Many voices

The covers of the First Folio enclose many voices,” Dr Edmund King said, in passing.

The phrase has stuck in my mind. Edmund, whose research includes eighteenth-century editors of Shakespeare, was talking about dramatic production. Alongside Shakespeare’s voice are those of many collaborators: co-writers, revisers, and actors all contributed to Shakespeare’s play texts before they even reached a publisher.

Within the First Folio, some of these voices are named.

Ben Jonson’s beautiful poem ‘To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR’ sits next to others by Leonard Digges, Hugh Holland, and James Mabbe.

A letter of dedication is written by John Heminge and Henry Condell, friends and fellow actors of Shakespeare. Less formally, they also write a letter “To the great Variety of Readers.” The names of these two men, who speak so warmly of Shakespeare, are also listed among the “Principall Actors”.

Edward Blount, Isaac Jaggard, John Smethwick, and William Aspley are named as the publishers. Jaggard’s name also stands for his father, William, who died while the book was in production.

Your voice can be added to those of Aspley, Blount, Condell, Digges, Heminge, Holland, Jaggard, Jonson, Mabbe, Smethwick, and the many printing-house workers whose names are lost to us. By donating to the campaign, you will help open our copy of this book to the world, and your name will appear online, alongside it. You can name someone you would like your donation to be dedicated to, and their name will be added too.

There is another way to add your voice. We are looking for guest bloggers to write posts for us to publish here.

We want to hear what you think of Shakespeare — of the First Folio, of film or theatre productions you’ve seen, your favourite speech, your worst character, the first teacher who inspired love for Shakespeare, a character you acted, a play you directed, bits that make you laugh, and what makes you cry…

Post your thoughts on other people’s blogposts in the Comments below, or email us your own post to be published here: shakespeare@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

One thought on “Many voices

  1. Edmund puts it beautifully. There’s yet another set of collaborators whose input to the Folio was fundamental but who, if they got it right, should not be noticed at all: the typesetters (a.k.a. compositors).

    Thomas Satchell was the first to notice, in 1920, that in Folio Macbeth each of 35 words is spelt one way in the first half of the play (for example, doe and goe) and another in the second half (do and go), and he wondered if this was because each of two compositors imposed his own spelling preferences as he worked. Satchell was unable, however, to eliminate the alternative possibility that Folio Macbeth was set from two manuscripts in which these spellings differed. Edwin Eliott Willoughby took the most discriminating five of Satchell’s 35 words, added one of his own, and extended the search to Folio plays beyond Macbeth to establish that at least two compositors, A and B, set the Folio, and probably two more as well. Willoughby’s study was avowedly incomplete.

    Charlton Hinman’s discovered the work of an apprentice compositor E, explaining that he used “E, rather than C or D, because not all of the material before the Tragedies was set by A and B, and C and D may later be required to designate compositors in the Comedies”. Compositors C and D were duly discovered by Hinman, who developed a new technique for attribution. Hinman noticed that distinctively damaged pieces of type could be traced across the Folio, and on the assumption that compositors did not share type this enabled him to trace the pages set from a particular typecase (containing one or more damaged pieces) across the book. Because compositors did not share type, Hinman decided, tracing typecases gave an indirect means of tracing compositor stints on pages where spelling evidence is not decisive.

    A decade after Hinman’s landmark book on the Folio (1963), T. H. Howard-Hill added compositor F to the roster by showing that compositor A of the comedies and compositor A of the histories behave in distinct ways. Hinman had been wrong to assume that compositors did not share type, and had in any case used too few spelling differences in making his stint attributions. Rather than relying solely on spelling, Howard-Hill applied what he called “psychomechanical” tests concerning habits of layout, punctuation, and spacing to distinguish compositors. In particular, whether or not a space is inserted after a comma and before the next word seemed to Howard-Hill an especially strong marker of compositor identity. Gary Taylor approved, thinking Howard-Hill’s test for “frequent terminal spaced commas . . . a near-infallible indicator of [compositor] C’s presence”. On this basis, Taylor subdivided still further the established stints, adding compositors H, I, and J to the roster.

    And that’s where we now stand: 9 compositors (A-J minus G). Or do we? There remain doubts about the tests that are used to spot the distinct habits of compositor, and in any case might a man not set a space after every comma on Mondays and Tuesdays and leave it out for the rest of the week? The little research that has been done on these kinds of working habits suggests that people really are inconsistent in those ways. (Looking at my old files I find that throughout the late 1990s I began quotations with a backtick character (top left on most keyboards) rather than in inverted comma; I can’t remember why I did that, and it wouldn’t be a good test for my authorship of something now. Also, ask a library cataloguer whether there should be a space before a colon and you might be surprised at the answer.) The whole question of Folio compositor stints needs to be looked at again. I’m having a go at it using some new technology (stand-off markup in XML) and anyone interested is invited to contact me.

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