Friday, February 22, 2008

a funny story

Because there has been ENTIRELY too much doom-and-gloom on this blog lately:

First papers in the Shakespeare class are due on Monday. It's a pretty standard close-reading assignment: pick a speech of at least ten lines, make an argument about how the language works and why the speech is thematically important, no sources allowed except the OED. A student, one of the best in the class, stopped by this morning with a draft that she wanted me to look at. Awesome. She picked Puck's epilogue from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and she's making quite a sophisticated argument about the layers of illusion and reality in this play, and how the audience fits into this equation. Doubly awesome.

Then I hit the paragraph about the line "And Robin shall restore amends." She's making the claim that the word "amends" could refer to singing in Shakespeare's day. And, of course, because she really is a fabulous student, she spins this out into a complicated bit of analysis about music and harmony.

"Really?" I said. "I've never heard of this meaning for 'amends'."

"That's what it said in the OED."

So I go to the library web page and look it up in the online OED.

"Uh, Laura*? That stands for 'singular'."

"Oh no! There goes my whole paragraph!"

(By way of comforting her, I told her about the time we read The Bloody Brother, in Malone Society facsimile edition, in one of my graduate seminars. I became fascinated by a Richard III-esque scene in which the title character, having killed his brother and usurped his throne, forces the crowds to acclaim him.

"How great a prince is this?" says one of the bystanders. Question mark.

"How just?" Question mark.

"How gentle?" Question mark.

So, of course, I wrote a page or three about Subversive Punctuation and The Popular Voice in The Bloody Brother, and gave an energetic report on the topic in seminar. A week or two later, I was browsing through the library stacks and noticed a book called Punctuation and its Dramatic Value in Shakespearean Drama. Hmm, I thought. Maybe I'd better see if there's anything useful here.

This is how I found out that question mark = exclamation point in Renaissance facsimile texts. Ah, don't you hate it when the facts get in the way of a good argument?)

*Not her real name


Liza Blake said...

I once added a paragraph doing a SUPER close reading of how the word "not" was functioning in a sentence of a novel and for some reason my reading reasoned that this
"not" was crucial to EVERYTHING. Only after I got it accepted to a journal, and that journal asked me to select a quote from the novel they could put at the top of the essay (a formatting desire of theirs) did I go back to that sentence and realized that I had in fact transcribed it incorrectly and there was not a "not" at all. I had to write a very shamefaced email giving them the quote and asking them to replace the paragraph with a new one I had worked up ...

So, yes: the truth can be mighty pesky.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Liza -- Oh, that's awful! Still, good thing you caught it before it saw print rather than after...

Bardiac said...

I remember learning that about question marks and exclamation marks, studying different editions of a play, and seeing how modern editors make choices and wondering why.