The story of the Oxford Shakespeare is, of course, a well known one. In 1986, after years of painstaking work, a team of scholars under the general editorship of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor published a new edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare with Oxford University Press. The edition would be followed a year later by William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, a landmark study of the bibliographic aspects of the publication of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The edition was a radical rethinking of the Shakespearean text, based on a fresh reformulation of the principles of scholarly editing. This included an innovative and consistent approach to the modernisation of spelling that soon became the standard. The final product of the enterprise was threefold: a modern-spelling one-volume Complete Works (1986, revised in 2005), an old-spelling text (1986), and an electronic edition issued as a set of ten 3.5-inch disks ‘for the IBM PC’ (1989). The project would be directly connected to the Shakespeare Institute through two people: Stanley Wells became the Director of the Institute shortly after the publication of the Oxford Shakespeare; and one of the two associate editors was John Jowett, who had just completed his doctorate at the University of Liverpool with an edition of Henry Chettle’s The Tragedy of Hoffman, and who was appointed Fellow of the Institute in 1993.
As in any modern critical edition of a Renaissance text, an important part of the editorial work that the 1970s-80s team did for the original Oxford Shakespeare was to prepare a full commentary of the plays and poems. Each work was carefully glossed and annotated by the editors, who recorded their work in sets of index cards. The plan was to send those cards to Oxford University Press to be subsequently typeset to accompany the text. However, it was finally decided that, in order to keep the volume within a manageable size, the commentary would be substituted by a glossary appended at the end of the volume, illustrating those words and phrases that a modern reader may find difficult to understand. So those valuable footnotes, much to the dismay of a whole generation of readers and students, were discarded.
But the sets of index cards, fortunately, survived. And now they may finally be an important part of a fresh project, heir to the 1986 enterprise. John Jowett, now Deputy Director of the Institute, and one of the world’s leading authorities in textual editing and bibliography, is now the General Editor—with Gary Taylor and Terri Bourus, and the co-editorship of Shakespeare Institute alumna Eleanor Lowe—of the forthcoming New Oxford Shakespeare, scheduled to be published in 2016, in the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. As its pioneering predecessor, this new edition will appear in several formats, both printed and digital, taking advantage of the latest available technology. It aims at becoming the most flexible and authoritative tool for reading and teaching Shakespeare in existence, and an invaluable new resource for research.
A team of library support assistants at the Shakespeare Institute Library—Jill Francis, Margaret Roper, Cathleen McKague and myself—collaborated with John Jowett in transforming those index cards into a useable digital resource. Each card, representing a single commentary footnote, has been formatted to be fully machine-readable, adopting the following appearance:
<APP 1.3.167><LEM breathing native breath> speaking its native language
The first item indicates the act, scene and line in which a certain word or phrase appears; the second is the lemma, or head-word/phrase, of the annotation; and the third is the main body of the annotation, in the form of a brief gloss or paraphrase, or a longer explanation of context, characterisation, cultural references or textual issues. In a number of cases, we also tried to verify some of the information given on the cards using the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and other online and on-site resources, when we thought that the information was unclear or incomplete, and have recorded these modest findings on post-it notes on the cards themselves.
For each play the team compiled a document presenting the full annotation as a list, taking up typically 30 pages of single-spaced text. Each of these documents were passed on to the editor of each particular play to be used as reference for the new annotation.
One of the problems that we found early on in the process was that we did not know which edition of the plays was used as the basis for the annotations. The commentary was compiled before the actual text of the Oxford Shakespeare was finalised, and therefore the spelling of lemmas, and most importantly the line numbering, differ from the final edition. Though the New Oxford will be a completely fresh approach to the Shakespearean canon, radically re-thinking the text and its possible uses by a twenty-first-century readership, the editors will be using the line numbers in the old Oxford Shakespeare as place holders until the new text is typeset and the line numbers are more stable. For this reason, after consulting John Jowett, we decided to re-number all the notes on the cards to the 1986 text to make the new editors’ work slightly easier. The problem now seems to be that for certain plays the commentary refers to an edition that, unlike the 1986 text, was not based on the 1623 Folio: there are lines in, for example, 2 Henry IV or Richard II that appear in ‘Additional passages’ in the Oxford Shakespeare, rather than being part of the main body of the text, and that are therefore impossible to renumber accordingly.
Our work was an interesting exercise in inverse reading: if one normally reads the main text of a play, referring to the annotations occasionally, we experienced the opposite process. And exciting insights have actually resulted from this: while typing up the commentary to 1 Henry IV, I observed that I would spend much less time with the scenes at Henry IV’s court than even with the shortest passages in Eastcheap involving Falstaff and Hal, which would take up most of my time—there is so much to annotate, such a rich and varied use of figurative language, so many cultural references that need to be explained, and so many puns (mostly sexual) than need to be clarified.
The LSAs at the Shakespeare Institute Library did a wonderful job and were proud to take part in this project, which will surely become one of the major scholarly achievements of the first half of the twenty-first century. The New Oxford Shakespeare, alongside other huge accomplishments in recent scholarship like Martin Wiggins’s British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue, are bound to confirm the status of the Shakespeare Institute as a world-leading beacon of Renaissance studies.
José A. Pérez Díez, PhD student (and former Library Support Assistant at the SIL)