Sunday, November 15, 2009

Copyediting Shakespeare

This article was posted on It's great, it's about what it might look like if Shakespeare's prose was looked over by a contemporary editor.

Thomas Christensen

Recently I was working on an anthology of literary texts that included some classic texts from the mid-twentieth century, works that have been often reprinted and much discussed. To my surprise, the publisher had the pieces copyedited. It was strange to see these familiar texts subject to the editor’s sometimes questionable scrutiny. It made me wonder what might have happened if the selection of works had gone back even further, to Shakespeare.

To be, or not to be: {COMMENT: Weak, confusing opening. Is something missing here? The thought seems unfinished.} that is the question: {COMMENT: Indirect. Why not get right to your main point?} Should I exist?

Is it Whether 'tis nobler in the mind {COMMENT: Where else would it be noble?} to suffer endure The slings pellets and arrows {COMMENT: Not parallel. A sling is a throwing device whereas an arrow is something thrown}of outrageous {Right word? Did you mean “raging”? or just “bad”?}fortune, Or to take arms against a sea troop of troubles {This metaphor is just silly. How can one “take arms” against a “sea”??},

And by opposing end them defeat them? To die: to sleep; No more and die; and by a sleep in this way {COMMENT: I’m completely lost. First we were dead and now we’re sleeping. Were you hurrying to make your deadline? Please review!} to say we to put an end toThe inevitable shocks and heartacheheart-ache and the thousand natural shocks {COMMENT: Aren’t the heartaches caused by the shocks, so shouldn’t the shocks come first? Also, I assume by “natural” you meant “inevitable.”}

That fleshthe body {COMMENT: I suppose the heart is “flesh” in some sense, but we don’t usually use the word that way} is heir subject to may be viewed as a desirable alternative,, 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, tTo sleep, to die: {COMMENT: Again, the order seems wrong. Is the repetition intentional – I don’t think it adds anything. You tend to be wordy and indirect and to use obscure vocabulary. Please try to simplify. You might want to look at Strunk and White’s Elements of Style};

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may comeBut what if dreaming occurs not just in sleep but also in death? {Though a bit far-fetched, this is an interesting idea. Could you develop it further? (BTW, I’m just curious, have you been reading Japanese literature? I sense an affinity)}When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, {COMMENT: I’m sorry, but this does not work for me at all!} died, what might we dream about? That is something that must be considered.

Must give us pause: there's the respect {COMMENT: It took me a long time to figure out the confusing passage after the semicolon. Have I got the sense right? Also, I think this is a new thought, and it should be a new sentence.} We should also give some thought to the difficulties that are associated with senior status. That makes calamity of so long life;

Do we want to experience For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, {COMMENT: This is a bit of a purple patch but I think we can keep it (although it does sound a little kinky — is that what you intended?). I think what follows is a bit long and convoluted, however, and I’ve tried to streamline.}

The snubs and condescension, oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The lack of a viable social network and the slowness of the legal system, pangs of despised love, the law's delay, Ineffective political representation and the tendency of seniors to be victimized by others, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When we could take our own life with a dagger? When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear, {COMMENT: It’s wonderful that you are trying to be poetic, but do you really expect readers to continue after encountering lines that contain terms like “bodkin” and “fardel”?}

Do we want to To grunt and sweat under a weary life’s heavy loads, Or is it But that the dread of something what comes after death — Theat undiscover'ed country from whose bourn which No traveller returns, — that troubles the will us And makes us rather prefer to bear those ills we have our current problems Rather Tthan flyprecipitate others that we know not of remain unknown?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; In effect, such reasoning is a form of cowardice {COMMENT: Is this what you meant?} And thus the native hue of resolution our natural impulse Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, constrained by overthinking the issue {COMMENT: I think you are overreaching here. I’ve tried to make your point clearer and more direct.} And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. so that important matters get forgotten in our busy daily lives {COMMENT: This seafaring conceit comes out of nowhere. It’s very distracting, so I’ve taken it out.}— Soft you now! Shhh! {COMMENT: Is Hamlet addressing himself here? If so, this could potentially be a dramatic moment. Can you make this more obvious?}

The fair Here is lovely Ophelia! {COMMENT: I take it she just walked in? This was not at all clear.} Nymph Angel, in thy orisons Be all my sins remember'd. remember me {COMMENT: I like the notion of opposing the steadying effect of religious faith with the rudderless bleakness of nihilism. Have you discussed this with Marketing?

To highlight this a little, I’ve changed “Nymph” (this pagan reference just confuses the issue) to “Angel,” and I’ve tried to wrap things up on a stronger, more hopeful note for this target audience.} in your prayers.

{COMMENT: Will, it was a pleasure to work on this. I hope you will see the point of these edits—I definitely feel the text is much clearer and stronger now! If you have any questions, let’s discuss. BTW, I know this is fiction, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but I can’t help being a little concerned about the strong suicide theme in this passage. Well, I hope I’ve done my small part. Please give me a call if you need my help. — ED.}

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