Textual Variants by Richard Gibson



Using The Norton Shakespeare will reduce the time required to prepare this exercise, as the editors have been kind enough to append a list of textual variants (under that heading) to each of the Bard’s plays.  This list gives only the changes in diction— so, you will need to inspect the manuscripts (or transcriptions thereof) to find changes in punctuation.  In the case of lines 3.2.79-86 of Richard II, we find more than ten variances between the punctuation (including changes both in placement and in type of punctuation mark) of the First Quarto and the First Folio.  (Two changes in diction and ten changes in punctuation provided ample material for discussion in my section.  This will, of course, vary from class to class.)  If your students are clever, you should consider printing-out the passage from a website that has photographs of the Quarto and Folio or photocopying the passage from a facsimile edition.  Otherwise, transcribe it into contemporary orthography.


The next step is to locate four or five (or more!) “modern” editions that variously instruct readers how to read Shakespeare’s lines (the discrepancies are remarkable!).  Try to find at least one example of a modern edition that has the Quarto as “base text” and one that follows the Folio.  Transcribe (or creatively photocopy) these modern editions onto a new hand-out.



After making a short speech about the importance and challenges of the editorial process, put the students into groups of three or four, and hand each group photocopies of the manuscripts (or the transcriptions thereof).  Ask the students to locate variations in the punctuation, spelling, and choice of words and then to consider how these variations might affect the performance and meaning of the passage.  This will take ten to fifteen minutes.


When they are finished, lead the students through the passage line by line discussing the variations and their implications.  (Really, it’s a sneaky way to do close-reading.)  Keep an eye out for punctuation around verbs: sometimes a verb will assume a new direct object if a comma is moved.


Now hand the students the second hand-out, and assign them three tasks: first, to identify each modern edition’s “base text” (here, Quarto or Folio); second, to look for changes in punctuation and stage directions; and, third, to choose which modern edition is best.  This should take another ten to fifteen minutes.


When they are finished, hold a discussion about the changes that modern editors make.  When this conversation winds down, ask one representative of each group to read one of the modern passages.  (You will be able to hear the difference.)  Then ask the students to vote on which is best—

Class dismissed.