Sunday, 28 October 2012

Did Shakespeare Have an Editor?

Title Page of The First Folio

Shakespeare almost certainly never had an editor in the modern sense of the word. And, during his lifetime, he may not have had any editor at all.

Shakespeare’s plays were not collected for the First Folio, until 1623; seven years after the Bard’s death.

The plays were brought together by John Heminges and Henry Condell, who were both actors with the King’s Men. Today, Heminges and Condell are commonly labelled as the ‘editors’ of Shakespeare’s First Folio, but, in truth, all they probably did was sling the plays together.

The Plays Were for Performing not Publishing

But it’s worth bearing in mind that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays with a vision for them to be published. The documents he wrote were for the use of his actors, and, therefore, not in a suitable condition for publishing.

Step in, Edward Knight, who was the ‘book-keeper’ and prompter for the King’s Men. It’s believed by some that it fell to him to proofread and prepare the documents for publication.

So Why Are There Different Versions of Shakespeare’s Plays?

Well, it’s believed that over 100 pages of the 900-page folio were still being corrected while it was already in the process of printing.

Writer Nicholas Rowe was the first to create
 a universal edition of Shakespeare's
complete works
Each printer was editing these pages as he went, but was only capable of fixing obvious typographical errors. It’s thought that approximately 500 errors were rectified in this way.

The result is that individual copies of the First Folio differ quite drastically in the errors they contain.

When Were The Mistakes in The First Folio ‘Fixed’

It was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century, that people attempted to create a ‘universal’ collection of Shakespeare’s plays.

It began with Nicholas Rowe (also a playwright), in 1709, and continued through to the Arden series.

Because Shakespeare’s plays were published several years after his death, and have subsequently been quite heavily tampered with, it’s impossible to say with certainty that the plays we now have are exactly the ones he wrote.

We also, sadly, can’t know whether he ever had an ‘editor’ who might have said, “A bear, Bill? Are you sure?”

Who knows, he may even have had an editor like this…