The Original Spelling Argument

As I force my way through The Shakespeare Wars I come to the chapter on the original spelling argument.  It goes a little something like this — there were no rules of spelling in Shakespeare’s time, so modern editors have actually been losing a good portion of what Shakespeare meant when they ‘clean it up’.  When he spelled a word one way, he did it for a reason.  Want a simple example?  You know in Hamlet we were all taught that the line either goes “O that this too, too solid flesh” or “sullied flesh”?  And depending on which you picked, it means a different thing?  The original spelling argument suggests that Shakespeare would have spelled the word in such a way that it meant both, simultaneously.  Not only was he a genius with words, but he actually packed multiple meaning into each word. That might be oversimplified, and I’m sure the experts in the audience can correct me, but I wanted to introduce the topic for those not familiar. My first thought on the subject is that I want to go back in time and punch my ninth grade English teacher in the nose.  The same person who taught us that there were no spelling rules, and that Shakespeare’s name alone is recorded 36 different ways, went on to give us the solid/sullied lecture as if, in that case, it had to be one or the other and darnit we need to know which one in order to properly understand Shakespeare. But my second thought is – are we hoping for a bit too much, here? Remember that we have almost nothing in Shakespeare’s original hand.  There’s just no way to know for sure that a word is spelled a certain way because Shakespeare wanted to spell it that way, or because an editor did it, or because it is just coincidence.  It’s intriguing, sure – but I think it borders on religious argument, the kind with no meaningful way to advance beyond “I hope this is true, because it would be cool.” I’ll close up this post with a story.  Years ago, when I was in high school, a friend and I kept a sort of personal “quote of the day” file on the school computers (this being well before even local networks, and we kept it as a single file on a single computer).  During breaks we would take turns coming up with jokes and random silly phrases and then compare notes.  At one point he tapped me on the shoulder and showed me his latest – he’d typed in the alphabet.  “Odd,” I thought, thinking that I did not get the joke.  Then I read it again, and realized he’d left out the letter Q.  “I like it,” I told him. Years later, well after we’d graduated, we are hanging out in his basement with some other friends from school.  “Remember that list of sayings you guys used to have?” someone asked.  We’d printed it, you see, and it had circulated around the school.  Conversation then turned to remembering the various phrases.  So I told the story of how at first I though that Joe had typed in the alphabet, but how it was actually a commentary on the uselessness of the letter Q.  You don’t even realize it’s not there. Joe was in the room.  “I FORGOT THE Q?????” he asked.  Turns out it was just a typo, he really had meant to type the whole alphabet. “Oh, then, I guess my interpretation was wrong,” I said. “Actually, it shows that it was completely accurate,” Joe said.

4 thoughts on “The Original Spelling Argument

  1. That Q story is great.

    I’m a student of First Folio, so I come across spelling issues with regularity. I agree with you that we’ll never know the intention behind most of them. And I don’t think Shakespeare meant solid/sullied simultaneously.

  2. Just to throw a couple more problems in the pot:

    Accent – Shaksper spewlt like e sounded – most peple did.

    second – printin; One interestin arguwment as it dat the printid spellin ov is name is because it wasnt posible to print sum letters next to eech ovr – kai and ess for egg – so day put extrer letterss in to make it easier to print.

    So Mr Shack spur is wot was said?

  3. David Blixt says:

    Yeah, there are lots of problems with the “spelling as saying” thing, but overall I like it. An additional ‘L’ at the end of awful or beautiful and the words return to their genesis – awefull and beautyfull. And never ever forget the ecphonetic O.

  4. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t writing the plays to be read – so trying to get a double meaning from the spelling might be very difficult when you are performing it.

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