through several of the plays that I haven’t read yet. However, I’ve also been reading about the plays themselves, when they were published and what their first printing looked like etc, which is even more interesting than the plays themselves sometimes.

William Shakespeare is quite possibly the greatest playwright of all time, and certainly the mainstay of English Literature. He achieved a certain level of fame in his own life-time (though he was undoubtedly middle-aged before he was acknowledged by Queen and Country as a premiere writer) and his plays are not only still read as literature by modern students, but still performed on the stage by modern actors. I’ve loved his work for nearly as long as I can remember, and am something of an amateur (very VERY amateur) Shakespeare scholar. At least, I am fascinated by his life and writing and the mechanics of his plays. I still remember the time my parents went to the Folger Shakespeare Library and were able to see some of the original Folios. It was one of the great disappointments of my childhood that I was taken to the zoo by a relative instead of being allowed to accompany them due to my age (I was 5 or 6 at the time). I love the zoo, but I wanted to see Shakespeare’s plays!

Anyway, the man was undoubtedly a genius. However, he still needed an editor. An editor might have helped smooth out some of the difficulties with his works which are so lovingly discussed by modern scholars. His spelling was probably a lost cause. After all, he spelled his own name in three different ways. On a single document. In his defence, nobody’s spelling was particularly consistent at the time. More problematic was his occasional lack of stage-direction in the original MS, or forgetting to divide the play into acts. Occasionally he would forget to write a character’s name in front of the dialogue, and put the actor’s name instead (which we know because some of these errors have been faithfully reproduced by the printer.)

Most troubling is the continuity or timing errors which sometimes occur in his plays. One example is the play “All’s Well that End’s Well,” nominally one of the comedies. The most problematic part occurs in the fifth act, when the Leading Lady seduces her husband, gets with child, and then presents him with his child in the space of a few scenes which appear to take place over the course of perhaps a month.

All of Shakespeare’s errors would undoubtedly have been caught and corrected by a half-way decent editor (or a printer who was both awake and literate). The fact that he didn’t employ one is probably more indicative of the fact that he intended his works to be seen and heard, not read, rather than any particular artistic hubris on his part. When not read, even the timing errors become less apparent, and the technical difficulties disappear entirely.

So, the next time you begin to feel that perhaps your work doesn’t need any outside editing, or that perhaps the critics and editors of your work just didn’t understand what you were trying to say, remember: Even William Shakespeare could have done with a decent copy-editor. No matter how brilliant, we all need some editing now and again. After all, how many of us could honestly claim to be the next William Shakespeare?

Currently Reading: Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery


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