A Short Introduction to the NVS

shakespeare plays globeToday 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 [2008]: 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.

1 Comment

  • Alan Galey says:

    Thanks for this introduction to the NVS editions, James, and for the link to my Visualizing Variation project. I should clarify that I didn’t pioneer the XML coding of the NVS editions themselves; that credit belongs to Julia Flanders and Kitto Weikert. I was simply the first person to be lucky enough to work with the XML they created. Julia has given some fascinating conference presentations on how the process of translating the NVS editions into XML is really a kind of intellectual modelling, which foruces us to reflect on the nature and structure of an edition in ways that reading, by itself, usually doesn’t. I recommend her publications on that subject generally.

    By coincidence, your post appears just after I taught the concept of casting-off copy to my graduate class in analytical bibliography. Casting-off happens when a compositor setting type tries to estimate the amount of space to fill on a printed sheet (or forme) in relation to the length of the copy that he’s setting. When compositors get those estimates wrong, it gets interesting for bibliographers. My class looked at a First Folio page from All’s Well That Ends Well (http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/facsimile/book/SLNSW_F1/260/?zoom=850) which evidently shows the compositor misunderestimating the amount of copy he had left to fill out the remaining space in the forme. Realizing that he needs to fill space before he can link his copy up with the text on the following page (which may already have been set in type), he pads out the stage directions. Near the bottom of the 2nd column, he apparently takes passages that Shakespeare had written in prose and adds his own line breaks to turn them into verse, essentially creating what I like to call “compositor poetry.”

    There are many places like this in Shakespeare’s early printed texts, where the dramatist’s text takes on a new shape because of the pressures of the printing house. Bibliographers can detect these patterns based on knowledge of printing practices, but only an NVS edition can track how particular sections of “compositor poetry” (or its opposite, “compositor prose”) have propagated through the history of Shakespeare editions, and show how different editors have wrestled with decisions about prose, verse, and line-breaks.

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