This is a republishing of an article I wrote for the Strange Bedfellows project. The original url is here.
Early modern drama, and Shakespeare’s works in particular, have a very troubled past. So troubled that, especially in Shakespeare’s case, editors have been fighting over what exactly were Shakespeare’s “true words”. Early modern methods of printing, copying, and ideas of copyright were varied to say the least. Thanks to nearly infinite variation that comes from this, any play that has Shakespeare’s name should also have the names of its editors. So much is involved in editing Shakespeare and early modern plays, the length of time involved in editing the Cambridge Edition of Ben Jonson’s works comes to mind, that any editor could easily be considered a coauthor. Editors resolve variant issues anywhere from single words, like “hath” or “have”, “Ay” or “I”, etc., to complete passages, like in Act 3.1 of King Lear. Editors have fought over these issues for so long, contrasting schools have formed, and different editions have be published in response to others, that I feel like a particularly modern question must be asked of this early modern “drama”: “Do individual words matter, specifically in literature?”