While making my Much Ado About Nothing edit I …

While making my Much Ado About Nothing edit I found the line "No. An if he were I would burn my study." I thought the "An" was a typo, but it isn't. Why is there no d in the "An"? Is it a dialect thing?

I’m not going to be able to give you a clear answer on this one, but the reasons why are kind of interesting, so pardon me if I ramble.

First of all, it’s important to remember that it’s impossible to be certain we have the plays precisely as Shakespeare wrote them. Publishers generally worked from what was called a “fair copy” which, ideally, was a clean write-up of the script as performed.

And the as performed is important there. Judging by the length of some of his plays, I think it’s a safe assumption that Shakespeare sometimes over-wrote his texts, knowing that they’d have to be cut down in performance. Even if you assume actors in his time could deliver the dialogue at a faster clip (bear in mind, Shakespeare was writing for a largely illiterate audience, and illiterate people tend to be better at receiving information aurally – I don’t know WHY that is, but it’s a very good thing, or cultural transmission in preliterate cultures would have been impossible – one of the biggest differences between us and them is that we are used to receiving information visually, and they really weren’t), it still would have been impossible to stage the uncut Hamlet or Troilus and Cressida at a reasonable length without substantial cuts. (I’ve gone to enough performances at the Globe to know that there is a ceiling on how long someone can stand in one place – much longer than three hours and the audience will get restive).

So even before the printer started working on the text, it may already have been subject to serious revisions by the theatre company. And compositors didn’t have much in the way of reverence for the play texts they printed, often feeling free to make edits or improvements as they saw fit. Not only that, but they had a habit of ‘composing’ a page of text, printing out a test page and reading it for typos. Which seems like good practice, but since paper was expensive, those test pages would be used in the print run.

And that’s assuming they HAD a fair copy. Theatre companies tended to guard their play texts like buried treasure, because once a play was printed, anyone could put it on. So, if you got your hands on a hit, the last thing you wanted was for a printed copy to be made – that would undermine your monopoly on that particular text, and lose you money. (Shakespeare’s plays make up a full quarter of ALL the plays from Elizabethan London that have survived, probably for this very reason – in other words, this is why intellectual property rights are important).

However, Shakespeare was a NAME. While theatre wasn’t considered high-art (far from it), he was acknowledged as a master of the form, and his play texts sold well.

Which is why publishing house’s would sometimes rely on what was called a “memory reconstruction” – as in, get someone who knows the play to say it from memory. There’s quite a bit of academic dispute about which are the “bad quartos” for reference, the terms quarto and folio refer to the size of the printout – a quarto being roughly the size of a standard modern paperback, and a folio being in and around A4) but the best known one is probably the bad quarto of Hamlet, which includes the immortal soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
From whence no passenger euer retur’nd,
The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
But for this, the ioyfull hope of this,
Whol’d beare the scornes and flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?

I’ll spare you the rest, but it is a PAINFULLY garbled text. However, interestingly, it is also short – when read, I think it clocks in at something like two hours and forty minutes, a lot shorter than the other versions of the play. Which has led to the theory that, while the bad quarto is inaccurate word-for-word, it may come closer to reflecting what was actually performed at the Globe than the other extant texts.

And then of course there’s the question of revisions by Shakespeare himself. He definitely gave King Lear an overhaul at some point – there are two versions of the play, and the later one is a leaner, crueler version, shorn of unnecessary baggage – and it seems likely to me that he at least tweaked with Hamlet’s ending. And of course, we now know that he collaborated with other writers on at least some of his plays, though there is considerable debate in academia as to which ones. (I will say, it’s much easier to pick up on this in performance – Shakespeare’s writing has a very recognisable cadence, but it only becomes obvious when spoken aloud. I was at a performance of Pericles where the audience noticeably jolted when the shift into Shakespeare’s text).

All of which means it’s impossible to be certain as to how and why certain phrases show up in Shakespeare’s plays and whether they were the ones he intended. Inevitably, we only have access to a record which has been…distorted. (Note, while the supposed “authorship question” is offensive for many, many reasons, it’s always been very clear that its proponents don’t understand just what a free-for-all publishing during that period was – once you do know, the idea of a conspiracy to pretend Shakespeare wrote the plays becomes simply ludicrous).

Now, I did a quick bit of research, and it appears there are two extant texts for Much Ado About Nothing – the play was printed in a quarto in 1600, and then included in the First Folio in 1623. It’s generally assumed that the First Folio texts are more likely to be accurate – the folio having been produced by friends of Shakespeare, who had acted in his plays, and, as members of the King’s Men, would have had access to the texts the company used for performance. (Which is fascinating to think about – anyone who’s ever done a play knows the script ends up COVERED in notes – academics would probably sell their grannies to get a look at a working copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays).

I am not aware of any substantial differences between the two texts, but given everything I outlined above, there will be some. (Because printers used pages with errors, no two copies of the First Folio are alike – so you can safely assume there would be even larger variances between the quarto and folio texts).

So, it’s entirely possible that the “An he were, I would burn my study” is just a printer fuck-up. On balance, though, I think your suggestion, that it’s a dialect word, is more likely. (I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another such use in Shakespeare, but that’s not to say there isn’t one).

Much Ado also illustrates one of the differences between short-form drama (theatre or film) and television very neatly. Veep can introduce Dan and Amy as having sexual tension, and then leave things to simmer for, oh thirty or forty hours, before doing anything concrete, because television has endless amounts of TIME at its disposal – this is why television romances stretch things out for so long, with characters pussy-footing around their desires for far longer than seems credible. (Again, by making Dan utterly poisonous, Veep has avoided this particular problem).

But Shakespeare doesn’t have time for that nonsense. As a result Beatrice and Benedick have only THREE conversations – a lengthy opening duet which establishes the terms of their relationship, and then two quick chats, lasting only a minute or so – before declaring their love.

Of course, it’s easy for the audience to miss, because even when Beatrice and Benedick aren’t talking TO each other, they’re always talking ABOUT each other – Benedick, especially, Beatrice’s name is never out of his mouth. That there’s a mutual emotional attachment is very, very clear – a persistent, if unwilling, investment in the other’s opinion – so that even when they are ripping each other to shreds (and who does THAT sound like?) it’s obvious to the audience what’s really going on.

In other words, it’s damned efficient writing. Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is textured and deep, despite their backstory never being more than implied – and Shakespeare creates that while giving them…maybe only forty minutes of direct interaction in the play as a whole.