Speaking With Shakespeare’s Punctuation



To use a comma, or not to use a comma? That is the question editors of Mr. Shakespeare’s text must answer many, many times while working. A similar question may occur for periods, semi-colons, question marks, and exclamation points as well.

For those who don’t already know, the edition of a play that you pick up at your local bookstore does not reflect the punctuation that Shakespeare wrote. If you compare editions you will find that they are punctuated differently, some might look nothing alike; they could even create different meanings.

To students new to Renaissance texts this might seem rather odd. “What’s wrong with the punctuation Shakespeare wrote?” The answer depends on who you ask. One issue is that the surviving texts we have today in the form of Folios and Quartos may not necessarily reflect the punctuation Shakespeare wrote, but rather what the typesetter thought was best. So scholars sometimes try to “correct” the texts to make them as Shakespeare intended. A bigger reason is that the punctuation isn’t really how we normally have it in modern times. Capitalization was even different on a few words that aren’t at the beginning of a line or sentece. What’s all that about?

Scholars take it upon themselves to re-punctuate the text in order to make it comprehendible to the reader of their edition… to create a more familiar format of text.

That may be well and good for the English student, but what about the actor? Are the editors helping thespians too? Let’s explore that, shall we?


Here is an excerpt of an edited text from Act I, Scene 2 of King Lear from PlayShakespeare.com

Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Oh Edmund. He’s so mad! The following is the same text from the First Folio. If you haven’t seen text from the Folio before, beware. U’s become V’s and vice versa, and some spellings are different but don’t think too hard about it. There weren’t many definitive spellings back in the Elizabethan/Jacobean era.

Thou Nature art my Goddesse, to thy Law
My seruices are bound, wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custome, and permit
The curiosity of Nations, to depriue me?
For that I am some twelue, or fourteene Moonshines
Lag of a Brother? Why Bastard? Wherefore base?
When my Dimensions are as well compact,
My minde as generous, and my shape as true
As honest Madams issue? Why brand they vs
With base? With basenes Bastardie? base, base?

After you see the silly spellings take a look at the difference in punctuation. It doesn’t all seem “grammatically correct” does it? You might be a little confused trying to understand the text if all you had to go on was the First Folio. Familiarize yourself briefly with the first version.

NOW that you are familiar with this excerpt of text — and are ready to begin making acting choices about it — take a look again at the Folio version. It has fewer punctuation marks. If you were to see the entire speech from the Folio you would notice that there is only ONE period at the very end of the monologue. That doesn’t mean this is a huge run-on sentence. I beg you to momentarily throw out the rules of grammar you know so well (unless you’re a currently student in the USA, in which case the schools seem to have thrown out the rules of grammar from the lesson plan). The rules hadn’t been entirely defined yet.

Let the lack of periods in the piece be a clue to you on how to deliver the speech. Think about it for a moment. At this point in time Edmund is sharing with the audience his situation: he has the roughest side of life just because he’s an illigitimate child, even though he knows he’s just as good if not better than anyone else. He has a strong need to passionately display this injustice. He keeps rattling all this off. A period is a kind of end stop. Which usually means that you stop… at the end… usually of a sentence. Well if there’s no period anywhere in the middle of it perhaps it means that he doesn’t stop either! There’s a lot of energy in this piece. He’s sharing with the audience a subject he is very passionate about.

Now the comma. We usually learned that a comma is a good place to pause. Forget that. Think of a comma as a springboard to the next thought, bouncing you to higher intensity or making the next part more important. Pausing at a comma is okay sometimes, just don’t drop the energy. Keep the thought going and growing.

I think you know what a question mark is for, so I won’t say anything about it today.

The colon sometimes seems like it’s used randomly at ends of sentences. Imagine that what comes after the colon is headline news: it’s the most important thing that’s been said so far!

I’ve heard it said that what follows a colon is an emotional line and what follows a semi-colon is intellectual. I haven’t looked in to that thoroughly, but feel free to keep it in mind. And see if it applies to any work you do. Overall, the punctuation in the Folio gives you a sense to keep moving, keep the energy up. There are fewer commas and periods that beckon you to pause. Too many pauses makes the audience yawn.

Now take a look at the words that are capitalized in the Folio text. The first word in each line is capitalized — that’s happens when writing in verse. The first word of sentences are capitalized — sounds familiar? But certain words throughout are also capitalized. See if you can find anything in common between them.

In my experience, if you emphasize the capitalized words the thought will make more sense. These are generally words you want to hit harder than the rest. They will help you tell the story by showing you what the speech is really about. They are often strong image words that you can connect to and make clear to your audience: Nature, Goddess, Law, Nations, Moonshines, Brother, Bastard, etc.

None of these are rules that are written in stone, just guidelines that may help you in a performance setting. Go the extra mile and find a Folio text online or elsewhere of your play and see what helpful acting hints that Mr. Shakespeare has given you! You might find some differences that help you understand your character better. You may that the text means something a little (or a lot) different with a comma in an alternate place. Some of your questions may be answered just by really studying your script. Your director and audience thanks you in advance.

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23 comments

  1. Craig Jun 26, 2008

    I don’t tend to put as much stock in Folio typography these days as a way of getting to authorial intent–capital letters particularly. My inclination is more that punctuation, spelling and capitalization represent the preferences of scribes and print-shop compositors–in fact, these qualities make up the “fingerprints” that scholars use to identify which manuscripts were transcribed by, say, Ralph Crane, or typeset by compositors A, B or C.

    Same time, I know how easy it is to “get lost” in a big block of Shakespeare, and your guidance is really valuable to an actor in controlling level, pacing, emphasis and variety. I’ve given similar advice, and used it myself. I just don’t think that the Folio is necessarily our “gold standard” for any of this stuff.

    An alternative approach: what if we stripped out all the punctuation and all the capitals from a script, and then wrote our own–becoming, as it were, editors of our own edition of Shakespeare? First thing I’d do is capitalize the antithetical word pairs, agreeing with John Barton that antithesis is the key to understanding Shakespeare. Then look for strong, vivid nouns and verbs, especially ones lending themselves to onomatopoeia.

    Of course, this is the system Christopher Walken says he uses with a script, so maybe we don’t want everybody acting that way!

  2. Gedaly Jun 26, 2008

    The Folio is by no means the gold standard or magic book of answers for actors. It does have plenty of errors and inconsistencies in it because of the different typesetters, but I’ve found that when it comes to acting the text it’s much more freeing to look at a text that wasn’t carefully edited and crafted to be logical and grammatical and appeasing to the intellect.

    Editing your own version is a great thing to do if it helps. It’s all about what works for each person, we all have our preferences… I’m still trying new things.

    Also anything John Barton says is gold. Use it all!

  3. A.K.Farrar Jun 26, 2008

    There are no rules of grammar – grammar describes not prescribes … all those ‘rules’ were attempts to regulate the unregulatable.

    On your run on sentence – do I see Question marks? Is there not a full-stop at the bottom?

    Our attitude to punctuation comes from a massive and unreasonable respect for the printed page – Shakespeare (if he didn’t want his works read) didn’t want punctuation at all!

    Spelin reflexted sownd – so speek as writ – ex-actly as writ

    I think eecummings got that bit right.

  4. Willshill Nov 9, 2008

    John Heminge & Henry Condell are generally agreed upon to have been the agents responsible for assembling the Works for Folio 1, the first ever compilation of the Plays. Both of these men were members of Shakespeare’s company at the Globe; both had worked very closely with Shakespeare, both had access to the prompt scripts- the ‘final’ performance copies- actually used in the theatre. If their missive “To the great Variety of Readers” is to be given a mere ounce of credence, then we must also give credence to the idea that whatever existing punctuation the print shop compositors discovered in the copies handed over to them, was at least a close approximation to what Heminge & Condell considered “…cur’d and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them.”

    How then can we simply dismiss the content of the finally printed copies as “…preferences of scribes and print shop compositors…”, as stated by Craig above? Yes, they ‘corrected mistakes’ or figured out illegible penmanship. Did they change it ALL? That would have taken them far longer than it did, presupposes all of them to be singularly opinionated Draconian Grammarians, and might have raised just a little of the ire of Heminge and Condell upon their viewing the results of such horrendous cheek on the part of such assumptive hired hands.

    Barton, in sync with the many instructors and directors of the RSC, would also insist upon paying close attention to many facets of punctuation, one example being mid-line endings (caesuras) even if the ‘acting’ decision is to ultimately ignore them in certain instances. In other words, first, attend to the ‘suggestion’ of the punctuation. Paying no attention at all at the outset is a killer of inspiration, even when the source of that inspiration might be instigated by contrariness; i.e.,the punctuation is a help even when we consider it ‘wrong’–at the time–FOR US. And remember that John Barton has the expertise of an inspired and free-wheeling jazz artist—after having obtained his Masters in Classical Music from Julliard.
    Peter Hall insists upon the need for a copy of the Folio for the purpose of better understanding Shakespeare’s Form; his way of structuring verse that, if one looks closely enough, is patently evident in everything he wrote, and has a great deal to do with punctuation, to say the least.
    ________________________________________________
    Craig wrote: “An alternative approach: what if we stripped out all the punctuation and all the capitals from a script, and then wrote our own–becoming, as it were, editors of our own edition of Shakespeare?”
    __________________________________________________
    Judging from the rest of what you wrote, you’d probably come up with a better version than many sold in the bookshops today. But it would be just as much of a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction from those who would ‘normalize’ aspects of the work in attempts to make it follow strict rules of poesy. Contrary to popular belief, the way Shakespeare’s text becomes more ‘like normal’ speech is by paying close attention to the structure of the verse—importantly informed by punctuation in places where you might not expect to find it and vice versa; not in anarchical attempts to make it sound more like everyday speech. Shakespeare’s ‘everyday speaking’ is heightened to such extent that to ignore what we have extant of its structure in print—even if they are approximations—is to seriously undermine our ability to completely digest what we must soon regurgitate with some sense of the faceting in his Form. Shakespeare constantly cut against the grain of the iamb and the pentameter line. But he did it while having complete control over and respect for the discipline he was simultaneously circumventing. Therein lay his genius and the at-once Promethean magnitude of Beauty and Heightened Reality he was able to create in his lines.
    _____________________________________________________
    A.K.Farrar wrote: Our attitude to punctuation comes from a massive and unreasonable respect for the printed page -Shakespeare (if he didn’t want his works read) didn’t want punctuation at all!
    _There are no rules of grammar – grammar describes not prescribes … all those ‘rules’ were attempts to regulate the unregulatable.
    _______________________________________________________
    I totally agree with the first part. The academicians, unfortunately, have dictated to us all what it was Shakespeare was doing. And one of the foremost and effective ways they did it was in the re-structuring of the verse through changing the punctuation. But to insist so strongly that there is a way to speak aloud any form of the printed word without some form of structure to govern and inform how a sentence might sound is stretching it a bit too far in my opinion. Every day we speak and don’t write it down, yet there are pauses and stops, exclamations, lilts, drops of the voice, etc.–unwritten punctuation marks.

    Just as in music—without the variations of rests and stops used to adhere to the time signature and to inform the rhythm, there is no tempo; there is only cacophonous droning. But even in the wildest departures of jazz, there is always the undercurrent of something completely musically ordered.

    As to whether or not grammar is simply descriptive…OR possibly descriptive…and prescriptive:

    Consider the play within the play in AMND. This masterpiece of badly punctuated drivel—not just the piece that follows, but the whole ‘play’ of bad acting– shows how much Shakespeare was concerned with the uses and observances of punctuation when it came to acting. The entire piece is filled with overdone emotion, forced declamation, and excessive and repetitious pauses, brought about by Shakespeare’s intentional misuse of the tools.

    At the end of the speech Shakespeare clearly puts his extended commentary on punctuation into the mouths of not one, but three characters. From the First Folio:

    Enter the Prologue. Quince.

    Pro. If we offend, it is with our good will.
    That you should thinke, we come not to offend,
    But with good will. To shew our simple skill,
    That is the true beginning of our end.
    Consider then, we come but in despight.
    We do not come, as minding to content you,
    Our true intent is. All for your delight,
    We are not heere. That you should here repent you,
    The Actors are at hand; and by their show,
    You shall know all, that you are like to know.

    Thes. This fellow doth not stand vpon points

    Lys. He hath rid his Prologue, like a rough Colt: he
    knowes not the stop. A good morall my Lord. It is not
    enough to speake, but to speake true.

    Hip. Indeed hee hath plaid on his Prologue, like a
    childe on a Recorder, a sound, but not in gouernment.

    Thes. His speech was like a tangled chaine: nothing
    impaired, but all disordered. Who is next?

    Prologue spoke not very “trippingly on the tongue.” But contrary to the on stage spectators’ beliefs, Quince strictly adhered to the punctuation—badly employed by Shakespeare, the “hack dramatic poet”.
    Ergo, grammar can and does indeed prescribe. Just ask Shakespeare how to “Speake the Speech”–he’ll tell you.

    –“unregulatable”?–I think not. (by the way, is that a word?…’unregulatable’) I like it.

    Strangely enough,editors of the various emended editions available since 1623 have found, almost without exception, a need to…’reregulate’? the Folio punctuation somewhere within this Prologue.

    The punctuation is one of many issues I have with the strictly literary set.
    “I pray [they] marre no moe of [his] verses with [editing] them ill-favouredly.”

    While it’s probably true that he didn’t write the plays to be read, he was very much concerned with punctuation when it came to informing his actors on what he had ‘heard’ in the lines he had written, as they danced ‘trippingly in his brain’. The Folio and some of the Quartos are all we have when it comes to learning the steps of that dance. “Gold standard”?–maybe not. But whatever I’ve been called upon to do when it comes to Shakespeare—and I’ve been involved on a professional level in acting, teaching, directing, editing, dramaturgy, coaching, consulting—and even a little writing–they’re the standards worth their weight in something shiny—and I always reach for them first.
    Accept no substitutes. Don’t leave home without ‘em.

  5. akra Aug 14, 2011

    First of all, during Shakespeare’s time, the type setters/publishers did a lot of punctuation, as someone earlier had implied. Writers weren’t even encouraged to include it. Thus, a lot of what is found in old manuscripts is the interpretation of a plain old printer. Indeed, it was printers who devised much of the punctuation system we know today.

    Secondly, the punctuation of play scripts and fiction generally does not need to adhere to the rules we lay out for prose. It is more in tune with “delivery” than with logic or grammar.

    But the problem remains for those who want to divine what Shakespeare intended. Much may remain a mystery.

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