We get asked this a lot and the answer may seem simple, but can sometimes be complicated to understand. So I put together a sample comparison between a few editions and some key points to consider.
Paper books gave us a durable medium which has lasted for centuries. It’s a fixed size, from small to large, and fits into a pocket or a bag. In Shakespeare’s day, this portability factor was key to making literature accessible to the masses.
In 2014, we have truly gone beyond the traditional paper book with eBooks and the Internet. Text no longer takes the form of a fixed layout on a page of predetermined size. Web pages flow continuously and you scroll to read. If you’re reading the NY Times on your computer, the pages and text flow will look different when viewed on your mobile phone or tablet device. Instead of content being predetermined by the author or publisher, it’s adapting to the context where it’s being displayed. The text may get larger when viewed on a mobile phone vs. what’s displayed on a big computer screen. If your eyes are bad, there might be a button to make the text larger, smaller, or change color to suit your preference.
Shakespeare’s texts have been studied in great detail over the years and a handy way to reference specific lines in each scene is by line numbers. This works great, but as publishers, editors, and scholars developed their own editions, line numbers varied due to editorial decisions—some editors preferred the quarto version over the folio version or vice-versa. This caused line numbers to be off by sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.
When Shakespeare’s text became electronic, line numbering became problematic because blank verse has defined line breaks, but prose doesn’t. This didn’t matter so much when we had print books because the columns were laid out by the book designer and prose line numbers could be adjusted to match a previous or alternate edition. But when the columns are different widths (or when there are no predefined columns at all), prose line numbers can be completely inconsistent.
If the plays were written entirely in blank verse, complete with hard line breaks for each line, the problem of prose line numbers wouldn’t exist. But that’s not the case. There are only five plays that are 100% verse:
- Edward 3
- Henry 6.1
- Henry 6.3
- King John
- Richard 2
There are five plays that are mostly verse with a small percentage of prose:
- Antony & Cleopatra (92%)
- Julius Caesar (94%)
- Macbeth (92%)
- Titus Andronicus (98%)
- Two Noble Kinsmen (95%)
And there are no plays that are 100% prose—Merry Wives of Windsor (87%) is the highest followed by Much Ado About Nothing (72%) and Twelfth Night (61%).
The spreadsheet below shows the line counts for Hamlet (72% verse) across a variety of editions, including the edition on this website the same edition used in our Shakespeare app.
As you can see, differences in print editions can vary by up to a few hundred lines. When it comes to digital editions, that variance can be even more depending on the screen size of the device (and font size) you’re using to view the texts because of how prose text reflows and editorial differences. The PlayShakespeare.com and Shakespeare app editions are identical, but they will reflow differently by as much as 100 lines over the course of a play. Plays with more prose will have more variance than plays with less. The 28% prose within Hamlet means the play could have large variance.
In my opinion, line numbers should never be dogmatic. Actors and directors rehearsing a modern play today would never use line numbers to find their place in the text (they estimate or navigate by act/scene numbers or page numbers). So I’ve always taken the tack that line numbers are a guide to get the reader in the ballpark, if not the exact line. If the line number is used in rehearsal, discussion, or study, its accompanied by a note or comment of some kind to give context.
So the next time someone insists that all editions are alike when it comes to line numbering, you can tell them that’s not at all true. Even the same edition viewed on multiple digital devices will also be different.