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The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare
Eric RasmussenEric Rasmussen


The typesetters in the printing shop were the agents directly responsible for setting Shakespeare's manuscripts into type; they were also among the earliest interpreters and editors of these texts. Compositors often introduced changes in spelling and punctuation, and sometimes made substantive emendations as well. According to Joseph Moxon's 17th-century treatise on the art of printing, the compositor could be expected to ‘read his copy with consideration; so that he may get himself into the meaning of the author’. Thus enlightened, the compositor would be able to ‘discern … where the author has been deficient’ and ‘amend’ his copy accordingly.

Charlton Hinman's monumental analysis of The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963) identified five compositors at work on that text (Compositors A, B, C, D, and E) by their individual spelling preferences; subsequent investigators have refined Hinman's findings and detected the presence of at least four more workmen (Compositors F, H, I, and J). Once particular compositors have been identified and their individual stints have been established, textual scholars are able to characterize each compositor's working habits. Compositor E, for instance, appears to have been an inexperienced workman prone to errors such as ‘terrible woer’ for ‘treble woe’ in Hamlet 5.1.243. Compositor B, on the other hand, seems to have made intentional changes when his copy did not make sense to him, such as the alteration of the life-rendering ‘Pelican’ to ‘Politician’ in Hamlet 4.5.146.

Eric Rasmussen


Hinman, Charlton, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963)Find this resource:

    Moxon, Joseph, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683–4), ed. Herbert Davis and Harry Carter (2nd edn., 1962)Find this resource: