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Internet Shakespeare Editions

Standing in Rich Place (4)

New readings, new interactions

Perhaps the best response to this kind of inertia in the system will be to undertake some shock tactics. Critics approve of texts that are stable so that they can play their arpeggios upon them, but we all know that the texts they work with are unstable in the most basic way. In their seminal article on "The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text," Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass take as an example a single word from Macbeth: the description of the three witches, so different from the portrait Shakespeare found in Holinshed.

Reproduced by permission of the Furness Library, University of Pennsylvania.image
Reproduced by permission of the State Library of New South Wales.

De Grazia and Stallybrass examine the editorial process whereby the three "weyard" sisters of the Folio's text have become "weird" in modern texts, with a concomitant diminution of richness and instability as the alternatives "weyard/weyward/weird/wayward" are of necessity simplified. They comment:

There is an uncanny irony to the weird/wyrd emendation, as if editors would prefer the overdeterminations of the three Fates to the indeterminacy of their less predictable cousins/cognates. [Note 1]

De Grazia and Stallybrass see no effective way of reconstructing the "semantic field" (266) of meaning in a cluster of variant spellings and puns, in a text necessarily created after the dictionary has effaced the "mutable Renaissance signifier" (266). We have all visited sites on the Internet where dancing animations distract from the text, either unintentionally, in a site created by a too-enthusiastic amateur programmer, or intentionally on sites that make a living by advertising. A creative editor of an electronic edition might take advantage of the capacity of the medium for animation by recreating a semantic field where the text dances between variant readings:

Enter Banquo
 Thou hast it now -- King Cawdor, Glamis, all
Thou played'st most foully for't.

The text becomes visibly variant, teasingly slippery, as it makes manifest the actual instability of the text we meet in its various forms as we read our meticulously edited print texts and meet the familiar quotations variously dressed up in criticism according to the text the critic has chosen. Macbeth is seemingly a single-text play, but Stallybrass and de Grazia make it clear that it too, is a multiple-text play. [Note 2]

In a recent paper at the Shakespeare Association of America, [Note 3] Michael Warren pointed out a similar kind of editorial simplification when it comes to decisions surrounding theatrical practice. The originals are notoriously vague when it comes to the moment that an actor is supposed to enter or exit the stage -- and the chosen moment can make a profound difference to the dynamic of the scene, since it often delineates what it is that the character knows about the action, knowledge that will create different ironical resonances in later conversations. Directors of the plays in performance often change entrances and exits for this reason, structuring overhearing or moments where the actor storms out, to his or her disadvantage. An animated stage direction, appearing and disappearing at various points in the text would be an inescapable reminder that the stage direction is editorial, and would give the reader of the text an incentive to consider the alternative readings that the undisciplined stage direction would make possible. There is an interesting example in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Bottom wakes as the lovers leave the stage at the end of 4.1 (TLN 1727). There are no stage directions of any kind indicating the exit of the lovers or Bottom's waking in the Quarto, but in the Folio the lines appear thus:

Reproduced by permission of the State Library of New South Wales.

Dem. Why then we are awake; lets follow him, and
 by the way let vs recount our dreames.imageClo. When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer.
 (4.1.197-200; TLN 1725-8) [Note 4]

Modern texts, conditioned no doubt by the concept of separate scenes, tidily allow the lovers to leave before Bottom wakes, but there is no reason why the action should not be kept moving smartly with Bottom awakening as or before the others leave the stage. An editor wishing to keep options open might choose to make the two directions exchange places. [Note 5]

An alternative way of celebrating the richness that is multiplicity, even in plays that are technically single-text in origin, would be to arrange that a different set of variants would be loaded each time the section of the play was accessed. It would be a relatively simple matter to trigger a random function within the software as it chose which of several alternatives it would display: thus no two readers would see the same text, and each reader who hit the "back" button on the browser would find that the play had shifted in meaning. Of course, this technique would be infuriating to those who desire stability and predictability in such matters, but it is surely safe to assume that modern, sophisticated, readers of Shakespeare understand the indeterminate nature of the text and the narrowings of meaning that come from its regularization, so would find this kind of mutability wholly desirable. [Note 6] If editors still felt that they had a responsibility to make choices within the semantic field of possibilities, they could arrange that one of the words appeared more often in the randomly selected range, or in the case of animated text, some could be visible for longer, or be in bolder text, while others could be a more modest grey, performing in a minor role, for less time on the screen. This technique would have the attractive advantage that reviewers of the text could still take the editor to task for preferring the wrong variant.


  1. De Grazia, Margreta, and Peter Stallybrass. "The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text." Shakespeare Quarterly 44.3 (1993): 264. [Back]
  2. The article continues with a similar exploration of the semantic field that surrounds "hair/heir/air." Many other deeply entrenched dialogues that surround such variants as the well-known "salid/sallied/sullied/solid" in Hamlet , "Indian/Iudean" in Othello, or perhaps even the rather differently configured semantic field surrounding the "blew-eyed witch" in The Tempest explored by Leah Marcus, Unediting, Introduction. [Back]
  3. "'Pray You Undo This Button. Thank You Sir': Clarifying the Action." Paper presented at the meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America: Miami, 2001. [Back]
  4. Programming here and in the next example by Alan Galey. [Back]
  5. A recent virus on Windows machines teased users by making folders and icons slide away from the mouse as they attempted to click on them. A similar tease might make such slippery exits and entrances more accurately represent their uncertainty. [Back]
  6. It is, after all, what happens every time we pick up an article and see the key footnote, "Quotations in this article are taken from the Riverside/Bevington/Alexander/Arden/Oxford/Cambridge/Norton edition." [Back]

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