Shakespeare's Early Editions: Computational Methods for Textual Studies

Lead Research Organisation: De Montfort University
Department Name: School of Humanities

Abstract

We know what William Shakespeare wrote only because in his lifetime, and shortly after it, his works appeared in printed form from various small London publishers. We have none of his manuscripts, so all modern editions of Shakespeare are based on these surviving printed editions. About half of his works appeared during his lifetime in cheap single-play editions known as quartos and in 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare's death) a large collected works edition of 36 of his plays, known as the First Folio, was published with assistance from his fellow actors. Where we have both quarto and Folio versions of a play, they are never identical. Hundreds or thousands of 'variants' ranging from single words to whole lines, speeches, and even scenes are present or absent in one or other edition, or are entirely reworded and/or placed in a different part of the play. Unlike the plays, Shakespeare's poems were well published and present far fewer editorial problems.

Despite centuries of study, we cannot satisfactorily explain the quarto/Folio (Q/F) variants. Some will be errors made in the printing of one or other early edition, or in the prior copying of the lost manuscripts from which those printings were made. Others will be the results of censorship that required the toning down of religious expressions used as swear-words. Others still will be the results of Shakespeare changing his mind and revising a play after first composing it, or his fellow actors changing it with or without his consent. Just which reason explains each variant is hard to say because their results can be similar. As readers and editors of Shakespeare we want to find out which reason explains each variant because we want to correct the printer's errors and censorship but not to undo second thoughts and other kinds of revision in order to show modern readers what Shakespeare actually wrote. Where he or his fellows revised a play, we want to see how it stood before and after the revision in order to understand the motivations for changing it.

The newest discoveries about Shakespeare's habits of writing concern co-authorship. Scholars used to believe that except for short periods at the start and end of his career, Shakespeare habitually wrote on his own, but we now know that as many as one-third of his works were co-written with other dramatists. This has been shown by multiple independent studies using computational stylistics, which measure features of a writer's style that are invisible to the naked eye but can be counted by machines. For the past three decades, prevailing theories of authorship have suggested that where two writers collaborate on a work they blend their styles--effectively imitating one another--so that it would be all but impossible to decide later who wrote each part of the resulting composite work. Computer-aided analysis has proved this to be untrue: personal traits of writing can be discerned even where writers attempt to efface them.

The proposed project will use the latest techniques in computational stylistics to study the problem of the Q/F variants. The techniques are particularly suited to (indeed, were first developed for) the discrimination of random corruption from systematic alteration. This discrimination goes to the heart of the Q/F variants problem: we want to know which differences result from mere errors in transmission and which are something else. Now that we have reliable tools to discriminate authorial styles, and have a reasonable set of baseline style-profiles for most of Shakespeare's fellow dramatists, we ought to be able to see how far artistic revision by Shakespeare and/or his collaborators caused the differences between the early editions, which remain our only access to Shakespeare. The better we understand the Q/F differences, the better account we can give of what Shakespeare actually wrote.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from the concentrated research phase of the project, and how?

* Individual readers and playgoers of Shakespeare (of all ages) who want to gain a better insight into what he wrote and when, including his collaborative activities, his professional career, and what is irretrievably lost to us because of errors in transmission, will be able to do so from our published results. This impact will begin 1+ years from project end and take the form of long-lasting improvement in artistic enjoyment.

* Theatre groups who want their productions to reflect the current state of knowledge about what Shakespeare wrote and how he did it will be able to do so from our published results. The success of the London replica Globe theatres and the attempts of other companies to emulate it show that paying audiences are deeply concerned with the original conditions under which Shakespeare's artistry was developed, and care about the details of his dramatic creativity. This impact will begin 2+ years from the project end and take the form of improved performances.

* Publishers of Shakespeare editions who want to give their readers--the general public as well as specialists--the latest state of knowledge about Shakespeare's processes of authorship and how they relate to theatrical practice in his time will be able to do so from our published results. This impact will begin 2+ years from project end and take the form of books that are better able to satisfy their readers' intellectual curiosity.

Who might benefit from the leadership/dissemination phase of the project, and how?

* The 'Link' from each host institution for the Travelling Roadshow will benefit from 40 hours of bespoke training in computational methods for textual analysis while in residence at the Centre for Textual Studies at De Montfort University. This impact will begin during the project and permanently enhance the Link's abilities.

* Individuals from each host institution who wish to develop their skills in computational methods for textual analysis will be able to do so by attending Travelling Roadshow as it visits each regional centre. This impact will begin during the project and permanently enhance the attendees' abilities.

* The host institutions for the Travelling Roadshow will benefit in having their members' skills in computational approaches to textual analysis improved, not only broadening their institutional skill- and knowledge-bases in a burgeoning area of research and teaching, but also increasing their institutional capacity to undertake projects using such methodologies. This impact will begin during the project and will form permanent institutional improvement.

* The host institutions for the Travelling Roadshow will benefit from being able to offer two public performances (produced by the PI and performed by his undergraduate students) that give the general public an insight into how computers work and how they are able to store and process texts. These peformances will help host institutions fulfil their own public engagement and outreach agendas. This impact will begin during the project and will form permanent institutional improvement.

* The general public will benefit from attending the Travelling Roadshow's two public performances on how computers work and how they are able to store and process writing. These performances are interactive: audience members will be invited to join in various hands-on activities on the stage. This impact will begin during the project and comprise a societal good of improved public understanding.

* The general public, including school groups and unaffiliated interested amateurs, will benefit from being able to attend the Literary Hackathon at De Montfort University in which hands-on training in computational methods will be applied. This impact will begin during the project and comprise a societal good of improved public understanding, including among school students.

Publications


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