Here’s the rub!
Modern Shakespeare Scholarship has little faith in punctuation in poetry and dramatic text as providing Authorial intention, in turn guiding aesthetic significance.
The reasons are that we know little or nothing about the intricacies, rituals and realities of
transmission of the text from author to playhouse,
to one or more copyists,
to the printer.
Couple that with the variables of the Printing process:
from the reason for publication,
the nature of the copy supplied to the printer,
the compositors’ setting of it,
and the possible proofreading of it.
The norms of printing in England of the 16th and 17thC are complicated and explicated by the fact that we know more of Continental European practice. Regulations existed and tell us a great deal about working practices and how they developed.
PROBLEM: No dramatic manuscript from before 1700 that served as a printer’s copy has survived. We can only infer from the printed texts and technical accounts of printing.
I treat Q1609 in rhythmical-elocutionary terms rather than syntactical-grammatical. Some scholars mock this theory. The speaking of the Sonnets themselves aloud to another person gives this material the proof.
17thC Orthography, or punctuation and spelling is treated as beneath serious notice.
The modern system is logical;
the earlier system is rhythmical.
Modern punctuation is uniform;
the earlier system is less uniform, and
flexible to the idiosyncrasy of the author.
A flexible system allowed the poet to
express subtle differences of tone in
his or her lyric voice.
Modernizers of orthography, although necessary, do sacrifice something of the life and force of the original, in this case Q1609. Seeing as the actors are long dead, understandably so.
But the writer did live and breathe as we. And once upon a time there was a first time these particular sets of 140-154 syllables were spoken.
So: was there a system of punctuation, which the printers used in Q1609? Or was the punctuation primarily the work of the author?
The Greeks had no punctuation, except a stroke to mark paragraphs. The Latins followed suit. Medieval clerical scribes were concerned with the reading aloud of the work and inflection of the voice.
Irish scribes of the 7thC brought innovations, to compensate for Latin being unlike Celtic languages. The Church adopted these graphic conventions in England.
Punctuation from the start is both oratorical and syntactical. the following are all used in the Sonnets.
The Elizabethan colon has a rhetorical value. Frances Clement, in ‘The Petie School’ 1587, calls it a middle pause in expectation of as much more to be spoken, as is already rehearsed.
In playscripts, it was used to mark a strong suspensory pause at the end of a verse line. It was also used to mark a sudden change in a speaker’s subject or attention; and to mark an exclamation or an interruption.
The semicolon was very new. Its first definition appears in a grammar book of 1634 when Charles Butler stated, ‘it continueth the tenour or tone of the voice to the last word’.
The question mark was old in its use but new in form, assuming its present shape in the 16thC.
The exclamation mark, is defined in John Hart’s ‘An Orthographie’, (1569) and the earliest English grammar, as focusing on the sound of the sentence. It remained uncommon in the 16thC.
( … )
Parentheses were in general used as they are today. Often marking subordinate clauses.
The dash is rare up until the mid 17thC.
There were overlapping functions for the punctuation marks, and consequently printers would reach for an alternate, if they had run out of the type they wanted.
The elaboration of intermediate marks in the early 17thC was more for metrical and rhetorical function than syntactical and grammatical use.
Most of the rhetoric and grammar books of the period devoted a final chapter to punctuation:
John Hart, in Orthographie, (1569) used the metaphor that punctuation is like the joints in the body.
The Arte of English Poesie, (1589) by George Puttenham recognizes the double duty, rhetorical and syntactical, of punctuation.
Thomas Heywood, in An Apology for Actors, (1612) comments that university performances teach a student to observe his commas, colons and full points, his parentheses, his breathing spaces and distinctions.
The only English Grammar written by a Playwright, Ben Jonson, published posthumously (1640), places an emphasis on breathing and punctuation as an indication when words should be stressed.
Despite no uniformity, scholars believe the majority of plays that went to the printers were foul papers. Only in the case of Shakespeare do we have both foul and fair quartos of the same play.
The Stationers Company, comprised of printers, publishers and booksellers, received a new charter in 1557 from Queen Mary and restricted Printing to London. Between 1583-1615 there were never more than about 24 master printers owning a total of 54 presses.
Scotland had its own presses and regulations. Vautrollier, Richard Field’s Master Printer, had a press in Edinburgh with rich and powerful clients through the 1587’s.
Elizabeth forbade setting up of presses outside of London in 1586, except at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. (There were also presses in Norfolk and Bristol). James 1st later limited it to 22 presses. The Stationers Company in 1587 regulated the size of editions to 1,250 copies except primers, prayer books, grammars and almanacs.
The compositors’ shoulders bore the greatest burden. The compositor was the one who actually set the type, reading from some kind of manuscript, foul or fair. Long hours of work were demanded: from 5am to 8pm was normal. In casting type he was prone to error by misreading, memorial error, eye-skip, foul case and muscular error.
Most contemporary sources tell us that the compositor was likely to change or standardize the spelling of his copy, but preserve the punctuation.
The measuring stick for arguments about responsible and irresponsible work of compositors means although the form of a word may be modernized, the number of syllables is consistently respected. Compositors did change the syllable count in prose, but generally not in verse.
The conclusion is that there is no fixed system of rules that governs punctuation in Shakespeare’s time. But can you deduce a perhaps intended import of the punctuation from internal evidence woven into the dramatic situation? Or am I fooling myself?
Needless to say I must acknowledge ‘like a bastard shame’, this post is a cobbling together of scholars past and present. Primarily I thank, amongst others, the efforts of Percy Simpson, A.C. Partridge, A.Graham White in the 20thC to Richard Mulcaster, George Puttenham, John Hart, Thomas Heywood, and Ben Jonson in the 16/17th.’