"This Punctuation is Dramatic"

Saturday, March 27, 2021


If design govern in a thing so small.

—Robert Frost, “Design” (1922)[i]


The final line of Robert Frost’s tightly wrought sonnet would have made a canny epigraph for Percy Simpson’s Shakespearian Punctuation (1911), a small (in physical size) and potent study of punctuation (primarily) in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1623).[ii] Frost’s poem, which he drafted within a year of Simpson’s book and published in revised form a decade later, meditates on whether a tiny, yet peculiar and disturbing, natural drama involving a dimpled spider, a delicate flower, and a dead moth is random or an encounter determined by a larger force (i.e., “design”). God is the implied source of this design, but that is notably never spelled out.

Simpson’s ground-breaking inquiry asks similar questions of the tiniest features of the Shakespearean text: commas, colons, semi-colons, periods, question marks, and various other “points.” Are these marks the “chaotic” result of compositors “pepper[ing] the pages promiscuously with any punctuation marks that came to hand”? (7) Or do they together reflect purposeful patterns of use—an overall system that has gone unrecognized? Until Simpson endeavored this comprehensive study of punctuation marks in the early editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, the pointing of these texts had (at best) persisted “beneath serious notice” and (at worst) been actively dismissed by editors as “inscrutable,” or as Simpson so vividly put it, “shear freak[s] in typography” that risked disturbing the natural order of the text, that is, what the author meant (8).

The convergence of a ghostly spider and a dead moth on a brittle flower invites Frost’s speaker to wonder at how such an unsettling tableau could have come to be. What untold drama lay behind it? No less is true of the punctuation marks in early Shakespeare at the time Simpson was writing. The weirdness of these minute inky impressions resisted understanding. They could not be slotted into an established system. They troubled interpretation, the story goes, because the people involved in making the texts of which they are a part troubled over them not at all.

This is where things stood in the early twentieth century with regards to early modern punctuation. Editors had long abandoned the pointing of the early editions. This attitude is best exemplified (and was no doubt influenced) by eighteenth-century editor Edward Capell’s editorial statement on punctuation in his 1768 Shakespeare edition:

[The punctuation] is so extreamly erroneous, throughout all the plays, and in every old copy, that small regard is due to it; and it becomes an editor’s duty, (instead of being influenc’d by such a punctuation, or even casting his eyes upon it) to attend closely to the meaning of what is before him, and to new-point it accordingly.... [A] very great number of passages are now first set to rights by this only, which, before, had either no sense at all, or one unsuiting the context, and unworthy the noble penner of it: but all the emendations of this sort ... are consigned to silence; some few only excepted of passages that have been much contested, and whose present adjustment might possibly be call’d in question again; these will be spoken of in some note, and a reason given for embracing them.[iii]

Capell was the first Shakespeare editor to systematically collect and collate early quartos, which meant that he was more attentive than his predecessors to the particularities of these texts. Still, he had so little time for the way the plays were punctuated in “every old copy” that he completely—and silently, except in a few notable cases—“new-pointed” the plays to make them more worthy of their “noble penner” (read: Shakespeare). Capell’s contemporary Samuel Johnson also had Shakespeare’s “integrity” in mind when he “adjust[ed] points”: “I have considered the punctuation as wholly in my power; for what could be their care of colons and commas, who corrupted words and sentences.”[iv] Why would compositors (the implied “they” of “their care”) bother with punctuation when they seemed so unconcerned with the accurate presentation of dialogue (“words and sentences”)? Apparent errors—infelicities, inconsistencies, confusions—originated in the printing house.

The preference for modernizing punctuation persisted in William George Clark and William Aldis Wright’s influential Cambridge edition of the Works (1863-66): “[O]ur punctuation is very little dependent upon the Folios and Quartos.”[v] Punctuation in the early editions, they claimed, was “random” and even “fatal to the sense” of certain lines. Because the Cambridge Shakespeare served as the basis for the widely reprinted Globe edition of the Works (1864), Clark and Wright’s punctuation, influenced by other recent editorial choices, endured for decades as the accepted “readings” of Shakespeare’s plays.

In their declaration of editorial procedures, Clark and Wright dodged the question of who was responsible for such messy pointing: “The Folio and other editions, starting with very different principles form those that guide the punctuation of this day, have acted on those principles with exceeding incorrectness.” In this formulation, the printed books themselves were figured as the agents of their own making and error. By eliding the humans who made the objects, Clark and Wright suggested that the process of book production—the contingency of moveable type printing—was to blame. (In doing so, they also absolved Shakespeare of such “exceeding incorrectness.”) Despite this confusion, they did introduce a theory that Simpson would enthusiastically take up: early modern punctuation wasn’t a total free-for-all; it was governed by principles, just not the grammatical rules that modern readers expected.

Shakespearian Punctuation is a tiny book that packed a huge punch when it was first published. It confronted the persistent editorial practice of “abandon[ing]” punctuation in the early printed texts for being “erroneous,” “random,” and “incorrect” and offered a compelling alternative explanation for the idiosyncratic uses of these marks. As Clark and Wright had implied, punctuation had changed “radically” in the three centuries since Shakespeare’s works were first published, not from a state of disorder to one more orderly but rather from what Simpson called a “rhythmical,” or rhetorical, system to a “logical,” or grammatical, one (8). While early modern pointing didn’t meet the established standards of consistency that modern editors considered a hallmark of “correct” punctuation, it still had purpose. Punctuation marks were used, Simpson argued, to “express” the shifting subtleties of spoken language (tone, cadence, rhythm, emphasis, etc.) (10).[vi]

Simpson used as his central corpus the playtexts as they appeared in the First Folio. The book provided easy access to Shakespeare’s dramatic canon. Assembling (or even consulting) copies of the earliest quartos would have taken considerably more effort. (Simpson completed the project while working as a schoolmaster in Southwark.[vii] He seems to have done the bulk of his research at the nearby British Museum, which did not have a copy of every early Shakespeare quarto, despite its otherwise robust collection.) Simpson also gathered examples from contemporary non-Shakespearean texts to “corroborate the usage of the Shakespeare texts,” that is, to demonstrate that these usages were baked into early modern printers’ general treatments of their copy. He then “marshal[ed] the evidence” into 43 categories—essentially, principles of usage that he saw guiding the placement of marks such as . , : ; ? ! — - ( ) (and so forth) in the folio and beyond (5-6, 15).

In most cases, Simpson’s view was that punctuation marks functioned as typographic proxies for effects that words on paper failed to express on their own: the “life and force” of Shakespeare’s dialogue (12). For instance, the use of a comma where modern grammatical rules would require something stronger like a semi-colon or period could articulate a “connecting link in the thought” between one independent clause and the next (§1). Here, meaning, not grammar, guided pointing. When not situated between independent clauses, non-grammatical commas could also mark pauses “to give a momentary check to the rhythm and fix attention on the words which follow”:

For neuer was a Storie of more Wo,

Then this of Iuliet, and her Romeo. (Romeo & Juliet, §6)

Commas could also mark emphasis, as in cases where they “point” instances of antithesis, such as:

When the Hurley-burley’s done,

When the Battaile’s lost, and wonne. (Macbeth, §7)

Simpson saw colons and semi-colons serving similar functions to commas: they were used to generate pauses and emphasis. But they were used in a relational manner. Semi-colons gave firmer shape to dialogue already scaffolded by the “lighter” structure created by commas. And the colon—a “stronger stop” than the other two points—was deployed to signal pauses that were nothing short of “emphatic”:

She’s beautifull; and therefore to be Wooed:

She is a Woman; therefore to be Wonne. (Henry the Sixth, Part 1, §30)


O pardon me, thou bleeding peece of Earth:

That I am meeke and gentle with these Butchers. (Julius Caesar, §31)


He will come straight:

Looke you lay home to him. (Hamlet, §31)

In Simpson’s schema, colons could also call attention to tonal shifts associated with other theatrical effects: interruption (i.e., “broken utterance”) (§32); the shift to an antithesis, afterthought, qualification, or correction (§33); and the signaling of reported speech (§34).

While the grammatical period (“full stop”) signals the end of a complete sentence, it could be used anywhere in the “rhythmical” system. It was the most forceful stop in the early modern inventory of points—and therefore the one most capable of creating emphasis and intimating typographically the cadence and delivery of speech:

The colon and semicolon served for heavier stopping in a run of commas; and on the same principle, if these had been already employed and it was necessary to mark a stronger pause, a full stop could be used even for an unfinished sentence. (§35)

Simpson cites the period after “the be all, and the end all” in Macbeth’s “If it were done” soliloquy as his perfect example of this phenomenon:

                                                         If th’Assassination

Could trammel vp the Consequence, and catch

With his surcease, Successe: that but this blow

Might be the be all, and the end all. Heere,

But heere, vpon this Banke and Schoole of time,

Wee’ld iumpe the life to come. (§35)

The period “arrests attention,” drawing focus to “the close connexion of the words ‘Heere, But heere’” that follow. Simpson is at his most excitable in his account of this single, tiny point. After the period, the monosyllabic, line-ending “Heere” “like a wave, plunges over to the line beyond, and falls in all its weight and force on the repeated word.” It is almost impossible in moments like these not to get caught up in the momentum of Simpson’s description of the power of textual minutiae to remediate the effects of the voice. He continues:

The check given to the line [by the full stop] fits in admirably with the brooding, hesitating mood of the speaker, and even the slighter pause indicated by the comma after ‘be all’ has value: it emphasizes, faintly perhaps, but unmistakably, ‘the end all’, and so helps the climax of the period. (§35)

Simpson’s analysis of this irregular, non-grammatical period, which follows ten other examples of the same usage both from Shakespeare and not from Shakespeare, is as seductive as it is viable. Indeed, so is Simpson’s broader claim that commas, semicolons, colons, and periods should be read in their local contexts: as part of a flexible system of punctuation in which each mark’s effect is dependent on the presence and particular use (or, strength) of the marks around it. It is thus a relational system of punctuation that he is describing as much as it is a rhythmical one.

Most of Shakespearian Punctuation is given over to showing how this system of four points works. However, Simpson also enumerates patterns in the usage of three other points: hyphens, question marks, and brackets (i.e., parentheses). Hyphens can indicate “where the accent falls on a compound word” (spoiler: the first syllable), and question marks often conclude “sentences purely exclamatory” before the exclamation point came into wider circulation (§37-38). Simpson’s section on brackets (the longest in the book) invites us, once again, to read for local context—places where registering a shift in tone would help clarify the dramatic scenario (§39). According to George Puttenham in The Art of English Poesie (1589) and authors of other early modern grammars and orthography manuals, parentheses subordinated material not immediately relevant to the main matter of the sentence, while at the same time drawing special attention to the texts inside these slight inky curves.[viii] For all the usages of parentheses that Simpson identifies, parentheses communicate something not just about the content of what they enclose but also about the theatricality of its delivery. In other words, these marks remediate tonal effects: they mark vocatives, exclamations, and interpolated phrases (such as “quoth s/he”); they signal qualifying expressions or afterthoughts; they emphasize adjectives or adjectival phrases tacked onto nouns; they bind compound nouns and adjectives (as hyphens would nowadays); and they articulate mid-speech interruptions and asides. Parentheses, Simpson claimed, modulate the meaning of dramatic dialogue by expressing where the voice changes register.

Part manifesto, part reference work, Simpson’s study of how punctuation was exploited to mitigate and enliven dialogue in the early printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays has often been misunderstood as a fixed taxonomy, as if the book offered rules for a rhetorical system of punctuation. But Simpson was doing something altogether more interesting: underneath the enumerative presentation of his data, he proposed a powerful heuristic for reading early punctuation. He teaches us how to read it relatively. Each mark should be read in relation both to the other marks in its general vicinity and to the idea of dramatic utterance (that is, of the particular speech or exchange in potential performance).

For the most part, the Simpson credits “printers” with the patterns of punctuation he describes. And indeed, early reviews of Shakespearian Punctuation noted this intervention (for better or worse) as one of its boldest.[ix] The book opens with a magnificent take-down of the premise that editors had long used to prop up their practice of discarding the pointing in the early printed texts in favor of modern grammatical punctuation: “[O]ld printers—printers as a class—were grossly illiterate and careless; the utmost that could be expected of them was that they should spell out their texts correctly” (7). Simpson called this theory “wild” and reckoned that anyone with “average intelligence” would be able to see “that this idea is ludicrous.” With just a few rhetorical questions, he undercuts it:

Has any scholar of standing ever made the attempt to substantiate such a charge by evidence? Is it on a priori grounds likely that printers were more ignorant than the majority of their fellow men? Could a human being endowed with reason serve an apprenticeship, work at the trade of printing all his life, and set up the type of book after book, without fathoming the inscrutable mystery of the comma and the full stop? (7-8)

Simply put, printers could read; they read for a living. This experience must have schooled them in the contemporary range of uses to which punctuation marks could be put. This logic makes it very unlikely that printers would insert “stops ... gratuitously for the fun of the thing,” or to purposely garble their copy text (8). If anything, Simpson argued, they pointed texts, as Joseph Moxon put it in a 1683 printing manual, to make them “better sympathize with the Author’s genius, and also with the capacity of the Reader.”[x] This was an unsettling claim at the time because it admitted the possibility that printers helped to make the Shakespearean text—and that their labor should be taken seriously.

Shakespearian Punctuation was not just the first ever sustained study of how punctuation worked in the early texts of Shakespeare’s plays; it was also a tour-de-force take-down of received wisdom. For this reason alone (if not for the enormity and exhaustiveness of the undertaking), it should be held up as a model of imaginative and care-filled scholarship. What remains unclear in Simpson’s overall account is whether printers knew well enough to respect the punctuation in their copy-texts (i.e., to recognize its legitimacy and workability), or whether they knew well enough to know when a text needed to be “new-pointed” to make sense to readers. Every so often, Simpson equivocates on the question of agency, referring to certain patterns of punctuation as “characteristic feature[s] of Shakespeare’s style” while still crediting printers with careful pointing (13). In this way, Simpson tacitly acknowledges that the Folio playtexts were not the messy byproducts of textual antagonism but, instead, were born from an imperfect, diachronic, and distributed agency that activated the mediating power of punctuation for drama on the page.

In Shakespearian Punctuation, Simpson urged editors to at least pause and consider this possibility. They did. John Dover Wilson’s note on punctuation at the start of his 1921 edition of The Tempest, the first volume in the New Cambridge Shakespeare series, attests to this shift:

This punctuation is dramatic, that is to say it is a question of pause, emphasis and intonation; and is quite independent of syntax.... To translate this exquisite pointing into symbols convenient to the modern eye is no easy task. We have retained as much of the original system as possible; but, inasmuch as it was non-syntactical in character, to keep it all would have tended to bewilderment and confusion. Thus we have been forced, reluctantly, to compromise....[xi]

No longer could editors automatically spurn the punctuation of their copy texts. Simpson had made sure of it. To borrow Randall McLeod’s much later borrowing of Frost, then, Simpson opened up a brave new world of editorial consideration by showing that design could “govern in a thing so small as a comma.”[xii]


[i] Robert Frost, “Design,” in American Poetry 1922: A Miscellany (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), 38.

[ii] Percy Simpson, Shakespearian Punctuation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911).

[iii] Edward Capell, introduction to Mr. William Shakespeare his Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, vol. 1 (London: J. and R. Tonson, 1768), 27-28.

[iv] Samuel Johnson, Mr. Johnson’s Preface to his Edition of Shakespear’s Plays (London: J. and R. Tonson, et al., 1765), lxiv.

[v] Clark and Wright, preface to The Works of William Shakespeare, vol. 1 (London: Macmillan and Company, 1863), xix.

[vi] This thesis has been explored and expanded in a number of subsequent studies, including Walter Ong, “The Historical Backgrounds of Elizabethan and Jacobean Punctuation Theory,” PMLA 59, no. 2 (1944): 349–60; Antony Hammond, “The Noisy Comma: Searching for the Signal in Renaissance Dramatic Texts,” in Crisis in Editing: Texts of the English Renaissance, ed. Randall McLeod (New York: AMS Press, 1994), 203–49; Anthony Graham-White, Punctuation and Its Dramatic Value in Shakespearean Drama (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1995); Linda McJannet, The Voice of Elizabethan Stage Directions: The Evolution of a Theatrical Code (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1999); William H. Sherman, “Punctuation as Configuration; or, How Many Sentences Are There in Sonnet 1?” in Shakespearean Configurations, ed. Jean-Christophe Mayer, William H. Sherman, Stuart Sillars, and Margaret Vasileiou, Early Modern Literary Studies 21 (2013); and Jowett, John. “Full Pricks and Great P’s: Spellings, Punctuation, Accidentals,” in Shakespeare and Textual Studies, eds Margaret Jane Kidnie and Sonia Massai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 317–31.

[vii] Helen Gardener and Rebecca Mills, "Simpson, Percy (1865–1962), literary scholar." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 31 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/o....

[viii] See George Puttenham, The Arte Of English Poesie (London: Richard Field, 1589), sigs. T4v-V1r.

[ix] For a positive take on printer agency, see T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, review of “Shakespearian Punctuation,” in The Times Literary Supplement 512.2 (1911): 433. For a more ambivalent take, see A. W. Pollard, review of “Shakespearian Punctuation,” in The Times Literary Supplement 511.26 (1911), 410.

[x] Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-works. Applied to the Art of Printing, vol. 2 (London: Joseph Moxon, 1683), sig. Gg4v.

[xi] John Dover Wilson, “A Note on Punctuation,” in The Tempest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), lvii.

[xii] Randall McLeod, “UN Editing Shak-speare,” Sub-Stance 10/11 (1981-2): 43.