Shakespeare's editors

Shakespeare's editors were essential in the development of the modern practice of producing printed books and the evolution of textual criticism.

The 17th-century folio collections of the plays of William Shakespeare did not have editors in the modern sense of the term. In the best understanding of contemporary consensus scholarship, the plays to be included in the First Folio (1623) were gathered together or "compiled" by John Heminges and Henry Condell, two long-time colleagues of Shakespeare in the King's Men. The play manuscripts may have been proofread and prepared for printing by Edward Knight, the "book-keeper" or prompter of the company. The task of proofreading and correcting the actual printed pages of the Folio was left to the compositors and printers in the print-shop, yielding the uneven and often defective text that is the First Folio.

Even less is known about the creation of the Second (1632), Third (166364), and Fourth Folios (1685) than about the First; see Folios and Quartos (Shakespeare).

In the 18th century, however, interested individuals made the first concerted efforts to bring order to the tangle of textual difficulties that the Folios of the previous century presented. The list below gives the date of each edition of Shakespeare's plays, the editor, the format of the collection, and pertinent specific information.

The early 19th century saw the first Variorum editions of Shakespeare's works, editions that collated and synthesized the efforts of the editors of the previous century:

These massive editions laid the foundation for modern textual scholarship on Shakespeare's works, and by extension on works of literature in general. In the 19th century the text, drawn primarily from Malone and Steevens, was "monumentalized"[3] in the Cambridge edition (1863-6) and its single-volume companion, the Globe edition (1864). It was followed by the New Cambridge edition in 1921, and all modern standard editions inherit primarily from this edition.[3]

As for the personalities involved: some of these men were friends, like Steevens, Reed, and Malone; acquaintances called them the Shakespeare Gang. Others nourished spirits of competitiveness and resentment. Pope made Theobald the first hero of The Dunciad. Warburton belittled Rowe's "Account of the Life" of Shakespeare but he reprinted it in his own edition, without change or improvement. Despite his friendship with Malone and Reed, Steevens was famous for his irascibility; in notes to his 1793 edition of Shakespeare, he concocted obscene interpretations of some passages and attributed those readings to people he didn't like.[4]

The next major edition, the Cambridge Shakespeare (186366), moved away from the practice of a single editor following his own sometimes capricious instincts and judgments. The first volume of the Cambridge Shakespeare was edited by William George Clark and John Glover, and the subsequent eight volumes by Clark and William Aldis Wright. Clark and Wright also produced the single-volume Globe Shakespeare (1864) using their Cambridge texts; together, these became the standard for the remainder of the century.

The most radical edition in the twentieth century was the Oxford Shakespeare, prepared under the general editorship of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. It aims to present the texts as they were originally performed, which results in numerous controversial choices, including presenting multiple texts of King Lear, a text of Hamlet in which the scenes presumably cut by Shakespeare are relegated to an appendix, and an emphasis on the collaborative nature of several of the plays.


  1. Halliday, p. 148.
  2. Not the famous Boswell, the biographer of Johnson, but rather his third son (17781822): Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells: The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. OUP 2001. pg. 52.
  3. 1 2 de Grazia 1991, p. 14.
  4. Halliday, pp. 30, 110, 474.


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