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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