Today we read editions of Shakespeare’s plays that feature regular spelling and punctuation, acts and scenes, line numbers, explanatory notes, and numerous stage directions. Yet many of these elements were missing in the first printings of Shakespeare’s works. They were added by generations of Shakespeare editors, who have tried to provide a text that is as readable and as reliable as possible. The task has been daunting for various reasons, including the garbling of words and lines by the first printers and the existence of different versions of the same play. Editors have explored every aspect of Shakespeare’s world and works to provide the evidence that will help them come up with the best text.
The New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (NVS) is not just another edition. It is a compendium of all the meaningful contributions of the different important editions of Shakespeare’s works for the past four hundred years. The printed variorum works by having a basic text (called the copy text) at the top of a page. Under it are listed the decisions that editors of Shakespeare’s works have made about certain words, stage directions, and other parts of the text over the years. Below that list appear notes citing commentary from generations of scholars up to the present day. Each variorum edition then continues with information gathered by the series editors on subjects such as the play’s sources, its date of composition, various critical approaches to the play’s themes and characters, and its performance history.
The print edition is thus a brilliantly designed database for the printed page, and it uses abbreviations and cross-references to provide quick access to commentary and contextual documents. Variorum editions are now also digitized, and each element is tagged in XML, enabling new forms of representation and still more extensive linking of data, documents, and full text of primary and secondary material. The coding allows the development of interfaces that can help readers to see patterns in the choices editors have made and to see different versions of the same line or passages. Eventually, as more plays are coded, each play in the NVS will be able to speak to the others in the edition—and, ultimately, to a wider canon of plays and their editions, stage histories, and critical reception. This will allow everything from the closest of close reading to distant reading and data mining of an entire corpus of plays.
A detailed description of some of the possibilities opened up by the digitization of the NVS is given by Paul Werstine, a general editor of the edition, in “Past Is Prologue: Electronic New Variorum Shakespeares” (Shakespeare 4.3 : 224–36). A bibliography of other articles on variorum editing and the NVS can be found here.
Alan Galey, a member of the NVS committee, pioneered the XML coding of the NVS edition of The Winter’s Tale in his ENVS interface. See http://individual.utoronto.ca/alangaley/visualizingvariation/ for an introduction to the interface and the many opportunities afforded by a digital variorum.