For most actors —and for those of us who read Shakespeare—we encounter more than just spoken words, but also punctuation, spelling, typography, and stage directions. Though most of us encounter Shakespeare in an edition that has modern, consistent spelling and punctuation, offset stage directions, clear breaks between scenes, and so on, printed texts from the early modern period are very different.
For most actors and readers today, this text from The Tempest in Shakespeare’s First Folio is difficult to navigate; there are variations in spelling, some older and out-of-use; inconsistent line arrangements; abbreviations for character names; and older uses of punctuation. As practitioners and readers of Shakespeare today, we need to know that the modern, clean, edited versions of the play we might use in production or study in class are different from those used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
These differences are editorial choices that may illuminate or obscure meaning for the actor, director, or reader. One example from The Tempest, earlier, is that a modern edition might say either “ducks” or “docks” instead of “doekes” in an attempt to provide clarity, potentially obscuring the definition here, which is that a “doeke” or “dock” is a kind of weed. Other editorial choices in the preceding passage might be to convert some of the many colons to semicolons, periods, commas, or exclamation points so that the passage might read as this one does:
For most, the updates to the punctuation, formatting, and spelling on the page can be helpful in providing clarity and in making the text readable but, depending on the editor, meaning can be changed—sometimes very slightly, as in the preceding example, but sometimes much more substantially—and can affect both performance and reception. Here is an example of how editors might affect our understanding of Romeo and Juliet. We see three source texts (Qi and Qi are the first two “quarto” editions of the play, and Fr is the “folio” edition of the play ) that are later negotiated, shifted, and conflated in the modern (Norton) edition.
Romeo and Juliet
Obviously there are major editorial differences between the source texts and the modern edition. These differences range from spelling to punctuation to word choice. The editors of modern editions like the Norton shown here are negotiating the text for the modern reader and making judgments about what should and should not be included based on preference. No editorial choices made to update the text for the modern reader are malignant, but they can affect our understanding of the text, obscuring or clarifying in different ways. For the actor or director, having at least a connection to how the older, original texts look and function can provide helpful insights for performance.