Literature of the English Country House: Textual Variation and the Judgement of Editors

On the ‘Material Conditions’ strand of Literature of the English Country House this week we’ve been thinking about the editorial processes involved in reconstructing early modern literature. In this very special post Week 1 Educator and Professor of Tudor Literature, Cathy Shrank, discusses textual variation and the significant judgement of editors. 

Varying editions of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' consulted on 'Literature of the English Country House'

Varying editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ consulted on ‘Literature of the English Country House’

A large part of my research life is currently devoted to scholarly editing, that is, producing versions of 16th- and early 17-century texts for 21st-century readers. The texts that I edit, study, and teach are often unstable objects, surviving and circulating in different versions. There are two main reasons for this: (1) deliberate revision (for example, by authors or theatre companies), which is part of the creative process; and (2) the inadvertent changes that arise from mistakes made when texts are copied by hand, or when compositors set the printed pages (each letter of an early printed book is produced by an individual piece of type, each of which is set manually).

Shakespeare’s plays offer some striking instances of deliberate revision. The earlier, quarto editions containing single plays often differ – sometimes quite markedly – from their later appearance in the folio collection of his Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, published posthumously in 1623. Hamlet and King Lear are probably the best known examples, where the folio versions seem to represent more streamlined plays, trimmed for performance. But almost all of the plays which exist in both quarto and folio contain variants, even the smallest of which can affect how we perceive the plays.

A composing stick. Image is available through Creative Commons. (

A composing stick. Image is available through Creative Commons. (

Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first printed in quarto in 1600, where the final scene includes a character called Philostrate, who oversees the wedding entertainments. Hermia’s father, Egeus – who had opposed her marriage – is absent from the final celebratory scene. In the folio version, Egeus is on-stage and is given most of Philostrate’s lines; however, not one of these is addressed to his daughter. (Philostrate retains some lines, so Egeus’ presence on-stage in the folio cannot be due to the conflation of roles to reduce the size of the cast.) Whether Egeus’ presence on-stage is a reminder of his estrangement from his daughter or a sign of his reconciliation is dependent on performance, but by placing him on stage, the folio text opens up possibilities which are not available in the quarto.

Inadvertent errors tend to arise from a scribe or compositor misreading, mishearing, or misremembering the text they were reproducing. (It is not unusual for texts in manuscripts to result from memorial reconstruction, but even in the print shop, compositors – setting type at speed – would probably need to hold snippets of texts in their memory.) Mistakes in memorial reconstruction can be particularly hard to unravel, because the copyist will tend to ‘patch up’ what they have misremembered so that it makes some kind of sense. But even errors arising from misreading can be difficult to spot. Othello’s final speech, for instance, contains a reference to the ‘base Indian’ who ‘threw a pearl away’. Or at least, some editions and productions contain that line, which appears in the first edition of the play, the 1622 quarto. Others follow the folio, which refers to a ‘base Iudean’ (i.e. Judean, i/j being interchangeable in early modern spelling). Both make sense, and there would be no reason for an editor to think to question either ‘Indian’ or ‘Judean’, if it weren’t for the existence of the alternative version, which may arise from misreading the copy (‘n’ and ‘u’ are hard to distinguish in 16th- and 17th-century handwriting) or from a piece of turned type, ‘n’ or ‘u’ having been inserted upside-down in one or other version (‘Indean’ is a feasible early modern spelling of ‘Indian’).

The first folio of Shakespeare's plays at the Victoria and Albert Museum (image available through Creative Commons)

The first folio of Shakespeare’s plays at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Image available through Creative Commons.

Textual variance is not a phenomenon restricted to the 16th and 17th centuries, however. The American writer Richard Ford (author of The Sportswriter and it sequel, Independence Day) wrote a piece, ‘Where does writing come from?’, published in The Granta in 1998. In this, he describes how pleased he was to read a review which applauded his choice of adjectives, singling out ‘old-eyed’ for particular praise. Not long after, while sorting manuscripts in his attic, Ford suddenly noticed that ‘in the rounds of fatigued retyping that used to precede a writer’s final sign-off on a book in the days before word processors, the original and rather dully hybridized ‘cold-eyed’ had somehow lost its ‘c’ and become ‘old-eyed’, only nobody’d noticed since they both made a kind of sense’. The word choice lauded by the critic wasn’t Ford’s at all, and the work thus exists in two different states: the author’s original, and the published version which unintentionally departs from this.

Ford’s anecdote helps remind us that that the books we read are co-produced. As Roger Stoddard notes: ‘Whatever they may do, authors do not write books. Books are not written at all. They are manufactured by scribes and other artisans, by mechanics and engineers, and by printing presses and other machines’. To this list of people who intervene between the text that the author writes and the books that we read (or plays that we see), I would also add the category of ‘editor’, not least because it is the role of an editor (1) to decide which version of a text is presented to the reader, and (2) to spot and correct any inadvertent errors.

The judgements editors make are sometimes done silently (particularly the case with choices about punctuation), or at best they are often unobtrusive, discussed in explanatory notes (easily overlooked), or in textual notes, relegated to an appendix (really easily overlooked). As readers, we therefore need to be aware of the power of editors: the decisions they make are not neutral, and they shape the books we read.



Morphology and the Book from an American Perspective’, Printing History, 17 (1987), pp. 2-14, at p. 4.



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