Tag Archives: punctuation

Punctuation: something or nothing?

Note to self: October and November are apparently not good months for blogging.

I hope that this post is a prelude (or possibly a pre-emptive epilogue?) to another piece I want to write soon. But in the meantime, I bring you possibly excessive thoughts on a punctuation mark.

(If nothing else, I am discovering through this blog that I have far more feelings about punctuation than I thought.)

As I was thinking recently about Edgar’s soliloquy in King Lear, I happened to use the Norton Shakespeare to look up the speech, since it was closest to hand at the time. I’ve taught from the Norton before, but never before noticed the punctuation of the last two lines, when Edgar finalizes his decision to disguise himself as a madman to escape detection by his father’s men:

…Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!

That’s something yet! Edgar I nothing am. (2.3.20-1)

It was the exclamation mark after “That’s something yet” that actually caught my attention: I’ve written a little bit about Edgar’s soliloquy in the past, and didn’t remember seeing that particular punctuation mark in the other editions I’ve used. On further exploration, it turns out that this exclamation mark has been introduced by the editors of the Norton, and only in the conflated version of Lear; the Norton also includes side-by-side texts of the First Quarto (1608) and Folio (1623) texts, both of which render the last line as “That’s something yet. Edgar I nothing am” (Scene 7, line 182 [Q1] / 2.2.178 [F]). (Edgar’s soliloquy is generally presented as a scene on its own, 2.3, in conflated editions of the play.)

That made me wonder what the punctuation looked like in the original First Quarto and Folio texts. So away I to the University of Victoria’s Internet Shakespeare Editions, where I discovered that Q1 has

…poore Turlygod, poore Tom,

That’s something yet, Edgar I nothing am. (lines 1271-2)

whereas F has

 …poore Turlygod, poore Tom,

That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am. (lines 1271-2)

A comma and a colon—but no periods or exclamation marks in sight. According to David Crystal in Think on My Words, exclamation marks are scarce on the ground in sixteenth-century texts anyway, since they only start to come into use in English texts in the 1590s (72). And of course, the punctuation in the original editions shouldn’t be taken as “Shakespeare’s own punctuation”; all we can really say is that it reflects the usage of the time. Nor do I think that original punctuation is necessarily better for modern readers: we use punctuation differently (and more frequently) now than would have been the case in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so it makes sense that modern editors update punctuation to help modern readers understand the sense of what’s being said.

Still, what’s interesting here is that in all three of its texts, the Norton’s punctuation suggests a more concrete distinction between the first and second utterances in Edgar’s final line than might be assumed from the original punctuation. And I think that does have implications for interpretation and performance. Exclaiming “That’s something yet!” (either as an exclamation on its own, or following the exclamations of “Poor Turlygod!” and “poor Tom!”: the various Norton texts differ here as well) just feels completely different from simply saying it—and simply saying it seems to offer us more ways of saying it than does the exclamation. Is Edgar determined? Breathless? Thoughtful? Disheartened? The exclamation mark rules out some of the line’s possibilities, I think: it’s such an intense little mark, not suited to hesitance.

Logically speaking, too, the Norton’s period or exclamation mark suggests something very different about the relationship of the clauses to each other. The period and the exclamation mark both mark out the end of a sentence; “That’s something yet” and “Edgar I nothing am” are separate, sharply divided utterances, and the emphasis falls on the latter. (This is in keeping with the scholarly emphasis on “nothing” in this play.) But the Q1 and F comma and colon (cards on the table: I prefer the colon) keep  these statements as two sides of the same utterance, part of a balanced thought: the “something” just as important as the “nothing,” both still dependent on each other for meaning. I gravitate toward the original punctuation here, for this line, precisely because it keeps more “somethings” in play.



1.  Here’s what Manfred Görlach has to say about the development of the colon in the early modern period: it “originally was a mark indicating a pause of medium length, but which developed into an indicator of text coherence expressing logically consecutive or adversative relations (‘therefore’; ‘on the other hand’). This change is clearly related to the introduction of the semicolon (or comma-colon) from 1580-90, which more or less assumed the syntactical function of the earlier colon, that of separating two closely connected main clauses.” (Introduction to Early Modern English [Cambridge UP], p. 58)

2. On the different difficulties that editors and actors face when dealing with early modern punctuation, see Janelle Jenstad, Peter Lichtenfels, and Lynne Magnusson, “Text and voice,” in Shakespeare, Language, and the Stage, eds. Lynette Hunter and Peter Lichtenfels (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2005), pp. 10-37.