Gilded monuments and living records: A note on critical editions in print and online

Eric Rasmussen
University of Nevada

Rasmussen, Eric. "Gilded monuments and living records:
A note on critical editions in print and online". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 7-1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/rasmgild.htm>.


  1. Literary history is filled with stories about the materiality of the book one remembers Boswell's anecdote about Dr. Johnson beating an impertinent bookseller with a massive folio and we tend to think of books as having mass: volumes literally have volume. But we're not always aware of the extent to which we tend to equate weighty books with good books. It is salutary to observe how many of the adjectives favoured by reviewers often simultaneously describe both a book's physical size and its intellectual value: 'monumental substantial considerable significant'.

  2. This creates something of a problem for electronic editions, which have no mass, no volume. They are, as Shakespeare might say, airy nothings. Users generally do not expect textual fidelity from editions of works available online; indeed some Internet editions warn readers that although their texts have been produced with care and attention, they are 'not scholarly editions in the peer-reviewed sense' (Renascence Editions).

  3. But the Internet Shakespeare Editions project represents a new paradigm. Through a process of peer-review and rigorous editorial oversight, the ISE is attempting to make available scholarly editions of high quality in a format native to the medium of the Internet. Just as Gutenberg designed the first printed books to look like manuscripts (so that people would not be put off by the new technology), Michael Best has designed ISE editions to look like books, complete with a pseudo-leather-bound spine on the left of the screen and a rich parchment background for the text.[1] And yet, a serious credibility gap remains. If an undergraduate were to ask whether she should use, say, the new Oxford Shakespeare edition of Venus & Adonis or the ISE edition, I suspect that most of us in the profession even those who champion electronic Shakespeare would recommend the Oxford text. But it turns out that this might be the wrong advice.

  4. During the years in which the ISE has raised the standards of textual accuracy for Internet editions, there has been a curious falling off of these standards in print editions such as the Oxford Shakespeare. A few years ago, Michael Best invited me to become General Textual Editor for the ISE project. In this role, I have gone over all of the ISE editions with some care and have been enormously impressed by the evident attention to detail: if there is a roman letter in the midst of an italic speech-prefix, then that individual letter is rendered in roman in the ISE transcript. I have also had occasion to go over the recent print editions of Shakespeare with some care, in the course of preparing my annual review of editions and textual studies for Shakespeare Survey, and have been genuinely amazed by how error-riddled they often are.

  5. At 750-pages, the recent Oxford edition of Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets & Poems (2002), edited by Colin Burrow, is, so far as sheer girth is concerned, easily the 'greatest' edition of the poems ever published. And yet, a comparison with the ISE edition yields some surprises. In Burrow's text of Venus & Adonis, for instance, we find the line 'disorder breathes by heating of the blood' (742). However, in Hardy Cook's ISE edition, the line reads 'disorder breeds by heating of the blood.'[2] One of the many beauties of the ISE is that one is only a mouse-click away from a facsimile, which confirms that 'breeds' is indeed the correct reading.[3] (I should make it clear that 'breathes' is not an intentional emendation in the Oxford text, it's a simple typo and there are quite a few of them.) The Oxford text tells us that the silver doves provide 'sweet aid' to their mistress (1190), whereas the ISE text says that the aid is 'swift'. Again, the facsimile corroborates the ISE reading.[4] The Oxford edition says that 'she reweaves the web' (991) but according to the ISE, 'she unweaves the web', which is, of course, the correct reading. Other errors in the Oxford edition include 'glutton eyes' for 'glutton eye' (399), 'a bud' for 'the bud' (416), 'hath' for 'have' (775), 'could I' for 'I could' (805), and 'others' for 'other' (1102).

  6. Although the ISE text has the correct readings in all of these instances, this is not to say that it is therefore perfect throughout. The important point to make, however, is that should an error be found in an ISE text, it could be corrected in a matter of seconds; the errors in the Oxford edition will be preserved in perpetuity.[5] This significant, if overlooked, distinction is certainly worth bearing in mind when assessing the relative merits of the gilded monuments of print editions and the living record of the ISE.



[1] See http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/Texts/Poems/Ven/index.html 

[2] http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/Texts/Poems/Ven/Ven_QT/Ven_QPages/Ven_QE4v.html 

[3] http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/Texts/Poems/Ven/Ven_QI/Ven_QIE4v.html 

[4] http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/Texts/Poems/Ven/Ven_QI/Ven_QIH1v.html

 [5] For a complete list of the textual errors in this edition, see my review of 'The Year's Contributions to Shakespeare Studies: Editions and Textual Studies', Shakespeare Survey 56 (2003).


Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
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