For centuries scholars have generally accepted the notion that William Shakespeare "never blotted out a line," a claim made by the actors in his company, according to Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Jonson.
Now comes a new edition of Shakespeare's works from the Oxford University Press based on the assumption that the Bard, like most modern-day directors nursing a play through production, excised lines, added lines and made other changes in his original scripts. These second thoughts account for the different versions of the same play, the theory goes.
Since the 18th Century, editors of Shakespeare's works have combined disparate texts, believing they were intended to be one complete play. However, the aim of Oxford University Press editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor was to separate the differing versions of the texts again and give readers what they assume to be the revised theatrical versions as they were performed in Shakespeare's time.
The result is the recently published "William Shakespeare: The Complete Works" (Oxford University Press, $45), a handsome volume weighing about 10 pounds and creating a stir among scholars.
There are some striking differences between this edition and more conventional ones. It includes two versions of "King Lear." "Hamlet" has been trimmed about 230 lines. The fat, cowardly knight, Falstaff, is called Oldcastle in "Henry IV, Part 1."
According to Wells, Oldcastle was the original, but censors forced Shakespeare to change it when an influential family objected to its ancestor's name being attached to such a farcical character.
In the new edition's "Macbeth," the witches sing incantations in two scenes not found in the traditional text. The episodes "turn 'Macbeth' into a musical comedy," commented a disapproving George Walton Williams, a Shakespeare professor at Duke University, and one of the critics of the new work.
Other characters have undergone name changes and some play titles have been altered in the new edition. The plays have less punctuation and more stage direction. The book also includes the controversial "new" poem, a long-overlooked work uncovered last year by Taylor during his research. Many scholars question the authenticity of the 90-line poem "Shall I Die?" and all consider it bad poetry.
The book "has its shock features, which are attracting attention," Wells admitted. "We haven't re-written Shakespeare, but we have thought hard about the text. We've tried to think afresh about the plays. Our edition places a greater emphasis on the theatrical than is custom."
For instance, he explained, the book minimizes the act and scene divisions by printing them in small numbers in the margins. "Most of Shakespeare's plays were originally acted without any intervals, without any actual scene breaks. We've attempted to reflect the theatrical experience."
Wells, 57, a gray-bearded man with a lined face and bright blue eyes, has supervised graduate studies in Shakespeare for 15 years at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, written articles and books on the works and edited three of the plays for Penguin Press.
The Oxford University Press gave him complete freedom in editing and compiling the "Complete Works." He hired Taylor, a bright young American scholar then in his 20s, whose work Wells saw and liked when Taylor was a Shakespeare student at Cambridge. (Taylor, 33, is now teaching at the Catholic University of America in Washington.) Wells later brought on two more whiz-kid Shakespeareans who were also in their 20s when the project began, American William Montgomery, now 33, who was a graduate student at the Shakespeare Institute, and Englishman John Jowett, also 33, who was doing graduate work at Liverpool University.
Working full-time, the project took eight years and cost $1.7 million. It is the first Oxford University Press edition of Shakespeare's works since 1891.
Though some of the work was done by computers, the editors spent much of their time poring over the originals or facsimiles of the canon in Oxford University's Bodleian library and painstakingly hand-editing printouts.
A major problem with editing Shakespeare is that only about half of his plays were published during his lifetime, singly in thin books called quartos, and none of his manuscripts survive. There was little incentive to publish, Wells said, because copyright laws were ineffective and a printed play could be performed by rival acting companies.
"Shakespeare felt that plays really only existed in the theater," he added. "Performance was publication as far as he was concerned. He didn't think of them as poems to be read but as scripts to be realized in performance."
Seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1616, two trusted members of his drama company published the plays in what is known as the Folio.
"The compilers of the Folio didn't just reprint the quartos that already existed," Wells said. "They usually compared the quarto with another text, presumably a theatrical manuscript, so there are many important differences between the plays as printed in quarto and the Folio text of those same plays."
"Hamlet" is even more complicated by the fact that there is a third printed version, probably a pirated text based on two or three actors in minor roles writing down what they could remember of the play for profit, Wells said. Scholars term such garbled results "bad" quartos.
Wells based his editing of "Hamlet" on the Folio text, which he believes reflects Shakespeare's revision for the stage. "The Folio leaves out about 230 lines that are in the quarto, so we felt that it would be wrong to stick those back in because we believe that these are lines that Shakespeare cut because he thought the play was a better acting play without them."
Excised passages are printed at the end of each play for people who wish to read them.
Other scholars have considered the theory that Shakespeare revised his plays, Wells said, "But we're the first to act on it."
At odds with the revisionist theory is Duke University's George Walton Williams, who has taught the works since 1957 and has edited some of the plays. "There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare himself made these changes," he said. "It is my opinion that it is not what Shakespeare would have liked, that the changes were made after his death."
However, Williams and other experts welcome the Oxford editors' double versions of "King Lear." Substantial differences in the two texts and research in the last decade have weakened the anti-revisionist stance on that play. "There is sufficient evidence that Shakespeare did review 'Lear,' " Williams said. Citing differences in the opening scene that affect interpretation, Dean Mace, a Shakespeare professor on leave from Vassar College, agreed, "it was very wise to give two texts of 'Lear.' "
The traditional composite version has "distorted the integrity" of each, Wells wrote in his introduction to "King Lear." He lists several significant variations--the assignment of passages to different characters, the absence of Lear's mock trial of his daughters in one text, distinct war sequences and a more anguished death for Lear in the Folio--that affect the structure and story line of the play.
Another weighty argument concerns the unwieldy size of the book. "I read 'Lear' while lying in bed and the next day I had a sore stomach," Mace quipped. "The book is physically hopeless for the undergraduate market," Williams charged. "It's too heavy and unhelpful."
There is also widespread criticism of the lack of textual notes and explanatory material, which many professors regard as essential for students.
The editors are preparing a textual companion, and an original spelling edition will go on sale this month.
In the absence of textual notes to justify and explain the editorial decisions, some scholars are withholding final judgment of the edition.
Wells is steadfast in defending the radical edition. Fishing a letter from a stack of papers, he read an encouraging line from a supporter that reflects his view: "When the dust settles, it will be recognized for the scholarly text it is."