Shakespeare scholar explains value of Bard’s first folios

[Story and photo by Mike Foley: Published originally in the BYU-Hawaii online “Newsroom,” February 13, 2009]

Prof. Neil Freeman

A prominent Shakespeare scholar who is on campus co-directing the Brigham Young University Hawaii Fine Arts production of Twelth Night, detailed to students in the February 12 Honors Program colloquium in McKay 101 how 18th century-through-modern editors of Shakespeare’s plays have removed or altered many intrinsic directions found in the Bard’s first folio printings.

Professor Neil Freeman [pictured at left] — originally from Southport, England, and a weekly stock actor, author, lecturer, director, John Gielgud Scholar at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, current professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and Shakespeare consultant at numerous other universities, theaters and festivals — is an authority on using Shakespeare’s original scripts. He has also been associated with BYU Provo and BYU-Hawaii for 20-plus years.

The white-bearded Freeman, whose presentation was filled with dramatic flair and interaction, recalled when he first started looking at “what we call the old scripts, the stuff that was given to the first actors, it was like a light bulb going off in my head… I promise you, if you gave a modern edition of Shakespeare into the original actors’ hands, they wouldn’t understand a thing, because of the way things have been set down on paper and totally revamped. They’re totally different now than what they were before.”

Freeman explained that Shakespeare, who was an actor as well as an author approximately 400 years ago, wrote his first folios with lots of extra capitalization and punctuation for the players “so everyone knew how you felt.” He said this is similar to the emotion and writing styles people use today in texting and emails, and added this was important because actors back then often only had three days to rehearse and mount a play.

For example, when the nurse who helps Juliet to marry Romeo — “a dreaded enemy of the family” — first meets the family’s choice for their daughter, who Juliet despises, her line says, “He’s a lovely gentleman”: Without Shakespeare’s writing stylistics, modern actors may not realize the nurse is being facetious.

“Form and structure can really help content,” Freeman continued, pointing out that “all of these plays created for the actors got wiped out when the Puritans came to power in England in the 1600s. “They looked at the text and said, nobody can read these things: It’s strangely spelt and strangely capitalized…and they became standardized. They wiped out stacks and stacks of work… All of the visceral stuff began disappearing around 1700… They wiped out clues for the general English readers, as well.”

“If you go back to the original texts, you can find a lot more information,” which, he cautioned, “is not to say: Old texts, hooray; new texts, boo.” He also explained that in those days playhouses, not Shakespeare, published the plays. “He got no money from printing… The playhouses would put in music cues, and exit cues, and sometimes instead of the characters they would put in the names of the actual actors,” thus immortalizing more than one 400-year-old actor.

Freeman also pointed out multiple typesetters who worked on preparing the scripts also made mistakes. Then, he said that academics in the 18th, 19 and 20th centuries also rewrote content “in grammar so you can understand it… They reorganized ordinary stage business, they changed line structure, they changed capitalization and they even changed words.”

He said more-modern editors also decided to make the texts more “regular and decided to organize things properly,” despite the fact that Shakespeare “wrote what he thought a character was doing in the scene.” For example, the Bard used different prefixes to characterize how Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, who was “not aristocracy, should act: “Sometimes she’s called wife, sometimes she’s called mother, sometimes she’s called old lady.”

Other examples of how more-modern editors have changed Shakespeare’s original texts include delayed and advanced entries, combining entries and changing their significance, additional exits and changing the quality of exits, moving prose and replacing human foibles with more proper grammar and syntax, reducing and restructuring punctuation, minimizing debate or argument and discovery, and normalizing conversational excesses. In some of these differences, Freeman would act out the lines as he thinks Shakespeare intended them to be.

“All these clues have been wiped out,” Freeman said. “They’ve been silly with Willy.”

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