“For many people who read Shakespeare, English is literally a foreign language (because it is now the world’s most popular second language). But even if English is your mother tongue, Shakespeare’s English is an unfamiliar dialect. That’s why this edition has notes at the bottom of the page: to give definitions for the words that belong to the particular version of English that was spoken four hundred years ago in parts of a thinly-populated archipelago of islands off the western coast of Europe.”
– Gary Taylor, General Editor
Professor Sir Stanley Wells explains why footnotes in The New Oxford Shakespeare are valuable to students:
Shakespeare’s language can be difficult. Even apparently straightforward passages of prose as well as verse may hold pitfalls for the unwary reader. Acknowledging this, the footnotes to the New Oxford Shakespeare aim to offer concisely, clearly, and without condescension all the help that an intelligent English-speaking reader of today may need to understand the meaning of the words on the page.
Good notes explain things that would otherwise cause students to stumble, and they reveal levels of meaning which could otherwise simply pass them by. They answer questions which students may not even think to ask. Take Twelfth Night, for example:
Where is Illyria? [1.1.0]
What have eunuchs got to do with mutes? [1.2.58]
Should you be pleased to be called a coistrel? [1.3.33]
Why might a man be pleased to be ‘well hanged’? [1.5.4]
What does ‘Cucullus non facit monachum’ mean, and what language is it in? [1. 5. 45-6]
What did ‘willow’ symbolize? [1.5.221]
How could two characters enter through ‘several doors’? [2.2.0]
What is ‘the bed of Ware’? [3.2.36]
The notes explain words that have fallen out of the language or changed their meaning since Shakespeare’s time.
- They identify and explain classical, biblical, and geographical allusions, legal terms, and proverbial and colloquial expressions.
- They clarify difficult syntax, puns and wordplay, and identify oaths, with an indication of their intensity.
- They translate words and passages in foreign languages, identify place names, and offer help with obscurities of plotting.
- They comment helpfully on superstitions and topicalities
- They offer assistance with pronunciation, with the stressing of verse, and with linguistic register.
- They explain sexual words and allusions without undue prudery.
Undogmatic in style, the notes in The New Oxford Shakespeare allow for the possibility of alternative explanations. They say enough to help, but not so much that they obtrude. Throughout, they aim to help readers of Shakespeare both to understand and to enjoy the words before them.
Here are the footnotes quoted above
Sc. 1 1.1.0 Illyria Greek and Roman name for the Eastern Adriatic coast: probably not suggesting a real country to most of Shakespeare’s first audiences.
1.2.58 mute Eunuchs were guards in Turkish harems; mutes were subordinate to them.
1.3.33 coistrel groom, lout
1.5.4 hanged sexually endowed
1.5.45–6 Cucullus . . . monachum The cowl does not make the monk (a Latin proverb)
1.5.221 willow (emblem of rejected love)
Sc. 7 2.2.0 several separate
3.2.36 bed of Ware Famous Elizabethan bedstead, nearly eleven feet square, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.