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Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays

Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, Shakespeare did not have direct involvement in publishing his plays. The problem of identifying what Shakespeare actually wrote became a major concern for most modern editions. Textual corruptions stemming from printers' errors, misreading by compositors or simply wrongly scanned lines from the source material litter the Quartos and the First Folio. Additionally, in an age before standardised spelling, Shakespeare often wrote a word several times in a different spelling, and this may have contributed to some of the transcribers' confusion. Modern editors have the task of reconstructing Shakespeare's original words and expurgating errors as far as possible.

In some cases the textual solution presents few difficulties. In the case of Macbeth for example, scholars believe that someone (probably Thomas Middleton) adapted and shortened the original to produce the extant text published in the First Folio, but that remains our only authorised text. In others the text may have become manifestly corrupt or unreliable (Pericles or Timon of Athens) but no competing version exists. The modern editor can only regularise and correct erroneous readings that have survived into the printed versions.

The textual problem can, however, become rather complicated. Modern scholarship now believes Shakespeare to have modified his plays through the years, sometimes leading to two existing versions of one play. To provide a modern text in such cases, editors must face the choice between the original first version and the later, revised, usually more theatrical version. In the past editors have resolved this problem by conflating the texts to provide what they believe to be a superior Ur-text, but critics now argue that to provide a conflated text would run contrary to Shakespeare's intentions. In King Lear for example, two independent versions, each with their own textual integrity, exist in the Quarto and the Folio versions. Shakespeare's changes here extend from the merely local to the structural. Hence the Oxford Shakespeare, published in 1986, provides two different versions of the play, each with respectable authority. The problem exists with at least four other Shakespearean plays (Henry IV, part 1, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello).

 

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