Book Chapter

Spelling Shakespeare: Early Modern "Orthography" and the Secret Lives of Shakespeare's Compositors

by Jeffrey Masten

Masten considers what queer philology can uncover in the Shakespearean text from the period before lexical standardization. 

A queer philology of early modern English spelling, in other words, will want to be alert not only to the historically distinct or continuous forms and meanings of particular “words,” but also, given spelling’s connections with “right-writing” and eventually with conceptions of aberrance, to the ways in which “identity” and these multifactorially produced habits of the spelling habitus are potentially dissociated or incommensurate.

This is how Moxon describes the secret/inner life of the compositor, the pressing subject:

first [he] reads so much of his Copy as he thinks he can retain in his memory till he have Composed it. . . . And having read, he falls a Spelling in his mind; yet so, that his Thoughts run no faster than his Fingers: For as he spells A, he takes up A out of the A Box, as he names n in his thoughts, he takes up n out of the n Box, as he names d in his thoughts he takes up d out of the d Box; which three Letters set together make a Word, viz. And; so that after the d he sets a Space: Then he goes on to the next word, and so Composes on. (2:212–13)1

If Moxon in 1683 is some distance from the unfixed linguistic field of the earlier seventeenth century—he says the compositor should know “the present traditional Spelling of all English Words” (2:197)—if, that is, spelling has become a process of “naming [letters] in his thoughts,” of producing spellings, we should nevertheless notice that Moxon is at the same time not merely describing but also working to produce such a system, to compose compositors for/in whom the production of spellings on this model will occur. Once you have gone through your mechanick exercises, is the “A Box” in the upper case, or in your mind?

Spelling, in 1683, may still be reading, and writing, from reading; the compositor “falls a Spelling in his mind”: he writes, reading his mind, reading what is written in his mind, in the space(s) provided.


We have seen how compositor study requires some queer-philological analysis of some of its highly consequential, historically situated terms—corruption, aberration, perversion, and so forth. I want, in concluding, to spell out some of what I think are the larger ramifications of a critique of compositor analysis for a queer-philological approach to Shakespeare and early modern texts more generally. Even with the elevated prominence recently of studies in the history of the book, compositor studies can continue to seem an arcane subfield to those outside its discipline, and it is important to note that it is part of a larger movement in twentieth-century treatments of Shakespearean and other early modern texts that relies on a precise individuation of agents at every stage of textual production, in ways that are often strikingly anachronistic. In this way, compositor analysis closely parallels the work of Cyrus Hoy and those following his influential work, who have sought to discern and separate out of collaboratively written texts the individuated “shares” of particular playwrights—to separate, say, Shakespeare and Fletcher’s words in The Two Noble Kinsmen—on the basis of “linguistic habits” or “preferences,” the ostensible difference in usage of words like ’em and them, ye and you.2 (Like Hinman’s work, Hoy’s was also done under Bowers’s supervision at the University of Virginia; Hoy’s attention to “habits” and “preferences” is also a legacy of the 1950s, published between 1956 and 1962.) The most extreme version of this is the bibliographic treatment of a play like Pericles, where various, related New Bibliographic methods have located two (or more) playwrights, two memorial reporters of the text, and three compositors (named x, y, and z, two of whom are said, in one still influential account, to be “immoral”).3 All of this individuated activity is isolated in order to explain the ostensible “badness” of a text that, as Barbara A. Mowat has shown, was in the early seventeenth century acted on tour from the text of the same printed book now so widely maligned in twentieth-century bibliography and criticism.4

By contrast, a historicized—even queered—sense of identity in relation to the spelling and printing habitus might help us to rethink the complex problem of agency in and around Shakespeare’s texts. As I hope I have also suggested, a queer philology of the less remote past—a discursive analysis of the overlaps among Cold War rhetorics of secrecy, corruption, detection, and homosexuality—may help us to think more seriously about what is at stake in essentialized notions of identity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These important meta-methodological concerns aside, however, what can such a queer-philological account of compositors and their spellings do for and with Shakespeare’s text? How will a queer analytic help us see how compositor study might affect, reform, or deform the folio text?

Let us look briefly at page 206 of the Comedies section of the first folio. There, in the final moments of As You Like It, with a number of weddings seemingly both imminent and impossible, and with Rosalind (disguised as the young man Ganymede) having promised to return, sort out the marriage plots, and “make all this matter euen” (TLN 2594),5 this text appears in the folio, the only early printed text of the play:

 Enter Hymen, Rosalind, and Celia.
                    Still Musicke.
Hymen.   Then is there mirth in heauen,
When earthly things made eauen
              attone together.
Good Duke receiue thy daughter,
Hymen from Heauen brought her,
             Yea brought her hether.
That thou mightst ioyne his hand with his,
Whose heart within his bosome is. 
(As You Like It, in Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, p. 206 of the Comedies)

Who marries Orlando at the end of this play—Ganymede, Rosalind, or both?6 The folio text is almost universally emended to eliminate that question or simplify its answer;7 the New Variorum Shakespeare notes in its survey of previous editions that “editors are almost unanimous in finding his hand an error for her hand . . . —COLLIER (ed. 1842) notes that his is an easy misreading of hir—but are deeply divided over whose bosom is the repository of whose heart.”8

The Variorum note proceeds to quote a number of the “deeply divided” editors, but notice that they are deeply divided on this second issue only once one has decided that the first (two male hands joined in the last scene of a Shakespearean comedy) is simply “an error” or “an easy misreading.” In the context of another emendation of his to hir/her, Gary Taylor expands on Collier’s theory: “In an Elizabethan secretary hand, terminal s was often almost impossible to distinguish from r, and in contemporary orthography her could be spelled with a medial i; in such circumstances, a ‘hir’ and a ‘his’ are materially identical, and can only be differentiated by cultural context.”9

Whatever the force with which this comedy moves toward a marital ending (and that force is significant), cultural context does not easily settle the question in this instance. Critics who see the folio’s reading as a misreading will remark that Rosalind and Celia have returned to the stage dressed “as themselves,”10 and Rosalind has been referred to as “her” in the lines that directly precede “his hand with his.” However, those critics are likely reading out of an editorial tradition that has routinely inserted a stage direction indicating for Rosalind a return to women’s dress, and, if Rosalind in this speech is referenced as both female and male, it is neither the first nor the last time in the play that this occurs, as the play’s epilogue demonstrates. In any event, we would not want to exclude too quickly the possibility of two male hands joined in the last scene of a play that repeatedly directs attention to the boy actor playing the part of Rosalind, has emphasized the choice of the homoerotically charged name “Ganymede,” has that character invoke Jove/Jupiter several times in the course of the play, and has earlier, in Act 4, Scene 1, staged a version of this same marriage, bringing together these same hands: “Come sister,” Rosalind-as-Ganymede says, “you shall be the Priest, and marrie vs: giue me your hand Orlando” (TLN 2033–34, my emphasis).11 As Alan Bray’s work has demonstrated, the image of two joined hands (a handfast) is central to the iconography of same-sex friendship in this period, appearing on friends’ joint graves and monuments.12 That what Taylor calls an “exceptionally easy misreading, well attested elsewhere” seems to occur in other plays, then, does not guarantee the correctness of this correction in the context of As You Like It.13

Whose “error” or “misreading” is this—whose his? Hinman asserts, on the basis of particular spellings and types in the text, that page 206 of the Comedies was set by Compositor B from typecase y (2:448), and this is where we may see the larger ideological investments of emending (on the basis of compositor error) this potentially locally queer moment in this more broadly queer text. To put the case bluntly: if Compositor B, notorious and erratic, known for his textual perversions, can be said to have erred or misread a pronoun in his manuscript, the text can be adjusted accordingly, and Shakespeare’s hand—which is to say, in this case, a pair of “heterosexual” hands—can be restored. The compositor’s skaiography (his) can be replaced by Shakespeare’s presumed orthography (hir), and interpretation may proceed.

Paying attention to compositors has the distinct payoff of bringing other agencies into the text, but, even in the terms of conventional compositor study, as we have seen, these are complex agencies. Does Compositor B “prefer” his here? Or does he merely “tolerate” it? Is Compositor B’s setting of this word a moment of (ostensibly uncharacteristic?) adherence to the text, an accidental misreading, or a deliberate revision? (Recall that he has been credited with “a combination of misdirected ingenuity, deliberate tampering, and plain carelessness” and has “gone a good deal further than most.”14)

There are other potential agencies that lie between Shakespeare and the text of As You Like It as it reached its eventual readers: a scribe or playhouse bookkeeper, since the play is sometimes hypothesized to have been set in print “either from a promptbook or, less probably, from a literary transcript of either the promptbook or Shakespeare’s foul papers”;15 potentially a later revising playwright (who could be Shakespeare or someone else);16 several songwriters; the actors (potentially including Shakespeare, acting in another role); the publishers of the folio volume; and the proofreaders who either failed to correct this “error” or didn’t see it as such.17 I don’t mean to shield Shakespeare’s own complex and opaque agency here from analysis by suggesting some other possible textual agents: I think it is more than possible that “his with his” was initially written into the play by Shakespeare. But I also think that, lacking a manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand, this is an unanswerable question, and even were we to possess such a manuscript, we would not know whether Shakespeare made an error or performed an easy misreading of his own intention, in writing “his hand with his.”

As I hope I have suggested, typecasting compositors is unlikely to solve this dilemma—if we understand the situation of a mediated text produced by multiple and potentially self-contradictory agencies to be a dilemma. As mentioned above, Compositor E’s “imitative,” “man of wax” “tendencies” throw into question his separability from other workers. Hinman finds E only in the Tragedies, but, while disputing some of Hinman’s findings, Andrew Cairncross has, by Hinman’s methods, found “unequivocal” evidence of E’s “presence” in the Comedies and on the page in question.18

By questioning some of the assumptions of and offering a critique of compositor analysis, I do not seek to foreclose discussion of the labor of those engaged in producing books in early modern England. Indeed, I hope to suggest that compositor studies’ tendency to rely on a historically inappropriate notion of impeded, solitary authorial agency has largely occluded what Moxon observes—as late as the end of the seventeenth century—about the proper function of compositors in (re)writing, (re)ordering, (re)emphasizing texts initiated by other hands. Why not produce a history of composition that is attuned to the labors of compositors in this way?—not as obstructing the ideally unmediated transmission of the authorial text, but as co-laborers in the working(s), mediations, transformations of textual production and reproduction. Mediation, after all, is what we have—all that we have. Even a manuscript—if Sir Thomas More is any indication—will stymie an attempt to locate Shakespeare’s “own” spellings.

“[T]hat some demonstrable features of Shakespeare’s holographs may eventually be recovered from the prints is not entirely a dream,” Bowers writes, examining Compositor E in the folio Othello,19 and Walker articulates the extraordinary fantasy, even if under negation, of stripping away compositors’ spellings and translating the folio texts of Shakespeare back into Shakespeare’s own spellings (“Compositor Determination,” 8).20 These authorial fantasies remain prominent with more recent literary and cultural critics as well; Richard Helgerson’s book on the rise of an English national culture in the late sixteenth century, for example, modernizes spellings “[e]xcept when quoting from Spenser’s verse, where archaism has authorial warrant.”21 But which archaisms, a queer philology will ask, even in Spenser, carry the warrant of authority, and which are the collective habits, or habitus, of the sixteenth century? What interpretive arrest is produced by this warrant? And when we re-compose Shakespeare’s spellings, will we have Shakespeare’s spellings, or the spellings that spelled Shakespeare?

Hinman, for his part, tries to close this potentially disastrous loop, appealing to apparent coincidence to produce a more reassuringly familial fantasy. Reading a list of employees of the print shop where the folios were produced, he notices that “one John Shakespeare, son of a Warwickshire butcher, was bound apprentice to William Jaggard . . . and took up his freedom . . . in May, 1617” (PPFFS, 2:513). “It is pleasant to wonder,” he writes, near the end of his monumental study, “if the man who set more than half of the Folio into type (and who also took many liberties with its text)—to wonder if Compositor B was by any chance this same John Shakespeare” (2:513). The name seems to bring the anonymous perverter of the text back within the bounds of the playwright’s family and, through the patronymic, to guarantee continuity (this Shakespeare gains his freedom a year after another Shakespeare’s death) and a certain implicit level of textual fidelity.

But there is another fantasy, a different secret life, that a queer philology might see or “out” here, and—while I stress in all its doubtfulness that is only an alternative fantasy—it is structurally similar to the hand of Orlando joined with Ganymede’s onstage in an early seventeenth-century performance of As You Like It, as well as the joined hands of the sharer or hired man who played Orlando’s role and the boy apprentice with a marked imitative tendency who played Rosalind/Ganymede.22 It is “pleasant to wonder” whether we may see this same John Shakespeare (but let’s call him Compositor B) and Compositor E at work together on page 206: the hands of the adult worker and the apprentice who imitates him, producing meanings, spellings, of uncertain origin. Whose hand is “his”?

  • 1. The mechanick exercises of the compositor (“his Thoughts run no faster than his Fingers”) resemble, rather than distinguish themselves from, the mechanicks of authorship: “His mind and hand went together,” the actors write of Shakespeare’s compositional process (“To the great Variety of Readers,” in Hinman, Norton Facsimile, sig. A3).
  • 2. Cyrus Hoy, “The Shares of Fletcher and His Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon (I),” and “The Shares of Fletcher and His Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon (III)”; Jonathan Hope, The Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays. Hoy’s methods have been elaborated and extended by a number of scholars working more recently on attribution. For a critique of some assumptions underlying these methods, see Jeffrey Masten, “Beaumont and/or Fletcher,” and “More or Less.”
  • 3. Philip Edwards, “An Approach to the Problem of Pericles,” 31, 32. For a review of the evidence, see Suzanne Gossett, ed., Pericles, 18-20, 27-28.
  • 4. Barbara A. Mowat, “Theatre and Literary Culture.”
  • 5. Except in the reproduction in Figure 14, As You Like It is cited by the through-line numbers provided in Hinman, Norton Facsimile.
  • 6. I first discussed this folio line in Masten, “Textual Deviance”; the following paragraphs are based on this discussion.
  • 7. Two recent editions retain the folio reading: Frances E. Dolan, ed., As You Like It (2000), and Leah S. Marcus, ed., As You Like It (2012). The new Norton Shakespeare, 3rd ed. (2015), again emends to “her.” The folio reading has been advocated by Maura Slattery Kuhn, “Much Virtue in If.” For Kuhn, the importance of the reading lies in its raising of the theatrical question of whether Rosalind resumes women’s clothes for her final entrance in 5.4; Kuhn’s essay is largely uninterested in issues of homoeroticism that motivate my reconsideration of the line.
  • 8. Richard Knowles, ed., As You Like It, 293.
  • 9. Gary Taylor, “Textual and Sexual Criticism,” 217.
  • 10. The stage direction of the Oxford edition at 5.4.105, in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, gen. eds., The Complete Works, 732 (and Stephen Greenblatt, et al., eds., The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd ed., 5.4.96).
  • 11. Kuhn also quotes this line in support of her interpretation: “The final stage picture of these two boys holding hands should mirror the earlier scene” (“Much Virtue,” 43). But Kuhn’s larger argument suggests that the idea of male-male marriage she, too, sees figured in the play is part of the larger “unreal condition of the play itself,” figured and facilitated by “if.”
  • 12. Alan Bray, The Friend, 88-89, 234-35, 238. The 1641 edition of Richard Brathwait’s English Gentleman uses an image of a handfast to signify “acquaintance” (male friendship).
  • 13. Taylor, “Textual and Sexual Criticism,” 223n17. Taylor’s citation of the As You Like It instance as a transparent case suggests that we may need to return to the other instances of presumed his/her confusion.
  • 14. Gaskell, New Introduction, 348.
  • 15. “Textual Note,” As You Like It, in Greenblatt et al., Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., 1623; based on the Oxford Shakespeare editors’ analysis in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, 392.
  • 16. See G.E. Bentley’s suggestion on revision, given time between first performances and print, in The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time, 1590-1642, 263.
  • 17. There is the remote possibility that this line is the site of a press variant not yet observed/recorded. Hinman did not exhaustively collate all copies of the folio for his study (or even all the Folger copies), and others have found further variants. For a discussion of additional variants and the utility of this pursuit, see Paul Werstine, “More Unrecorded States,” 47-51.
  • 18. Cairncross, “Compositors E and F,” 378-80.
  • 19. Fredson Bowers, “The Folio Othello: Compositor E” (lecture delivered 1959, published 1964), 357.
  • 20. See also Wells and Taylor, Complete Works, original-spelling ed.
  • 21. Richard Helgerson, “Note on the Text,” in Forms of Nationhood, xi. I do not mean to single out Helgerson’s modernization protocols as unusual; though he is significant for raising the notion of national language/culture, there are many other examples.
  • 22. On the bonds between acting-company sharers and their apprentices, see the discussion of actors’ wills in Chapter 3.

Book Information

Publication Date: 
January 01, 2016
Number of Pages: