SCRIBES & PROMPTERS: SHAKESPEARE’S FIRST EDITORS
Who were Ralph Crane and Edward Knight and why should we care?
Did the edition of Shakespeare’s play that you are studying morph lovingly from his quill pen to the text you are holding in front of you on the subway? Not really. In Elizabethan times, a working draft of a play was called a “foul copy.” Once completed in its embryonic form by a scribbling poet, it would be transformed by a scribe or multiple scribes into a “fair copy” which would be used to provide a prompt book. A prompter would stand backstage and use this to cue entrances, exits, sound cues, etc. Historians differ as to who was more important in the editing process, but at least one scribe and one prompter are well known to scholars of the First Folio.
RALPH CRANE was a scribe for Shakespeare’s company (the King’s Men). He is known to have transcribed the Folio version of The Tempest and probably four other manuscripts in the book. A poet himself, he was highly regarded as a scrivener. Although he did not work exclusively for the Shakespearean troupe, he obviously had close ties with the company since it was he who transcribed Richard Burbage’s last will and testament. He has been labeled by many as “Shakespeare’s first editor.”
EDWARD KNIGHT was a prompter for the company and is known to have been responsible for maintaining and annotating the company's scripts, adding stage directions and making certain that the scripts conformed to the standards set by the Master of the Revels (the royal censor). The prompter was also something of a stage manager. It is argued by the prominent Shakespearean scholar, W.W. Greg, that it was Knight who did the actual proofreading of the First Folio. History records one other prompter for the company, THOMAS VINCENT, although history records almost nothing more than his name.
Although it was Shakespeare’s fellow actors (John Heminges and Henry Condell) who supervised the compilation and process of editing, they certainly depended on others for such an endeavor. It took months to complete the printing of the book (probably between February 1622 and November 1623), and during this process typesetters were also editing as they found errors. As a result, at least 134 of the 900 pages have discrepancies in existing copies of the original Folio. In the four centuries since, modern editors have used various techniques to standardize spelling and clarify the true text, many combining elements of the Folio and earlier quarto versions. The punctuation varies, and at times the text is at odds with other versions.
Is there a lesson for the modern actor in all of this? I believe there is. Find an edition that you are comfortable working from. Absorb the words and make them your own, just as you would in any other script. Pay attention to punctuation, but if it stands in your way discard it and move on. Punctuation was just as arbitrary as spelling in the time of Shakespeare. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It may not have been the Bard’s comma or semicolon after all.