Shakespeare's Manuscripts
How He Prepared Them for Stage Productions
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Preparing a Manuscript      Writing Format: Verse, Prose, Poetry     Blank Verse
Iambic Pentameter      Publication of a Play      Censorship
Michael J. Cummings
..© 2003

Revised in 2006, 2011

1. Preparing a Manuscript

Writing Tool: Quill Dipped in Ink

A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word pen is derived from the Latin name for feather—penna. Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink container (inkwell) on a stand (standish) that held all the writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution. 

Quills were the writing instruments of choice between AD 500 and AD 1850. (In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces (such as plaster and animal skins), sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water plant whose pith (the soft center of a stem) was dried and pressed to make thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the quill in the 500's (an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian) greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when they replaced typewriters in the last half of the twentieth century.) 

Lighting: Daylight, Candlelight, Oil Lamps

Shakespeare probably tried to do most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window, because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative—oil lamps—gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty penny to buy, fuel, and maintain. 

However, if Shakespeare attempted to confine all of his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to appear for the daytime rehearsals and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to "burning the candle at both ends." In his book Shakespeare: the Biography, (New York: Doubleday, 2005) Peter Ackroyd speculates that "as a result of his various employments in the theatre, [Shakespeare] was obliged to write at night; there are various references in the plays to 'oil-dried lamps,' to candles, and to 'the smoakie light' that is 'fed with stinking Tallow' (page 273). 

Choosing Words and Spellings

English dictionaries as we know them today did not exist in Shakespeare's time. However, a book containing a collection of words and definitions was published in England in 1573 by John Baret, a professor at Cambridge University's Trinity College. It was called An Alvearie, a triple dictionary, in English, Latine, and French. An alvearie is a beehive. Baret's title is a compliment to his students, who collected words for him with the diligence of bees collecting honey. A second edition of Baret's dictionary appeared in 1580 under this title, An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictonarie, containing foure sundrie tongues, namlie English, Latine, Greek, and French. There has been speculation that Shakespeare possessed a copy of this dictionary with notes he jotted on the margins. No strong evidence of any kind has emerged to support a connection between Shakespeare and Baret's book.

Because of the lack of established standards of for orthography and word meanings, Shakespeare was free to use spellings and meanings that did not agree with accepted spellings and meanings. He could also choose from among words imported from Italy, France, and other countries by seafaring traders, soldiers, tourists, and adventurers. 

When words did not exist to express his thoughts, Shakespeare made up his own—hundreds of them. Many of his neologisms are now in common use around the world. Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, authors of Coined by Shakespeare (Merriam-Webster, 1998), list numerous words originated by Shakespeare, including bedroom, eyeball, generous, investment, madcap, obscene, radiance, torture, unreal, and varied

Word Meanings

Hundreds of words used by Shakespeare have changed meanings or connotations over time. For example, "Fellow, which has friendly overtones for us, was insulting in Shakespeare's day. Phrases that were metaphors to him have often lost their coloring with us: "Since we seldom play the game of bowls, we overlook the concrete implications of 'There's the rub' [a phrase used by Hamlet in his famous soliloquy] (an impediment on the green)."Levin, Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans, textual ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 9.)

Play Sources: History, Myth, Other Writers

To write his plays, Shakespeare borrowed from history, mythology, and other literary works, then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and improve on plots, reworking them and sometimes adding new characters, such as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, and the fool in King Lear.

How Settings Affected Writing

Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions. 

    Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).
Drafts of Plays and Censorship

Shakespeare's manuscripts had to be submitted for approval.  After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. The two versions had special names: the original manuscript was called the "foul papers" because of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a "fair copy." It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as a "prompt copy," which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:

    At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contains a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.
Alteration of the Copy

An acting company could alter a playwright's manuscript with or without his approval. It is possible that editors improved some of Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened the manuscripts.

Surviving Manuscripts

No original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play survived to the present day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare. Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:.

    No Shakespeare manuscript is in existence. This is not surprising: they were not collectors' items. Printers would have thrown them away after setting type from them; almost twenty years passed in the Commonwealth with no public performances of plays, and the manuscripts of the disbanded theatrical companies were completely dispersed; the Great Fire of London must have destroyed some. Indeed, only a relative handful of the hundreds and hundreds of Elizabethan plays have come down to us in manuscript form, and it is our bad luck that so few of these are by major dramatists. None is Shakespeare's if we except the good possibility that one scene in the manuscript of the unacted Sir Thomas More is in his hand.—Bowers, Fredson. ''What Shakespeare Wrote.'' Approaches to Shakespeare, by Norma Rabkin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (page 266).

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2. Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry

Shakespeare wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in prose, freely alternating between the two in the same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in fact, for one character to address a second character in verse while the second character responds in prose. Sometimes, the same character—Hamlet or King Lear, for example—speaks in verse in one moment and in prose in another. 

Verse is a collection of lines that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern—in Shakespeare, usually iambic pentameter, a metric scheme in which each line has ten syllables consisting of five unaccented and accented syllable pairs. In its highest form—when the language is lyrical and the content sublime—verse can become poetry, either rhymed or unrhymed. Prose, on the other hand, is the everyday language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric scheme.

Why did Shakespeare mix verse (including poetry) and prose in his plays? That is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare’s writing techniques. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play. That task is easy. Here’s why: 

In most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened right margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Verse Passage Spoken by Hamlet 

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks (3.1.66-72)
Prose Passage Spoken by Hamlet 
Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for yourself, sir, should be old as I am if like a crab you could go backward. (2.2.204)
Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions, replies, or ripostes? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or is too abrupt to contain a metric scheme. The following exchange between Hamlet and Guildenstern contains such short lines absent of meter and rhyme. The exchange begins when Hamlet asks Guildenstern to play a wind instrument called a recorder, which resembles a flute:
HAMLET:..Will you play upon this pipe?
GUILDENSTERN:..My lord, I cannot.
HAMLET:..I pray you.
GUILDENSTERN:..Believe me, I cannot.
HAMLET:..I do beseech you. (3.2.256-260)
Obviously, these lines are too short to contain a pattern of meter or rhyme. Moreover, the content is mundane and prosaic. “I pray you” does not a poem make. For these reasons, the passage qualifies only as prose.

But what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and plebeians—or wine-swilling hooligans, like Falstaff (Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II)—often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters, like Hamlet and Volumnia (Coriolanus), sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the witches in Macbeth, often speak in verse. Even the lowest of the low—the beast-man Caliban in The Tempest—speaks often in verse. In The Merchant of Venice, the characters associated with the dirty world of money speak frequently in verse, and the characters associated with the rarefied world of nobility and refinement speak often in prose. Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing is almost entirely in prose, with highborn characters only occasionally speaking in verse.

Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose? 

Shakespeare used verse to do the following:

One: Express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time.
Two: Make wise, penetrating, and reflective observations that require lofty language. Such a passage is a famous one recited by the outlaw Jaques in Act II, Scene VII, of As You Like It. The passage—which begins with the often-quoted line “All the world’s a stage”—philosophizes about the “seven ages” of man, from infancy to senility. 
Three: Present a lyrical poem as a separate entity, like the famous song in the fifth act of As You Like It. The first stanza of that poem follows:

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring. (5.3.11)
Four: Inject irony. When the highborn speak humble prose and the hoi polloi speak elegant verse, as is sometimes the case in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare may be saying up can be down, and down can be up. In The Merchant, the noble characters are just as reprehensible as—or perhaps even more reprehensible than—the workaday, unsophisticated characters. Portia is often depicted in critical analyses of the play as its noblest character. But a close reading of the play reveals her as a racist and a self-seeking conniver. Thus, Shakespeare makes her tongue wag in prose and verse, revealing her Janus personality.
Five: Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain that plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.

Shakespeare used prose to do the following:

One: Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.
Two: Make quick, one-line replies such as “Ay, my lord” that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations.
Three: Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual and connotative density of the verse passages.
Four: Suggest madness or senility. In King Lear, Lear speaks almost exclusively in verse in the first half of the play. Then suddenly, he lurches back and forth between verse and prose, perhaps to suggest the frenzied state of his aging mind. Hamlet sometimes shifts to prose in front of observers, perhaps in hopes of presenting his feigned madness as real.
Five: Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol, as in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.
Six: Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.
Seven: Demonstrate that prose has merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so graceful and thought-provoking that they equalled, and sometimes even surpassed, the majesty of verse or poetry passages. Such a prose passage is the following, spoken by Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (2.2.250)

3. Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter

Under Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry, you read that Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose, and poetry and that he used a rhythm format called iambic pentamenter. 

When his verse lines in iambic pentamenter do not rhyme, they are said to be in blank verse. (Note that Shakespeare also wrote his sonnets in iambic pentameter, but the lines had a rhyming scheme. For more information on this scheme, see sonnets. Shakespeare also wrote parts of his plays with rhyming lines.) 

To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term ''iamb.'' An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Consider the words ''annoy,'' ''fulfill,'' ''pretend,'' ''regard,'' and ''serene.'' They are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable (the KING). In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following line from Romeo and Juliet demonstrates the use of iambs. The stressed words or syllables are boldfaced:

But, SOFT!..|..what LIGHT..|..through YON..|..der WIN..|..dow BREAKS?
Here are two more lines from Romeo and Juliet that also demonstrate the use of iambs: 
I WILL..|..not FAIL:..|..'tis TWEN..|..ty YEARS..|..till THEN.

I HAVE..|..for GOT..|..why I..|..did CALL..|..thee BACK.

When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. The prefix ''pent'' means ''five.'' (A figure with five sides is called a ''pentagon''; an athletic competition with five track-and-field events is called a ''pentathlon.'') The suffix ''meter'' (in ''pentameter'') refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a ''foot''). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are ''iambic.'' Because they contain five iambs (five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at the end of each line don't rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse. 

Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, first used blank verse in English in his translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex, staged in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), published in 1779.

4. Publication of  a Play
The publishing industry operated under the control of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, a trade organization which the government established and supervised in order to guard against printing subversive books or books unduly critical of the Crown. If a play met government standards—that is, if it did not attempt to inflame the people against the crown—a publisher could print and sell the play. Authors of plays often had misgivings about committing their work to print.

    The plays of the first professional companies [in Shakespeare's day] were written mainly by actors themselves. . . . The players were reluctant to allow their dramas to be printed. They apparently thought that if a play could be read, few people would wish to see it acted. They may also have feared that their plays, if printed, would be appropriated for acting by rival companies. This reluctance explains the fact that only eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime. They were published in small pamphlets called quartos, which sold for only sixpence a piece.—Alden, Raymond MacDonald. A Shakespeare Handbook. Revised and enlarged by Oscar James Campbell. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1970, page 74.
For a detailed discussion of publishing formatsin particular, folio and quarto textsclick here.