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Punctuating Shakespeare.

In restoring the author's works to their integrity, I have considered the punctuation as wholly in my power; for what could be their care of colons and commas, who corrupted words and sentences? Whatever could be done by adjusting points is therefore silently performed, in some plays with much diligence, in others with less; it is hard to keep a busy eye steadily fixed upon evanescent atoms, or a discursive mind on evanescent truth.

--Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare

JOHNSON'S ATTITUDE TOWARD editorial punctuation can't be called the standard eighteenth-century one since Theobald felt bound to justify many specific decisions about punctuation in his edition of Shakespeare.(1) Before and after Johnson, however, many (probably most) editors have considered punctuation "wholly within [their] power," and have repunctuated Shakespeare's text no less silently than Johnson did, according to the conventions of the moment. They have done so without necessarily sharing Johnson's justifying beliefs, namely that Shakespeare's texts are extensively corrupted, that Shakespeare's printers cared nothing for punctuation, and that punctuation marks are in any case only fugitive atoms in an otherwise stable print cosmos. To this day, repunctuation, often silent, remains a prerogative assumed by those editing Shakespeare's texts for the mass market and even for fairly restricted academic circulation. Quotation of modernized texts is still more the rule than the exception in Shakespeare criticism, scholarship, and teaching.

Attempts to resist or come explicitly to terms with modernization (a practice that encompasses spelling, orthography, typography, and format no less than it does punctuation) are not new. Nor have they been wholly absent in recent criticism and editorial practice. After briefly discussing some peculiarities of punctuation in different Shakespearean texts as well as consistencies in the scrivener Ralph Crane's punctuation, the editors of the new Oxford Shakespeare observe that they have tried to repunctuate the early texts as sparingly as possible.(2) Readers interested in the punctuation of the original texts are then referred to the same editors' old spelling edition. This queasiness about modernizing punctuation attests to the larger fact that scholarly rigor, historical interpretation, and postmodern theory have increasingly converged in anti-interventionist or restorative editorial practices.(3) "Unediting" Shakespeare, as Leah Marcus has called it, calls for textual recovery or restoration rather than alteration. Historicizing and postmodern impulses clearly converge in the current editorial preference, highlighted by the Oxford Shakespeare, for multiple, contextually situated, nonhierarchized texts of any Shakespeare play where more than one text exists.(4)

Insofar as specifically modernizing editorial practices still seem embedded in twentieth century modernist aesthetics, or seem alternatively to be relics of a nineteenth century dream of universal progress toward ever greater rationality, efficiency, clarity, and order, they are subject to both historical and postmodern strictures.(5) Stephen Orgel has effectively challenged the editorial assumption that what seems obscure to us in Shakespeare was necessarily plain to Shakespeare's contemporaries. Editors who attempt to clarify are thus by no means necessarily restoring a clarity the play once possessed as text or performance; on the contrary, they may well be replacing systematic obscurity with their own anachronistic form of clarity.(6) Yet despite all recent editorial revisionism, the question of punctuation has remained somewhat neglected.(7) Although the approximate basis on which Shakespearean texts were punctuated is not particularly mysterious, discussions of the topic continue to be surprisingly uncertain, contradictory, and imprecise. That situation is partly due to the different historical and intellectual frames in which discussion has taken place, and the different purposes it has served; yet, cumulatively, the unsettled questions (as distinct from conscious avowals of uncertainty) aren't trivial. Such, at least, is the view I take in this paper, against the possible Johnsonian counterview that neither punctuation nor anyone's beliefs about it ever rise to the level of significance. Thus it is not clear to me, on the one hand, what modernizers believe they are doing (or neglecting) when they modernize, and it is almost equally unclear to me what antimodernizers believe can be accomplished (or made interpretively accessible) by conserving the punctuation in the early texts of Shakespeare. Borrowing a now-discarded phrase from Milton criticism, I will go even further. I will suggest that punctuation remains something of an "untransmuted lump" for both queasy modernizers and antimodernizing historicists.(8) In this paper, I hope to begin the process of transmutation, proceeding in the spirit of Random Cloud's manifesto for textual studies: "simply to establish critical rapport between our on-going speculations and documentary evidence."(9) I shall, however, conclude with one modest practical proposal, and one observation about the specific limits to editorial modernization of the punctuation in Shakespearean texts.(10)

Before continuing, I should admit that my topic might seem thankless for at least two reasons. Arguments for modernization seem practically redundant. The almost ubiquitous practice continues to justify itself as a market necessity, and for most purposes of teaching, performance, and literary reading. That general situation is unlikely to change soon, although the heuristics of antimodernization have entered public consciousness through the Oxford Shakespeare and controversies surrounding it. Arguments against modernizing are, on the other hand, difficult to pursue as productively with regard to punctuation as they have been with regard, for example, to emendation and textual conflation. Critiques of those practices continue to produce a high editorial and critical yield; in contrast, critiques of modernization in spelling and punctuation promise little more than repetitious generalities and uncertain, local gains.(11) Yet the fact remains that modernization constitutes the most ubiquitous and least heralded form of editorial intervention in the Shakespearean text, one that not even the Oxford editors can avoid. That fact calls for commensurate critical engagement.

My point of departure will be Stephen Booth's influential edition of the sonnets. Booth cites Sonnet 16, 9-12:
 So should the lines of life that life repaire
 Which this (Times pensel or my pupill pen)
 Neither in inward worth nor outward faire
 Can make you live your selfe in eies of men.

According to Booth, the reader of a modernized text only may forfeit meanings present in the quarto "because of his habit of expecting punctuation and spelling to control logical relationships methodically."(12) Booth supplements this remark by observing that (a) "spelling and punctuation probably result from a printer's whims, errors, or idiosyncrasies," and (b) that "logic and the narrowed potential" of modern language force modern readers to choose between alternatives that remain suspended in the 1609 Quarto. Perhaps Booth's comment about idiosyncracy can be read as summarizing conclusions arrived at in modern textual editing from McKerrow through Greg and Bowers, namely that punctuation in the first printed Shakespearean texts does not represent the author's intentions but rather the choices of individual compositors.(13) Even if that is what Booth means, however, he doesn't say it, and the readers to whom his edition is addressed will not necessarily know enough to fill in. Nor, in fact, is it clear to me that that is what he means; his unqualified statement stands. Furthermore, nothing indicates whether he is consciously rejecting beliefs about punctuation in the early texts of Shakespeare (whether authorial or compositorial) that have been in circulation at least since Percy Simpson's Shakespearean Punctuation (1911).(14)

Roughly speaking, the position taken by Simpson and some of his successors is that Shakespeare and/or his compositors proceeded intelligibly under rules of punctuation outlined by, among others, Richard Mulcaster in his Elementarie (1582) and George Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie (1589). It does not have to be assumed that Shakespeare or the compositors referred to these texts as handbooks, but, failing proof to the contrary, we can accept that the rules represented a reasonably secure working consensus (see our own elementary composition texts and electronic grammar programs). Let us first hear Mulcaster, in chapter 21 of the Elementarie, under the heading "Of Distinction" (the standard neoclassical rhetorical term for breaking up continuous vocalization into discursive units):(15)
 This title of distinction reacheth verie far, bycause it containeth all
 those characts and their vses, which I called before signifying, but not
 sounding, which help verie much, nay all in all to the right and tunable
 vttering of our words and sentences, by help of those characts, which we
 set down and se in writing. The number of them be thirtene, and their names
 be Comma, Colon, Period, Parenthesis, Interrogation, long time, shorte
 time, sharp accent, flat accent, streight accent, the seuerer, the vniter,
 the breaker.(16)

"Long time" and "short time" refer to "the long or short pronouncing of syllabs, and are not alwaie to marked ouer that syllab" (149). The "seuerer," "vniter," and "breaker" refer to diaresis, hyphen as a linking device (for example, in for-think), and double hyphen (=), already on the way out of the printer's repertoire, as a device for separating syllables, as in ma=gi=strate. Mulcaster treats parentheses as directions to pronounce the phrase they embed "with a lower and quicker voice," as in "Bycause we ar not able to withstand the assalt of tentation (such is the frailtie of our natur) therefore we praise God" (148). Standard punctuation marks are thus "elementary," as is a standard rhetorical way of conceiving their functions. (Mulcaster's treatment attests as well to the numerical reduction and standardization of punctuation marks in print culture as distinct from manuscript culture; here I shall narrow the field even further by focusing on sentence punctuation marks rather than, for example, apostrophe, hyphen, and accents that Mulcaster treats under "Distinction.")(17) Let us momentarily note that Mulcaster says nothing about semicolons, then coming into use, as Ben Jonson does several decades later in his English Grammar, first printed in the 1640 Folio.(18) Let us note as well, for future reference, that Mulcaster personifies linking and separating marks ("the seuerer, the vniter, the breaker") as Puttenham does with rhetorical figures, thereby investing them with agency.

Puttenham largely concurs with Mulcaster, although he factors in both lineation and caesura as specifically poetic forms of punctuation. He argues that these are really of more concern to poets than the basic forms of punctuation poets share with prose writers. Modern editors have tacitly concurred, since, apart from limited attempts to correct apparent compositorial errors, Shakespearean poetic language and lineation have remained untouchable. Covering the same bases as Mulcaster, Puttenham writes:
 The auncient reformers of language inuented three maner of pauses, one of
 lesse leasure then another, and such seuerall intermissions of sound to
 serue (besides easement to the breath) for a treble distinction of
 sentences or parts of speach, as they happened to be more or less perfect
 in sence. The shortest pause of intermission they called comma, as who
 would say a peece of speach cut of. The second they called colon, not a
 peece, but as it were a member for his larger length, because it occupied
 twise as much time as a comma. The third they called periodus, for a
 complement or full pause, and as a resting place and perfection of so much
 former speach as had bene vttered, and from which they needed not to passe
 any further, vnles it were to renew more matter to enlarge the table.(19)

It is against Mulcaster's and Puttenham's elementary norms that deviations, eccentricities, and possibly "dramatic" effects in early modern English punctuation -- and compositorial practice -- need to be read in the first instance. Apparent deviations or eccentricities may importantly include exceptionally heavy or light punctuation (or the absence of punctuation in some passages), significant variations in this respect being evident across the corpus of Shakespearean texts. A marked preference for light punctuation has been ascribed, admittedly on slender evidence, to Shakespeare as author.(20)

On what, then, does Booth base his claim that printers' whims, errors, or idiosyncrasies alone "probably" determine compositorial punctuation? Improbable on the face of it, the claim is unsupported, and Booth makes no explicit response to well-entrenched views to the contrary. Perhaps we can further test Booth's claim with an imaginary example. Below, I have quoted a speech from Measure for Measure (a play I happen to have been editing recently) in its folio version, and then in an imaginary version that should be conceivable under whim-error-idiosyncrasy hypothesis:
 (1) 'Tis one thing to be tempted (Escalus)
 Another thing to fall: I not deny
 The Iury passing on the Prisoner's life
 May in the sworne-twelve have a theefe, or two
 Guiltier then him they try; what's open made to Iustice,
 That Justice ceizes. What knows the Lawes
 That theeues do passe on theeues?


 (2) 'Tis one thing to be tempted (Escalus)
 Another thing. To fall; I not deny.
 The Iury passing on the Prisoner's life
 May in the sworne-twelve have? A thiefe or two!
 Guiltier then him they try what's open made to Iustice.
 That Iustice, ceizes. What! knowes, the Lawes:
 That, theeues do-passe on theeues.


If we have never come across a passage like this anywhere in Shakespeare, aside from Peter Quince's prologue to the mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that is because, however wide the range of variation, Shakespearean punctuation is governed by intelligible, explicit, regular norms -- and, in fact, by more than those explicit norms, as we shall see.(21) Even now, departure from those norms induces something akin to vertigo. The point about Peter Quince, as Lysander observes, is that "he knows not the stop." Evidently Shakespeare's compositors did know the stop: The onus is on Booth to prove otherwise.(22)

Perhaps the least contentious of Booth's claims is the one that modern punctuation, unlike its early modern counterpart, is methodical and logically directive. That statement does virtually recapitulate one made by Percy Simpson in Shakespearean Punctuation (1911): "we base our punctuation now on structure and grammatical form; the old system was largely guided by the meaning." The editors of the current Oxford Shakespeare reiterate: "the imposition on Shakespeare's syntax of a precisely grammatical system of punctuation reduces ambiguity and imposes definition on indefinition" (xxxvii). These propositions readily and quite convincingly support the belief that "rhetorical" punctuation mainly comprised directives for public speaking, reading aloud, stage performance, or (at a minimum) the subvocalization of texts in the process of reading. Implicitly, the early modern printed text is a voiced text, the modern one a read text.(23)

If this assumption is correct, it should follow that modernizing punctuation in Shakespeare's texts will indeed have "material" or "substantive" effects, and will do so on a massive scale. When editors modernize Shakespearean punctuation they will, in effect, be subjecting rhetorically composed and presented texts to logical analysis after the fact, and then silently incorporating the results into those texts. One set of directives will be erased and replaced by another in what might count -- unlike a good deal of intuitive, sporadic emendation -- as a major instance of cultural translation.(24) Booth corrects for this alteration by printing the 1609 texts of the sonnets alongside the modernized ones and by explicitly drawing attention to some possible negative consequences of modernization. Other editors insert prefatory disclaimers or, like the Oxford ones, direct readers to an old-spelling edition. It appears to me that two assumptions now underlie much of this criticism and editorial practice: first, that different, antithetical systems, one "rhetorical" and the other "logical," distinguish early modern from modern punctuation; and, second, that the respective systematicity of the two systems differs importantly in degree, the logical, system being (logically, one must suppose) more systematic.

As I have stated them, these assumptions seem ready-made for deconstruction, yet deconstruction is not what I mainly wish to attempt here. Instead, I wish to introduce some qualifications and caveats. First, when scholars begin from the strong premise that current punctuation is systematic and logically directive, they may too readily draw questionable or overpolarized reverse-inferences about "rhetorical" punctuation. It will then too easily follow that "rhetorical" (a.k.a. "dramatic" or "elocutionary") punctuation, practically devoid of logic or system, necessarily tolerates ambiguity, free association, and suspension of meaning in language. But does it, at least in the minds of its early modern proponents and users?(25) Moreover, is the historical difference between rhetorical and logical punctuation so fully polarized that editorial modernization really amounts to full-scale systemic (or epistemic) conversion? What, in fact, is the magnitude of the change wrought by modernization, and along what axis should it be aligned?

To take up these crucial questions, I shall turn to a recent, systematic, and wide-ranging survey of Western punctuation by M. B. Parkes titled Pause and Effect. As regards modernization, Parkes still makes a point similar to Booth's, and one consistent with the conclusions since 1911 that I have previously cited. Parkes too endorses a broad distinction between premodern punctuation as rhetorically directive and modern punctuation as logically directive. He takes a passage from Thomas Nashe's Pierce Pennilesse as his Elizabethan example:
 Having spent many yeeres in studying how to live, and liv'de a long time
 without mony: having tired my mouth with follie, and surfetted my minde
 with vanitie, I began at length to looke backe to repentaunce, & addresse
 my endevors to prosperitie: But all in vaine, I sate up late, and rose
 eraely [sic], contended with the colde, and conversed with scarcitie: for
 all my labours turned to losse, my vulgar Muse was despised & neglected, my
 paines not regarded or slightly rewarded, and I my selfe (in prime of my
 best wit) laid open to povertie. (88)

Parkes argues that "colon marks draw attention to the rhyming words ... which appear at the end of each colon. The period contains four cola (the average number according to Cicero) and the antithesis between the first two and the last two has been emphasized by introducing the third colon with a capital letter. The carefully balanced commata have been separated by commas" (88-89). Parkes then observes that when McKerrow repunctuated the text in his magisterial 1910 edition he "[divided] the single period into three sentences and [applied] semicolons -- which neither Nashe nor his printer had employed, although they were widely used at the time -- [thus indicating] his preference for a logical analysis of the text" (89). Breaking up longer discursive units into short, separate sentences remains a hallmark of editorial modernization even in our time, the assumed gain in logicality presumably offsetting rhetorical losses.

What emerges from Parkes's analysis is still the single apparent certainty that modernization means system and logicality in punctuation. It follows either implicitly or explicitly that those traits were absent or highly attenuated in "rhetorical" punctuation. A broad shift from orality to print culture, and from vocalization to silent reading, can readily be aligned with this implied trajectory from the rhetorical to the logical, even if commensurate cultural explanations seem lacking or often tendentious.(26) Yet complications emerge in connection with Parkes's example no less strikingly than they do in connection with Booth's. Parkes notes without further elaboration that the specifying function of punctuation marks depends at any time on the "immediate context" (88). The functioning of punctuation marks in any particular case cannot therefore be decided by referring to a general system (or a general lack of system). That proposition holds, no matter what regularities may observed among the texts of any particular period, and no matter what systematizations may have been attempted by rhetoricians and grammarians.

The introduction of context lets in more than Parkes seems to bargain for. It threatens his own generalizations as well as all the others cited so far, including the one between clear-cut logical and rhetorical alternatives. "Context" will supervene everywhere. Parkes's evident attempt to restrict the scope of context by confining it to the "immediate" will be unavailing. Since Parkes doesn't specify the immediate context of Pierce Pennilesse, one might think first of Richard Jones's printing house, where Nashe's text was set in type, but how immediate can that context be, given the wide range of factors determining the practice of any Elizabethan printer? Moreover, Parkes ascribes a high degree of rhetorical directiveness to the punctuation in his example. To whom should that be credited, author or printer? Or is something like coauthorship being posited? Parkes's additional stipulation of "literary" context implicitly shifts directive agency from compositor to author, thereby further straining at the bounds of the immediate.(27) Finally, given Nashe's performative aspirations, the example Parkes chooses is arguably at the extreme "rhetorical" end of the prose range, not an average specimen. Indeed, Parkes shortly goes on to contrast the Nashe passage with one by Bacon, whose aim to transmit knowledge calls, we are told, for logical-rhetorical "balance" (89), authorial intention again getting the credit. Parkes adds that this balance still doesn't satisfy Bacon's nineteenth-century editor, who unequivocally "prefers logical analysis" (89) and therefore splits up Bacon's extended discursive units into shorter sentences.

My point isn't that Parkes errs by introducing context, but that in doing so he effects an untheorized and methodologically troublesome shift from system to context. His own procedure graphically illustrates the risks of uncontrollable multiplicity and analytical circularity that arise with the introduction of context. The performative Nashe and the didactic Bacon are hardly average specimens but preconceived polar opposites; not too surprisingly, the performative Nashe's punctuation turns out to be highly rhetorical, while the didactic Bacon's punctuation turns out to be relatively logical. In other words, Parkes evidently finds what he expects to find in both these strongly marked cases; at the same time, more is being claimed for authorial intention than is being convincingly attributed to any immediate context. In short, the casual introduction of context does too much and too little for our understanding of punctuation; it leaves us where we were, but now with a mandate, the implementation of which will prove extraordinarily difficult and perhaps unrewarding, to consider particular circumstances in every case.

That is not all. Parkes's discussion of both Nashe and Bacon has its own context in Pause and Effect. That discussion appears in a section titled "The Impact of Printing: A Precarious Balance Between Logical and Rhetorical Analyses" (87). If Parkes correctly reads the history of print, it follows that "logical" preference and analysis must always have been formally available in print culture. Indeed, Parkes identifies Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636) as an important precursor of all those who, in manuscript and subsequent print culture, have tried to subject "pointing" to a highly rationalized, logical discipline: "Writing was no longer merely the record of the spoken word but could also signal directly to the mind through the eye. For this reason, Isidore preferred silent reading to ensure better comprehension of the text: 'for understanding is instructed more fully when the voice of the reader is silent'" (21). Isidore thus separates the cognitive/ideographic potential of writing from both its "voiced" potential and from longstanding, systematic punctuation aligned with the classical rhetoricians' "parts of discourse" (21) (cola, commata, distinctio, periodus, etc.).(28) Some early modern humanists, among them the printer Aldus Manutius and his grandson, influentially endorsed grammatical rather than rhetorical punctuation.(29)

Two interim conclusions may be drawn. First, the history of print does not move along a simple trajectory from orality to literacy, or from rhetoric to logic, and no study of Shakespearean punctuation can be organized simply on that basis. Contingent assumptions about the richness or regulative latitude of rhetorical culture need at least to be treated with caution.(30) Second, for no phase in the history of script does the thesis of randomness or mere whim in punctuation appear to hold up.

Now, let me add that the term Parkes more crucially inserts into the history of punctuation than "context" is "analysis." What this unheralded insertion brings into view is the fact that the segmentation of written or printed discourse always entails linguistic analysis, whether we call that analysis rhetorical, logical, grammatical, or some combination of these (in fact, these categories inevitably overlap and circulate in the production and analysis of discourse).(31) How the segments are conceived, named, or thought to function in relation to one another has indeed differed historically, yet the both the immanence and the overlapping of systems of linguistic analysis in the composition and reproduction of texts seems like a basic datum for any kind of interpretation.(32) Both that fact and attempts either to obscure or highlight it are evident in all the early modern texts I have so far mentioned. It is to those texts and their implications for current editors and critics we must therefore return.

Mulcaster, Puttenham, and Jonson broadly concur in deriving punctuation from natural respiration. The segmentation of discourse is dictated, in this view, by the rhythm of human breathing, and punctuation marks indicate breathing spaces of varying duration.(33) This view, both commonsensical and "rhetorical," at least temporarily suspends questions about the relation between punctuation and the grammatical articulation of discourse (sententiae, clausulae), thus supplying further evidence for the widely held view that English Renaissance culture is overwhelmingly a rhetorical culture. Part of the explanation for this almost exclusively rhetorical focus may, however, be that grammar was taught primarily in relation to the classical languages and silently transposed--and presupposed--in discussions of vernacular writing. There was certainly no shortage of grammatical primers, Lily's being the best known one of the period. At least as important for critical purposes as the respiratory rationale Mulcaster, Puttenham, and Jonson share, however, is their widely differing contextualization of that rationale. It is with these differences as much as the shared rationale that modern editors and critics need to contend.

Let us accept that the writers I have named situate punctuation in a phonocentric frame, and that their doing so enables them to naturalize punctuating conventions that, if not wholly arbitrary, are always products of linguistic analysis. It takes no more than a moment's reflection to recognize that the natural (or comfortable) span of a breath has been very differently construed at different times in the history of print. The fact that we often feel earlier texts to be overpunctuated, or alternatively feel that sentences in earlier texts are too long (just try running a paragraph of Areopagitica through a contemporary electronic grammar program) does not mean that the physiology of breathing has changed over time.(34) The truth, rather, is that different writers (and epochs) have differed both in their commitment to linguistic naturalism and in their construal of it.(35)

The most aggressively and exclusively naturalist view taken by any of the authors I am considering is the one propounded by Jonson in his English Grammar. Having begun his book by asserting that "Grammar is the art of true, and well speaking a Language: the writing is but an accident," Jonson goes on to say: "For, whereas our breath is by nature so short, that we cannot continue without a stay to speake long together; it was thought necessarie as well for the speakers ease as for the plainer deliverance of the things spoken, to invent this means, whereby men pausing a pretty while, the whole speech might never the worse be understood."(36) Like much of Jonson's criticism, the fragmentary Grammar consists almost entirely of unacknowledged but identifiable borrowings, including shamelessly extensive ones from Mulcaster.(37) Yet Jonson is unusually reductive: here the "invention" of punctuation simply follows "nature" as understanding follows speaking. This somewhat imperious naturalism is ironically belied by Jonson's own folio punctuation, if we accept A. C. Partridge's reading, based in turn on Herford and Simpson. Drawing a sharp line between Shakespeare and Jonson, Partridge claims that Jonson's punctuation is "academic, critical, and logical" (130). Indeed, says Partridge, "between 1600, when Jonson began to take punctuation seriously, and 1616, when he piloted his First Folio through the press, his ideas advanced to the 'elaborate and overloaded system' that Simpson describes as 'ultra logical.' "(38) Yet it is in the same period that Jonson asserts that, in matters of punctuation, invention simply follows nature. The almost comical failure of Jonsonian linguistic naturalism, as distinct, perhaps, from the success of Shakespearean (or Mulcasterian) naturalism, now almost goes without saying, both naturalisms, however, being conventional. On Partridge's showing, one would be inclined to regard Jonson's punctuation less as a product of nature than of Jonson's obsessive pursuit of sole, dictatorial control, a phenomenon about which modern critics have had much to say.

Mulcaster's naturalism is less intransigent though possibly more insidious than Jonson's. If history (or literary history) has effectively denaturalized Jonson's punctuation, the same cannot confidently be said about Mulcaster's. Let us recall, for example, that when Mulcaster discusses the function of the period, he writes that it is "a small round point, which in writing followesth a perfit sentence, and in reading warneth us to rest there, and to help our breath at full, as The feare of God is the beginning of wisdom" (148). Rhetorically understood, a perfect sentence is a complete and self-sufficient unit of voiced utterance, its closure dictated only by the need for our breath to be "helped." The "perfit sentence" Mulcaster quotes is, however, short enough to render the rhetorical rationale dubious: it could certainly be spoken without exhausting the breath, or be incorporated into a significantly longer sentence that could still be spoken without running out of breath. The "perfit" quality of the particular sentence may therefore be inferred to include its grammatical completeness, its tacit logic, and its authoritative finality. Perhaps that would be "understood" by Mulcaster and his readers, but it would no less likely be "forgotten." What is being naturalized here is a rhetorical analysis of punctuation, but evidently a great deal is bound up with that naturalizing act: little less than a projected cultural or ideological totality. Thus, within the limits to which punctuation can be pedagogically dictated--against the resistance of error, whim, and eccentricity--Mulcaster's rules dictate more than the simple mechanics of written discourse. We must assume that our "logical" rules, composition courses, and electronic grammar programs do so as well, though that investigation lies beyond the scope of my paper.

What applies to Mulcaster largely applies to Puttenham, though in Puttenham's case "sense" begins to emerge alongside vocal delivery as a criterion, as does the necessary concurrence between rhetorical, grammatical, and logical protocols if language is to make sense. (Puttenham explicitly invokes "logic" in a later passage than the one I will cite.)(39) Moreover, punctuation begins to be denaturalized and linked, as is typical of the entire Arte of English Poesie, to cultural imperatives and hierarchies. Without "distinction," says Puttenham, language is barbarous:
 There is no greater difference betwixt a ciuill and a brutish vtterance
 then cleare distinction of voices; and the most laudable languages are
 alwaies most plaine and distinct, and the barbarous most confuse and
 indistinct: it is therefore requisit that leasure be taken in
 pronuntiation, such as may make our wordes plaine & most audible and
 agreable to the eare; also the breath asketh now and then to be releeued
 with some pause or stay more or lesse; besides that the very nature of
 speach (because it goeth by clauses of seuerall construction & sence)
 requireth some space betwixt them with intermission of sound, to th'end
 they may not huddle one vpon another so rudely & so fast that th'eare may
 not perceiue their difference (77).

Here, the continuum between nature and culture, sound and sense, breath and invention has clearly been interrupted, with civil determinants bidding for precedence over natural ones. No longer definitively aligned with bodily necessity or comfort, punctuation is on the way to becoming the endlessly reiterated signifier of culture rather than of nature, of civilization as opposed to barbarism. (Perhaps we should recall again here that not "knowing the stop" also becomes a decisive marker of class distinction between gentry and mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream.) In Puttenham's work, and perhaps after it, punctuation signifies with a vengeance; a high degree of regularity becomes the implicit condition on which it does so. At the same time, grammar ("clauses of seuerall construction and sence") gets implicitly aligned with rhetoric as a codeterminant, while the segmentation (spacing) of discourse becomes the abstract condition of its articulation as discourse, not merely a bodily necessity. Here, as elsewhere in the Arte, Puttenham comes far closer to enunciating a general linguistic theory linked to cultural construction than do either Mulcaster or Jonson. In short, Puttenham is resituating neoclassical punctuation theory in his comprehensive and still undercontextualized early modern cultural anthropology.

How we are to "read" English punctuation after Puttenham--that is, roughly the same English punctuation as Mulcaster's, but with its import drastically redetermined--is far from clear. What little we know about the book's dissemination and critical reception (including Sir John Harington's famous snub in favor of Sidney's Apology) does not allow us to pronounce definitively on the Arte's direct influence or lack of influence.(40) Nor is it easy to determine whether the book should be read as representative or eccentric in its time. What can be said is that the Arte invests punctuation as such with possible contemporary significances that call for notice by both critics and editors; it also calls attention to the increasing plurality of significations attached to punctuation in Shakespeare's time. How cultural theory and printing-house practice impinged on one another during the decades in which Shakespeare's plays were being printed may remain unfathomable, but we cannot assume that they were simply discontinuous, or that variations imply only individual whim or eccentricity.

If we must say, then, that the punctuation of Shakespeare's texts still brings us back in the final analysis to compositorial or printing-house practicew--in that sense, to the "material" textw--as the principal object of investigation, it is certainly not enough to pursue the investigation as if the "material" were sealed off from the realm of signification and active cultural construction. Our tendency to segregate the material site of printing from the larger culture is fostered by our belief in the mindless, wayward, "humble" scrivener or compositor, evidently the rude mechanicals of modern editorial criticism.(41) It appears that early modern punctuation is a site of conflicting as well as overlapping signification, and of active cultural construction. It is also overdetermined in theory and practice to a degree that makes it difficult to determine the precise magnitude and nature of the changes wrought by modernization. The overdeterminations are both specifiable and subject to further discovery, however, and the mere difficulty of factoring them in is not reason enough for the silence largely maintained on the subject by modernizing editors, even of upscale, scholarly editions, and by antimodernizing historicists. Even if only more elaborate disclaimers are called for, those disclaimers need to be pro forma or merely repetitious. They, together with whatever punctuation studies may still be in the works, could contribute to the rapport sought by Random Cloud between criticism and documentary evidence.

Let me briefly conclude now by returning to the beginning of this paper, where I referred to the specific limits of editorial modernization. These limits are generally not ones established in principle. The fact is that no amount of repunctuation can convert Shakespeare's logic and syntax into ours, as innumerable efforts to clarify attest, and that not only because the passion and irrationality of dramatic speakers may be mimed in many instances. Furthermore, modernizing punctuation, which often involves removing or redistributing commas, semicolons, and colons, and breaking up long discursive sequences into short sentences, always represents a messy compromise between the early texts and our own conventions. Whatever they may signify, the "distinctions" and discursive units (cola, commata) of early modern composition continue to assert themselves against all modernizing efforts. In many editions of Shakespeare, as well as in our reading of the plays, they still frequently override our strict rules about the function of commas, semicolons, and colons, and about the formation of "perfit" sentences.


(1.) For a good summary of eighteenth-century Shakepeare editing, see Marcus Walsh, Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth Century Editing: The Beginnings of Interpretive Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111-99.

(2.) William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), xxxvii. On Crane's possible responsibility for punctuation in the Shakespeare Folio, see A. C. Partridge, Orthography in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 172-74.

(3.) I see no need to quibble here about distinctions between (old) historical and (new) historicist practices since the difference is immaterial for my purposes.

(4.) See Leah Marcus, Unediting Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1996). In our revisionist moment, Random Cloud's "FIAT f FLUX" might well serve as the rallying cry for postmodern critics of textual stabilization by modern editors. See Random Cloud, "FIAT fLUX," Crisis in Editing: Texts of the English Renaissance, ed. Randall McLeod (New York: AMS Press, 1994), 61-172, and also David Greetham, "Editorial and Critical Theory: From Modernism to Postmodernism," Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 9-28.

(5.) On the ideological frames of Shakespeare editing since the nineteenth century, see Marcus, Unediting Shakespeare, 17-25.

(6.) Stephen Orgel, "Introduction" to Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 6-11.

(7.) For example, the word "punctuation" does not appear in the index to Marcus's Unediting Shakespeare, nor does she discuss the issue. Like many, she focuses primarily on textual variants.

(8.) Stanley Fish recalls a phase in which Books 11 and 12 of Paradise Lostwere dismissed as "an untransmuted lump of futurity." See Stanley Fish, "Transmuting the Lump: Paradise Lost, 1942-1979," Doing What Comes Naturally (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989): 247. As one of the current editors of the new Pelican Shakespeare, I include myself among the queasy modernizers, here attempting to come to terms with my own practice.

(9.) Random Cloud, "Introduction," Crisis in Editing, x.

(10.) A. C. Partridge, Orthography, lists various modern approaches and conclusions to punctuation research, including A. W. Pollard's, from 1911 to 1964. Because I believe that punctuation studies have languished in recent times, partly for methodological reasons and partly, perhaps, on account of the empirical difficulties and limits revealed by earlier studies, I have not tried to form a coherent overview of the post-1964 field.

(11.) Retaining Shakespearean spelling and punctuation may effect a salutary, general estrangement of the text in the service either of denaturalization or of historical objectification. Neither of these rationales is strongly urged, however, in current criticism nor editing. Nor, for that matter, is "antiquing" of the text for aesthetic or culturally nostalgic reasons.

(12.) Stephen Booth, ed., Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), xv.

(13.) It is on this basis more than any other that modern editors have felt punctuation of Shakespearean texts to be "wholly within [their] power."

(14.) Cited in Partridge, Orthography, 131.

(15.) A practice not always followed in manuscript culture from late antiquity onward, so-called scripta continua producing a wholly unpunctuated and uncapitalized text for the reader to punctuate. These texts could generally not be sightread.

(16.) Richard Mulcaster, The First Part of the Elementarie Which Entreateth Chefelie of the Right Writing of our English Tung (London: Thomas Vautrollier, 1582).

(17.) See, among others, M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993).

(18.) Ben Jonson, The English Grammar, The Works of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 10 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 8:453-554. Some have regarded the introduction of the semicolon as the momentous beginning of a broad historical shift from "rhetorical" to "logical" punctuation. See Partridge, Orthography, 136.

(19.) George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, in Gregory Smith, ed., Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), 2:77-78.

(20.) Partridge, Orthography, 130-40. If the evidence were firmer, something important might be inferred about Shakespeare's specific resistance to any systemization, a resistance that would, however, have been negated to varying degrees by his own compositors.

(21.) This point has already been well made by Stephen Orgel, "What Is an Editor?" Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 23-29. Orgel writes: "The idea that spelling and punctuation have no rules in the period, and are a function of the whim of the compositor, the whole concept of accidentals, has come under heavy scrutiny" (24).

(22.) I would suggest, more affectionately, I hope, than censoriously, that Booth's punctuation theory betrays a hippie-era wistfulness for a state of plentitude to be accessed simply by the undoing of modern regulation. Booth's virtually unpunctuated quatrain makes his preference clear.

(23.) To the extent that this generalization holds up, the "voiced" nature of Shakespearean texts has recently been subsumed by Bruce Smith in what he calls the early modern soundscape, an audio-historical reconstruction predicated on a general "phenomenology of audition." In Smith's account, the Globe functions as an acoustic resonator; early modern audition does not have to be wholly imaginary since some of Smith's contentions can be put to the test in the new Globe Theatre. See Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

(24.) The practice of modernization can indeed be defended as cultural translation, subject to whatever criteria of evaluation might apply. Walter Benjamin supplies the theoretical frame in which all cultural transmission inevitably consists in cultural translation. For Benjamin, the historical gaze, in contrast to the anthropological one, discloses only the melancholy vista of accumulating ruin. See Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator," and "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968): 69-85,253-64.

(25.) For what it's worth, Marlowe's Edward II turns on the fatal potentiality-- and manipulability--of ambiguity unresolved by punctuation. The "unpointed" sentence capable of being taken as a command to kill the king reads Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est. The king dies if the comma is placed after "timere," but lives if it is placed after "nolite." Unpointed, the sentence leaves it up to reader to decide, but also allows "deniability" (innocent intent and/or innocent misunderstanding) if the king is put to death.

(26.) The entire issue thus falls into the vexed debate regarding the priorities of orality and literacy. Silent reading is attested at least since the famous anecdote, recalled by Parkes, in which, before his conversion, St. Augustine was startled to see St. Jerome reading silently. In that anecdote, silent reading is evidently connected to inwardness, spirituality, and perhaps theological rigor as distinct from public, affective, power-seeking, rhetorical performance. Parkes additionally notes that St. Augustine's apostrophizing invocation of the dead requires that this texts be voiced.

(27.) This slippage back to authorial intention recurs frequently in discussions of early modern punctuation. The literary context might be taken to comprise, inter alia, the decade in which Pierce Pennilesse was written; the patronage system in which it solicited attention; the milieu of the disaffected university wits; the competitive, agonistic performance in which Nashe and others continued to engage after the Marprelate controversy; the anti-Ciceronianism of Nashe's "extemporal style," conspicuously marked in the passage cited; the Elizabethan emergence of literary prose and the literary personality; the problematic reinscription of cultural masculinity during the Elizabethan period. And so on. In short, literary context provides only a weak and doubtful basis for reading early modern punctuation.

(28.) We can by no means say that the ideographic potential of language--or its writtenness and mechanical reproducibility for that matter--play no part in the calculations of Shakespeare or his compositors. The sonnets alone, or especially, prove otherwise, as, does Shakespeare's marked attention to both voiced and inaudible letters.

(29.) For a summary, see A. C. Partridge, Orthography, Appendix 8 "Aldus Manutius on the Use of Symbols," 191-92.

(30.) Bruce Smith's argument in The Acoustic World for the primacy of audition represents a powerful, theoretically astute response to the textualizing propensities of post-structuralism rather than being an unconditioned return to phonocentrism. It is worth remarking that historical and phenomenological approaches to early Shakespearean texts cannot wholly coincide.

(31.) A. C. Partridge, Orthography, asserts that "Ben Jonson, like Aldus Manutius, favored the logical theory of pointing; Richard Mulcaster and Shakespeare preferred a partly rhythmical system. He adds, however, that "these were not regarded as rival systems, for the reason that each permitted much latitude in individual practice" (130).

(32.) Innumerable theoretical disclaimers notwithstanding, historical editors and interpreters still tend to treat "recovered" early texts of Shakespeare as ones restored to historical immediacy and unconditional legibility. Likewise, while admitting that context is always constructed, those historicists frequently take the historical contexts they invoke as given or self-evident.

(33.) By the middle of the seventeenth century, it had become a rule of thumb that the time interval (or breathing space) signified by different punctuation marks observed the proportion 1, 2, 3, 4. In other words, the comma designated a pause for one beat, a semicolon for two, a colon for three, and a period for four. Mulcaster doesn't include the semicolon, although it was already coming into use by printers.

(34.) Or that respiration varies cross-culturally, since Americans often find British texts overpunctuated.

(35.) This linguistic naturalism continues to be transmitted through Shakespeare's works unless they are more drastically modernized than they usually are, our preference for "logicality" notwithstanding.

(36.) Jonson, The English Grammar, vol. 8, 551.

(37.) On Jonson's other sources, from Quintilian and Martianus Capella to Scaliger and Ramus, see Jonson, Works, vol. 9, 165-210. 38. Partridge, Orthography, 137.

(39.) Thomas Wilson discusses punctuation in his Art of Logic (1553) rather than his Art of Rhetoric, using a epistolary example that has sometimes been identified as the source for Peter Quince's Prologue.

(40.) Sir John Harington, A Brief Apology for Poetry, in Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), vol. 2,196. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare's compositors were directly influenced by the Arte, but they were not foreigners to the culture in which it was produced.

(41.) In a forthcoming work, Jeff Masten anatomizes some specifically Cold War editorial fictions regarding compositors.

JONATHAN CREWE teaches English and comparative literature, and directs the Dartmouth Humanities Center. He is currently editing several plays and the narrative poems for the new Pelican Shakespeare.
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Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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