This coming March, I'm participating in a seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Meeting called "Teaching Textual Studies in/through Shakespeare," organized by Sarah Neville and Brett Hirsch. I considered writing about one of the assignments I designed for my Shakespeare course last term—making a quarto or adopt-a-book. I thought writing about one or both at some length would give me occasion to reflect on what worked well and what I would need to tweak if I were to use them again. Both assignments were attempts to teach early modern textual histories at an institution with special collections that skew sharply post-1900, so I considered discussing these assignments in that context, as well.
But then I remembered a conversation I had with a few people on Twitter last year (c June) about whether and when printed books—specifically early modern playbooks and modern editions of them—instruct readers on how to use particular page design features to scaffold their encounters with the text. The conversation was sparked by an instructional note at the front of the Faber & Faber edition of Nick Payne's Constellations (2012), which reminded me of perhaps the most notable early modern example. The 1676 quarto of Hamlet includes a note on A2v (pictured above) informing readers that double inverted commas marked lines that were left out of a recent production. Like a few other such notes I've found in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century playbooks, this one anticipates the possibility that readers might misread the inverted commas. After all, these marks had only ever been used in playbooks as commonplace markers (for more on this, see Lesser & Stallybrass), so without the note, readers might have misinterpreted the marked lines in the 1676 Hamlet as matter fit for extraction, not as lines omitted from performance.
On the whole, I have found such instructions to be exceptionally rare both in early modern printed plays and in modern editions to the point where the practical and conceptual work of typography (broadly conceived as everything that constitutes the design and appearance of printed matter) passes unnoticed. Why is this the case? Well, it seems to me after looking at 1,300+ printed plays that typography is, in and of itself, instructional. The plan I have for my SAA paper now, then, is to write about this "invisible" work of typography in cultivating—and, further, enhancing—play-reading practices (and here I would include actors as readers). In other words: typography is/as pedagogy.
Modern editions of Shakespeare almost always note the editors' "modernization" of the text, which typically refers to the regularization of spelling and punctuation, from rhetorical to grammatical. Such notes almost never explain the "modernization" of typographic conventions (the addition of non-grammatical punctuation or scene divisions, for instance), even though those conventions could affect meaning. As the students in my Shakespeare course last term noted, the editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions silently deploy long dashes regularly to signal not only interruption but mid-speech changes in addressee, including asides. Using dashes serves as an efficient way of registering this non-lexical business in the FSL editions, as it bypasses the need for lengthier descriptions. It didn't take long for my students to realize this and start using this typographic shorthand to visualize the interpersonal dynamics of certain conversations.
In an early modern context (and as I've written about elsewhere), the printers of early vernacular drama in England drew on readerly facility with rubricated manuscripts and incunabula. They knew that readers knew that pilcrows signaled new units of text and, as such, used these special characters at the start of every new speech to articulate textually the dialogic quality of interludes and morality plays to begin with.
I'm only barely scratching the surface here and am therefore grateful to have an excuse to pursue more examples in the month ahead as I draft my SAA paper. I have a running list of typographical features that instruct and books that feature notes that draw attention to these features. Hopefully I'll share that list here, or somewhere more formal, at some stage, so if you know of any early modern (or not) examples of playbooks (or other books) that include instructions for reading features of their page designs, I'd love to know about them.