The Petrarch Press

Editing Shake-speare’s Sonnets

Shakespearean English can be problematic for modern readers. Standardisation of English did not begin in earnest until the late 18th century. Some words have various spellings, all of which were considered normal at the time. Some words had meanings that have changed over the centuries. The letters ‘u’ and ‘v’ had not found their modern sounds. And perhaps most disturbing for modern readers, a second form of the letter ‘s’ – easily confused with an ‘f’ – was in universal use

While our Petrarch Press editions are fine-press books that serve to enrich our personal reading experience, we also strive for textual accuracy. When we first contemplated printing a new edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we produce a book that combines formal beauty with scholarly integrity?’ ‘What can we contribute that has not already been done?’ Every publisher of Shakespeare’s Sonnets must select the version they wish to print, and this is necessarily an edited version. We began by seeking a text that was accessible to modern readers, while also preserving as much as possible of the authentic flavour of the original text.

Plan A: Find a Good Existing Edition

At first, our plan was fairly simple. We wanted to include the Capitalised and Italicised words, to reintroduce some of the Early Modern spellings, and above all to respect Shakespeare’s punctuation, which, as we learned, was based on principles of rhetoric that governed both dramatic and lyric writings, and differs from the grammatically-defined punctuation of today.

We began comparing numerous major editions of the Sonnets and researching their history, from the 1609 Quarto edition (the only publication of these sonnets during Shakespeare’s lifetime), through Edmund Malone’s emendations in the 18th century to the major scholarship of the 20th century (Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Arden, Penguin…). Along the way, we were surprised to find that editors over the years had taken significant liberties in revising, editing, modernising, and “correcting” the text of the original.

Editors generally standardise Shakespeare’s spelling and alter the punctuation to suit the conventions of their own time. Some, like Malone, even went as far as removing words that they found puzzling and substituting new ones that seemed more beautiful or appropriate, developing theories to explain why these words were not printed in the Quarto.

The principal justification given by academics for emending the Quarto edition is that the printers of 1609 made mistakes. At the Petrarch Press we are confident that Jacobean tradesmen were quite capable of setting a line of type. If we give these craftsmen some benefit of the doubt, it raises the question: what was the poet’s intention in using this spelling, that capitalisation or the other punctuation?

From our review, we were unable to find any edition that reduced these layers of changes to the degree we wanted. We would need to produce our own edition of the text.

Plan B: Modernise the Text, Respectfully

Of the editions we had examined, that of John Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press) came closest to our vision, and we agreed to use it as a starting point from which to build our own text. Our editing team began, line by line, word by word, to compare Dover Wilson’s text to the Quarto, to understand what further modernisations we wanted to remove.

Conventions for punctuating dramatic texts were already established in Shakespeare’s time – commas, semicolons, colons, and periods all indicated pauses of varying lengths – and we began putting them back in their original places. Modern usage joins some words together as compounds, but we wanted to separate them as they were in the Quarto: “an other”, “thy self”, “your self”, “every where”.

Other questions were trickier: for instance, how to modernise spelling without losing wordplay? ‘Heart’ is often spelled ‘hart’, thus echoing the legendary stag and otherworldly symbol. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, Orsino puns on hunting the hart in his desires for Olivia: and in Sonnet 24 the poet reminds us that emotions are invisible:

  “Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art
  They draw but what they see, know not the hart.”

Variant spellings of the same word are not uncommon, even on the same line: “what good-turnes eyes for eies have done”. Should we change those? After all, this was the raw material Shakespeare shaped into poetry.

A serious editorial question emerged: where should we draw the line? By adapting the text for the modern reader, we are removing layers of meaning present in the original form. Perhaps we need to ask more from our readers…

One day, at a Press general meeting, one of our patrons posed the question: “If we lose so much by editing Shakespeare’s text, why are we not printing the original text?” And we had to agree.

Plan C: Return to the Original Text

Although we were relieved to drop the editorial burden of inserting our own opinions between Shakespeare and his reader (as so many have done before), we now faced substantial technical challenges.

Since we were no longer printing a modernised text, the layout and typography would have to change. The typographic design of the Quarto would have a stronger influence. The final couplet would still be indented, but for the beginning of each sonnet, we would need to create a large ‘drop capital’ initial, as well as a capitalised second letter.

We would depart from the Quarto design by giving each sonnet a page of its own, but added colour and decoration now felt out of place.

The most significant technical challenge was, in returning to the original text, we needed to restore the use of the antique ‘long-s’ and its multiple ligatures. Anything less would be an unacceptable compromise.

In the early days of printing, and through the 18th century, most Latin languages used two forms for the lowercase letter ‘s’: The ‘s’ we know today, which was only used at the end of a word, and the ‘long-s’, shaped similar to an ‘f’ and used at the beginning and middle of a word. Since the top of both the ‘f’ and the long-s extends over the next character, some pairs of letters need to be combined into one piece of type, a ‘ligature’, to avoid colliding. In modern languages, ligatures are only needed for a few ‘f’ combinations: f-i, f-f, f-l, f-f-i, and f-f-l. The long-s, however, can combine with more letters, and a full font requires ligatures for s-i, s-b, s-h, s-k, s-l, s-s, s-s-i, s-s-l, and s-t. We would need to design, engrave and cast new types for the long-s and most of these ligatures to print our Sonnets properly. [The full story of that adventure will be the subject of a separate post.]

From an editorial point of view, effectively, we would need to begin again from the text of the 1609 Quarto edition. Were there any indisputable typographic errors in the 1609 edition? And how would one identify them?

There are barely a handful of glaring typos in the Quarto imprint, and we confined our emendations to those: “Freeedome” cannot have three ‘e’s; “yeeare” also needs one less ‘e’; TThy is wrong; and so are two commas together (“guift,,”). These are errors we correct with confidence.

Even to the untrained eye, “Bare rn’wd quires” looks just wrong, but wait… the ‘w’ was once a vowel (double-u) in older English, and the corrected spelling “rw’nd” suddenly becomes more readable: “Bare ruined choirs”!

Taking all of this into account, our changes to the Quarto text were few, and limited to correcting errors that ran counter to the sense. Wherever there was significant doubt as to a proposed correction, we stayed on the side of caution and left the original undisturbed. In the end, as shown in the printed insert below, we limited our emendations to seventeen throughout Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. The rest of the text stands as it was printed in the 1609 Quarto.



We originally set out to print a fine-press book, and then we became involved in an act of Shakespearean revival: bringing to light the depth and richness contained in the original spelling, punctuation and typography.

We came to understand that a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets becomes more complete when one can appreciate the Quarto. With this fresh canvas for Shakespeare’s most intimate and mysterious poems, it is our wish that this edition will instil a renewed appreciation both for the music of each individual sonnet and the sequence as a whole.

We have thus been able to reformulate our original aim: To produce a fine-press edition from the most authentic text of Shakespeare’s sequence of sonnets.

Related:
Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

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