The Complete Readings of William Shakespeare project is about more than just grabbing a Shakespeare script and jumping in front of an audience. Our advertising slug will tell you that the series presents a unique opportunity to experience these plays in a way that hasn’t been possible since the King’s Men originally performed them 400 years ago. But there’s more to that than just a novelty: We think there’s something exciting, for example, about seeing the cycle of history plays literally unroll before your eyes with a continuity of character and actor.
As a member of our audience, you’re getting a chance to discover things that can only be seen when Shakespeare’s plays are viewed a living body of theatrical work. And part of what we hope will make that experience memorable are the discoveries we’re making as performers. The American Shakespeare Repertory wants to delve deep into the rich depths of Shakespeare’s plays, and we believe that the Complete Readings will prove to be a powerful foundation on which the future work of the company will be built.
That work begins with the script.
BRIEF HISTORY OF SHAKESPEARE’S TEXTS
As many of you probably already know, we have inherited our Shakespeare scripts from an eclectic variety of sources. No manuscript copy of a complete Shakespeare play exists. Instead, the earliest version of Shakespeare’s plays we possess are quartos which were printed in the 1590’s. (Quartos were roughly the cultural equivalent of modern paperbacks.) These were sold by at least half a dozen different publishers, many of whom apparently didn’t possess any sort of authoritative (or even complete) copy of the plays they were publishing. The next milestone in Shakespeare publication was the famous First Folio of 1623, without which many of his plays would have been permanently lost. (Folios were much larger volumes.)
These various editions were reprinted and reissued in a variety of ways over the next hundred years, with each subsequent printing accumulating a fresh set of errors and variants. The modern editorial tradition began in the 18th century, as editors attempted to return to the earliest versions of each text in an effort to produce a more authoritative edition. Modern editions of Shakespeare generally follow the same basic practices established in the 18th century:
1. Modernization of Spelling
2. Regularization of Punctuation and Verse
3. Emendation of Text
Because every editor makes different choices (particularly when it comes to texts which exist in more than one original edition), every edition of a Shakespeare play is slightly different from every other edition of the same play. But over the past couple hundred years, each play has generally (and slowly) accumulated traditions of emendation.
THE COMPLETE READING SCRIPTS
This accumulation of emendation is generally a good thing: When one editor finds a particularly apt solution to a textual problem, other editors copy their work and then try to find other ways to repair the text of the play.
But sometimes the best choice (or the seemingly best choice) eliminates other choices that might also bear fruit if fully pursued. An actor or director, in particular, will scour a play’s script looking for the clues buried within it. And sometimes modern editorial practices can resemble a criminal wiping away the fingerprints at a crime scene: Important information can be lost.
Which is why every Complete Reading is based on a freshly prepared script specifically designed to preserve as many of those clues as possible (while also conveying all the benefits of a fully modern edition).
The script used for our first reading, Macbeth, which I’ll be sharing next week, is fairly representative of the process.
Originally posted September 8th, 2010.