Did Shakespeare revise his plays?

We should all revise our work.  And we shouldn’t spend too much time feeling sorry for ourselves because Shakespeare didn’t have to revise his work.  His plays, we are told, are all inspired first drafts.  At least, that’s what Heminge and Condell said in their “Epistle to the Great Variety of Readers” of the First Folio:

His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.

This has become part of the enduring image of Shakespeare — so supreme a genius that he he didn’t even have to labor over his masterpieces, like Mozart interrupting a game of billiards to jot down a movement in a string quartet. And, of course, this image is always paired with Ben Jonson’s envious comment:

“The Players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, ‘would he had blotted a thousand.'”

There was only one Shakespeare, and we’re not him.  And neither was Ben Jonson.

This image is under attack from modern critics.  Here is Stephen Greenblatt, interrupting his writing of The Swerve to write in the Wall Street Journal:

A number of Shakespeare’s plays survive in both the small quarto editions, inexpensively published during his lifetime, and in the first folio. Comparing versions of the same play, I and other scholars have concluded that many of the differences are probably due to Shakespeare’s own obsessive fiddling.

The Quarto

A particularly significant amount of fiddling occurred in King Lear, where there are extensive changes between the quarto edition and the First Folio.  As a result, some modern editions include both versions, instead of presenting a single edition that conflates both versions.  The Arden edition I own is of the conflated school.  It uses F and Q superscripts to indicate words that are only found in one version or the other.  Lear’s final line in the play, spoken over the dead body of Cordelia, appears only in the folio version:

Do you see this?  Look on her; look, her lips,
Look there, look there!   He dies.

Does he die joyfully, thinking Cordelia is really alive?  What was Shakespeare up to when he added the line?  Who knows?

Of course, there is no real evidence of revision, just of differences.  Maybe both the quarto and the folio are simply different versions of a lost original manuscript.  Maybe some of the differences are due to lines that were added by actors during rehearsals.  Greenblatt and others are convinced that Shakespeare fiddled, but that’s based on interpretation, not evidence.  The next generation of scholars may come up with some other interpretation — or decide that Heminge and Condell knew what they were talking about.

Still, it’s nice to think that Shakespeare was like the rest of us, adding words and taking them out and moving them around, trying to achieve some kind of perfection that is always just out of our reach.

Rules for Writing — Rule 2: Revise

Here’s another in an intermittent series of my randomly (and repetitively) numbered rules for fiction writers who aren’t quite good enough to get away with breaking all the rules.  If you’re reading this post, I’m talking about you.

First, let’s distinguish revising from rewriting.  The distinction is a little arbitrary, but for my purposes, revising is taking what you’ve written and making it better; rewriting is taking what you’ve written and writing it all over again.  On a computer, when you revise, you’re working on the same file; when you rewrite, you’re opening a new file and labeling it “Chapter 1 Draft 2” or something.

I’m inclined to believe that everyone revises; I’m not so sure that professional authors cranking out multiple books per year are doing much rewriting.  But anyway, in my opinion, revising is the most fun you can have as a writer.  Staring at a blank screen can be intimidating and discouraging; the blinking cursor seems to tick away the seconds of your life.  But once that screen is filled with words, it’s much easier, and more satisfying, to mess with those words and make them better.

As I mentioned in my post on Rule 0, it’s helpful to begin a writing session by revising your previous day’s output.  But there’s really no bad time to revise; it’s just a question of deciding when to stop.  Somebody once said that he knew he was done with a story when he’d go through it and take out some commas, and then he’d go through it again and start putting the commas back in.

Revising is mostly about style; rewriting is mostly about plot and characterization.  So revising involves applying all them grammer and spelling rules that you learned in Rule 7, but it also involves going beyond them; you want to make your prose sing (or, at least, to keep it from wandering off key).  How do you do that?  A good place to start is with George Orwell’s rules for writing (from his essay “Politics and the English Language“):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I don’t know to what extent Orwell intended these rules to apply to fiction, but I’d say that Rule 6 is even more applicable to a novelist than it is to a non-fiction writer.  There are times when you’re striving for an effect that may require the passive voice, or a foreign phrase, or a cliché, particularly in dialog or a first-person narrative.  But it’s a good idea to be aware of Orwell’s rules, even if you decide to break them.

Orwell’s rules don’t cover something that is central to revision but that’s hard to put into into a rule: the rhythm of your words.  Sometimes, for example, you want to repeat a word for an effect; sometimes the repetition just sounds stupid or awkward.  Sometimes you want to start a bunch of consecutive sentences in the same way; sometimes that’s just an oversight that needs fixing.  I’ve heard of writers who read their words aloud to check how they sound — that’s certainly a good idea for dialog.  I don’t do it, but I sound out everything in my mind.

And there’s a related rule that I’ll talk about more someday: Show your work to someone else. Sometimes the words that sound just right to you will provoke a violent allergic reaction in your friends. Better to know that before you’re finished than after.