Words of the long-dead playwright continue to evolve


Dead 400 years in 2016, Shakespeare lives on in tens of millions of copies of his plays and poems in all kinds of media that are read and performed, alluded to and mashed up. My interest is in the editing of Shakespeare, where he seems particularly lively because his works are forever changing as we learn more about them.

Dead man. Living texts.

Look at the moment in Romeo and Juliet when Tybalt, a Capulet, stabs Mercutio. Let me set the scene.  Angry at the Montague Romeo for having crashed a Capulet party, Tybalt is out on Verona’s streets looking for him. But Tybalt finds instead Romeo’s cousin Benvolio and the Prince’s kinsman Mercutio, who have no stake in the Montague-Capulet feud, but who utterly despises Tybalt – on grounds of style.

According to Mercutio, Tybalt is “the courageous captain of compliments,” that is, of the very elaborate etiquette associated with rapier combat. Tybalt, says Mercutio, “fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance and proportion. … the very  butcher of a silk button, a duelist, a duelist.” Stay with me here! Mercutio is attacking Tybalt for his fighting style – precise dancelike moves that are as studied as “prick-song,” the written counterpoint to a simple melody. In this comparison, it’s as if old-fashioned brawling, of the kind favoured by Mercutio, is the simple melody, while the counterpoint to it is the new fad of duelling.

Mercutio tries his best to get Tybalt to fight, but when Romeo turns up, Tybalt ignores Mercutio.  Romeo, however, just married to Tybalt’s cousin Juliet, won’t fight. Mercutio, in his hatred of Tybalt, despises Romeo’s soft-spoken response to Tybalt. So Mercutio peppers Tybalt: “you ratcatcher” and “Good king of cats” –  Tybalt being the name of a cat in a fable of the time.

When Tybalt is finally provoked to fight, Romeo also draws, wanting to stop the fight by “beat(ing) down their weapons.” Then the fight is over and Tybalt and his friends are gone.

So what happened during the fight? No Shakespeare edition before 1864 contained any stage direction describing the fight or its outcome. These editions were all based on the 1599 printing, the Second Quarto, which like most early printings of Shakespeare, contains very few stage directions.

Readers up to 1864 then struggled, as do Romeo and Benvolio, to find out the result of Mercutio vs. Tybalt. Mercutio then tells his friends (and us) that he is “sped” – that is, “done for” – and “pepper’d” – that is, “destroyed.” Benvolio is astonished at Mercutio’s apparent suggestion that he has even been hurt – “What, art thou hurt?” – and Romeo is at first sure “the hurt cannot be much.”

As Mercutio exits, he blames the Montague-Capulet feud for his impending death, ignoring the hatred of Tybalt that impelled him to fight. Mercutio also claims he was “hurt under (Romeo’s) arm,” perhaps making excuses for the fact that Tybalt with his hated style of fighting actually got the better of him. But the reader cannot be sure if Mercutio’s claim is an excuse or an accurate description of the fight because we, like Romeo and Benvolio, cannot know just what we are to think happened.


Everything changed for readers in 1864. Then, the editors of the Globe Shakespeare, William G. Clark and W. Aldis Wright, resorted to the 1597 printing of Romeo and Juliet, the First Quarto, for a stage direction to insert at Tybalt’s exit: “Tibalt vnder Romeos arme thrusts Mercutio, in and flyes.” Now readers learned for certain what happened in the fight, though Romeo and Benvolio still have no idea. And  Romeo’s bewilderment came to seem particularly obtuse, his interference in the fight now authoritatively identified as the occasion of his friend Mercutio’s death.

It was another 20 years before other editors began to imitate these Cambridge editors, but since 1883 only a half-dozen editors have spared their readers the 1597 direction, so powerful is the drag of the editorial tradition. Among these dissenting editors are Barbara A. Mowat and I in an edition done for the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., in 1992 and re-edited in 2011. One other 21st century edition, the Royal Shakespeare Company edition by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, also leaves out the First Quarto direction.

Whether or not to put in the stage direction depends for editors on what they think of the First Quarto, from which the stage direction comes. The text of the play in this First Quarto is very short – only two-thirds the length of the Second Quarto’s – and much more frequently defective. In 20th-century Shakespeare scholarship, the First Quarto is usually called the ‘bad quarto’ and the Second  the ‘good quarto.’ Indeed even the Cambridge editors, like editors before and after them, generally followed the Second Quarto, the Cambridge editors resorting to the First Quarto chiefly for the stage directions added to its second half.

Where do today’s editors think these First Quarto stage directions come from? In 1998 the Shakespeare editor John Jowett made a discovery about their origins.

Jowett noted how printing of this quarto was shared between John Danter, who printed the first four quires (that is, sets of four leaves) marked A to D and Edward Allde, with the last six quires, E to K (there is no quire J). According to the conventions of the time, the printers cast off their copy in advance (or determined how many pages the manuscript play would occupy in print) and then bought the paper required.

Danter’s part, Jowett found, is printed in a larger type font with 32 lines of type to a page and with its few stage directions distinguished from dialogue only by being printed in italic. In contrast Allde’s second half is printed in smaller type, and Allde’s pages each contain 36 lines. Thus, Allde needs to find other ways to use up space on his pages to fill up all the paper the two printers bought. Allde’s typesetter leaves lavish white space – blank lines – around stage directions and sometimes even puts rows of printer’s ornaments before stage directions.

Jowett reasonably inferred from this obvious space wasting in the second half of the quarto that many of the generously spaced additional stage directions might even have been devised by someone in the printing house to fill up space. The stage direction in question “Tibalt vnder Romeos arme thrusts Mercutio, in and flyes” comes from the second half and is particularly suspicious because it picks up the language of the dialogue where Mercutio says, “I was hurt under your arme.” Therefore the stage direction in question may well tell us nothing of what Shakespeare intended or even of what actually was staged in his time.

In light of this finding, the editorial text of Romeo and Juliet is changing again, the First Quarto direction being dropped, replaced, in the Folger Edition, by the neutral editorial direction “Romeo attempts to beat down their rapiers. Tybalt stabs Mercutio.”

Shakespeare, the long-dead white male author, stirs again.

Paul Werstine teaches Shakespeare at King’s University College and edits his works for the Folger Shakespeare Library edition and the New Variorum Shakespeare edition