Professor Lisa Hopkins,
English studies
Sheffield Hallam University


This case study describes how students go about preparing an edition of a Renaissance play entirely from scratch for a core module on an MA in English Studies (Renaissance Literature). In the process, they learn about principles of editing, associated theoretical and practical problems, and the protocols and pitfalls of preparing a text.

Background / Context

Only a tiny fraction of the extant corpus of Renaissance plays is widely available in reliable and user-friendly editions. However, almost all can now be read through Literature Online or Early English Books Online or, in most cases, both. Many of the plays which are not widely known may indeed be of poor artistic quality or suffer from textual difficulties or continuity glitches (sometimes arising from multiple authorship): in Peele’s Edward I, for instance, a character who has previously been beheaded is referred to as plotting a further rebellion, while in Field, Fletcher and Massinger’s Knight of Malta, one character is referred to, without explanation, by two entirely different names. In Richard Brome’s The Queen’s Exchange, which a student has edited for this module, two characters who are separately named, Alberto and the hermit, appear to be the same character – the hermit and his servant carry the banished and wounded Segebert off in Act II Scene iii (in Northumbria) only for Segebert to reappear in the West Saxon court in Act V Scene ii, accompanied by the original banished lord, Alberto. There is no intervening scene that explains the connection between the hermit and Alberto, but the implication is clear, which provided something of a headache for the student who edited it.

Nevertheless, the nitty-gritty, hands-on engagement with these texts which producing an edition of them demands is something which students, in my experience, find both enormously informative and, in most cases, enormously enjoyable.

Even though we do not collate manuscript variants or press-variants for this exercise and confine ourselves to plays which exist in only one text, the preparation of an edition demands an extraordinary number of skills. At the most basic level, the module requirement that editions should be modern-spelling makes it imperative to be able to spell, punctuate, and parse an English sentence correctly. The typically frequent references to classical deities and other mythological motifs all require to be glossed, which generally constitutes a useful refresher course in itself. Students need to remind themselves of (or grasp for the first time) the fundamental principles of iambic pentameter, so that they can spot if (as so often) any lines of verse have been mislineated during the printing process. They soon learn that errors can, and usually will, creep in anywhere, and that they matter. Many of the students have chosen Roman plays – that is, seventeenth- or late sixteenth-century plays dealing with subjects from Roman history – and have been on a very steep learning curve about the Caesars, Latin phrases, Roman customs, and the cultural meanings of classical texts in the Renaissance. It has been hard work, but they have been glad to do it, and have all benefited enormously. Finally, having wrestled with all this, they are required to supply a 4000 word introduction setting the text in its historical and critical context.

Activities / Practice

The initial allocation of texts takes place well in advance, at the point when students choose the module. I ask students whether they would prefer comedy, tragedy, or history, whether would like a play with a local setting or one based on a true story, and so on, and together we arrive at something which stands a reasonable chance of being interesting to them. The module runs for one semester, and is supported by weekly seminars of two hours each. After an initial introductory meeting, the first week is devoted to a session called ‘Lineation: establishing a text – verse or prose?’. The second looks at the structure of a critical edition, with case studies of the contents pages of the Arden and Oxford editions of The Tempest, on which I invite students to do a compare-and-contrast exercise. A later week covers the ‘band of terror’, the textual notes often to be found at the foot of the page in a scholarly edition. We usually focus specifically on a passage from the Arden 2 Hamlet, where, underneath the page on which the Player King breaks off his speech in tears, there appears the following set of notes:

515. whe’er Capell (whe’r); whereQ2, F.
516. Prithee] Q2; Pray you F.
517. of this] Q2; not in F.
519. you] Q2; yeF.
520. abstract] Q2;
Abstracts F, QI.
522. live] Q2, QI; liued F.
524. bodkin] Q2; bodykins
F. much] Q2; not in F;farre QI.
525. shall] Q2;should F, QI.
531.To First Player] As they follow Polonius, Hamlet detains and steps aside with I Player. White.

Slowly, and I hope humanely, students are encouraged to make sense of this and to see why it is interesting. A later week looks at reviews of editions from The Year’s Work in English Studies and other sources. I also invite past MA students to come along for one week and talk about what they learned from the module, whether they have anything to recommend, and whether they would have done anything differently; this also serves a number of ancillary purposes, since it helps build links between MA and PhD students, and I hope too that it is encouraging for current students to learn that two of their recent predecessors have had notes published in Notes and Queries which arose from their work on their plays, and that a third has built up his introduction into a paper which he has successfully delivered at a conference and is now consolidating into an article. The remaining sessions include one in a computer-enabled room which involves introducing the students to useful resources such as previous products of the module (and of the undergraduate version) at; other online editions of Renaissance plays at {no longer available} and at; and information about individual plays and playwrights at{no longer available} ,, Dave Kathman’s biographical index of English drama before 1660 at, and Gabriel Egan’s non-Shakespearean drama database at
We also look at the three invaluable online resources to which SHU fortunately subscribes, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of National Biography, and Early English Books Online, and we talk about ways of presenting material and which format the students find most helpful: where should notes be? Where should note markers go? What sort of things should be glossed?

All the other sessions are run on a clinic basis, with all of us collectively looking at difficulties and cruxes which students have encountered in their texts. Each student in the group is asked to bring a page of the ‘original’ text and the equivalent page of how it now looks in their treatment of it. We all really pore over these, paying attention to every tiniest detail. This year I too have brought passages from Ford’s The Broken Heart and The Fancies, Chaste and Noble, which I am currently editing for the Oxford Complete Ford; next year my colleague Matthew Steggle will be doing the same with Richard Brome’s The English Moor, which he is editing for the Complete Works of Richard Brome.

The module has not been without challenges. It does demand a considerable range of skills, including an ear for verse, which is extremely helpful for this purpose but also extremely hard to teach. There have been some bad moments, when students have been totally stumped by an unfamiliar word or name. By the same token, though, it has also been an extremely useful tool for teaching students that the most dangerous word of all is the one you think you don’t need to look up. The module has generated several publications: as well as the two notes in Notes and Queries and the conference paper, there has been a piece about editing theory in Literature Compass. Most importantly, this has proved to be a module which enthuses and engages students; indeed some of them become quite passionate about ‘their’ play. They can choose a text which plays to their strengths: for instance, a student with a strong interest in mediaeval Scottish history chose to edit J. W.’s The Valiant Scot, which centres on William Wallace. They can choose which aspects of the edition to develop: one student, noticing that a high number of the characters in her play died by poison, made a special study of this and ended up writing her MA dissertation on death by poisoning in Renaissance drama; another concentrated his efforts on the uncertain date of his play, unearthing previously neglected evidence for the dating which he is currently developing into a note for Notes and Queries.


Over the four years it has been running, no student has failed this module, and some have been awarded higher marks for it than for any of their previous work, in a just reflection of how much energy and care they have brought to the task. What they learn from it stands them in good stead for all their other work too, for it involves not only the editing of a specific text but exposure – often for the first time – to the idea of why we need editions and what questions we should ask before we buy, cite or trust an edition of any text from this period.

April 2006

Bibliographical references