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>.
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'.
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).
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. 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.
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.
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.' 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. (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. 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).
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. 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.