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Digital Beaumont & Fletcher Pedagogy Behind the Project

The Pedagogy Behind the Project

by Claire M. L. Bourne

Digital Beaumont & Fletcher (1647) asks a deceptively simple question: What would it look like for students to prepare editions of early modern plays for use by other students?

The student-centered approach to editing at the heart of this project is predicated on the belief that students are capable of determining what they need from the texts they use in their studies. If given the right tools and training, they can do the editorial legwork required to shape a text printed in the seventeenth century to help them and their peers (in the case of undergraduates) and the students they do or will teach (in the case of graduate students) navigate the tricky verbal and non-verbal dynamics of early modern plays.

The goal of the project is not to have different groups of students apply the same predetermined set of editorial conventions to a playtext they're charged with editing but rather to see what conventions emerge when discrete groups of students engage with the various processes associated with editing early modern texts: modernization (of spelling and punctuation); naming characters (in stage directions, speech prefixes, and dialogue); adding and adjusting stage directions in order to clarify vital action and interaction; inserting (missing?) scene divisions; glossing difficult words and phrases; annotating the text to illuminate allusions, stage business, historical context, textual cruxes, etc.; and (at the graduate level) collation. Editing is an art as much as it is a science. And this organic approach to editorial conventions, however messy, invites students to dwell with impasses and confusion rather than permitting them to pass over such moments, as they might be inclined to do when reading early modern drama in modern editions. The buck stops with them.

The two plays prepared in the first phase of the project represent the outcomes of very different, experimental pedagogical approaches to collective student editing. The Sea Voyage was prepared by students in an upper-level undergraduate course (ENGL 445: Shakespeare's Contemporaries), while A Wife for a Month was prepared by students in a graduate seminar (ENGL 543: Early Modern Plays: Editorial Histories, Theories, and Practices). Below, you will find accounts of how student contributions to each edition were structured and supported. Each edition will include a set of editorial principles and notes that explains how students, in concert with members of our project team, arrived at the modernized text from the text printed in the 1647 folio.


Students in my upper-level undergraduate course on early modern drama spent the last third of the Fall 2019 semester reading, discussing, and editing The Sea Voyage, a play co-written by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger and first performed by the King's Men in 1622. Often framed as a companion play to William Shakespeare's The Tempest, The Sea Voyage tracks what happens when a group of French pirates and gallants shipwreck on a barren island and eventually come into contact with a commonwealth of alleged Amazons thriving on a neighboring fertile island. It's a compelling play to teach for all the ways it brings discourses of economics, social class, gender, race, colonialism, and politics into conversation with each other.

By the time students embarked on this substantial editorial project, they had read several early modern plays, studied the architecture of the indoor playhouses, and taken special notice of what the editors of their modern editions had done to help support their understanding of both words and action.

The assignment was broken down into six component parts that built incrementally towards each student producing a word-processing file containing all the information necessary for our graduate assistant David LeBlanc to encode their editorial vision in XML according to TEI guidelines. The parts of the assignment were:

  1. Read the play
  2. Choose a passage (approximately 200 lines) to edit
  3. Prepare the text
    1. Transcribe
    2. Paraphrase
    3. Modernize
  4. Create commentary
    1. Tag the text
    2. Add and adjust stage directions
    3. Gloss difficult words and phrases
    4. Write annotations
  5. Peer review
  6. Final edition and reflection letter

The full assignment sheet provides detailed instructions for each step.

Each passage ended up having two student editors who worked independently (except for peer review) on preparing the text and creating commentary. After students submitted their word-processing files, David then integrated student work into a single text, intervening in his role as general editor of the play where he saw fit. He explains the editorial principles that emerged from this process at the start of the edition.

Having undergraduate students edit part of a play from a text printed in the mid-seventeenth century required them to read the text more closely and take responsibility in various ways for future readers' basic comprehension and ability to interpret the play. The letters of reflection that they wrote about the editorial process at the end of the semester illustrated that paying close attention to spelling, punctuation, historical meanings of words, action implied in the dialogue, the logistics of performance, and so forth laid a strong foundation for close reading and textual analysis at the core of literary studies as a discipline.


The processes involved in student editing at the graduate level differed markedly from the design of the undergraduate editing assignment described above. The most significant difference was that graduate students were asked to edit an act of the play — A Wife for a Month — and encode their editorial interventions in XML (following TEI guidelines) as they went.

Students began the semester by acquiring a background in the histories, materials, forms, and practices of editing early modern plays by reading relevant scholarship and studying a sample set of print editions. They then took a crash course in XML and TEI and familiarized themselves with the 1647 text of A Wife for a Month, a domestic tragicomedy that examines the intersection of toxic masculinity with the abuse of political power. In each of the the six weeks that followed, students focused on one aspect of the 1647 text that required their editorial attention:

  1. Modernization; or, Spelling and Punctuation
  2. "Stage Directions"
  3. Act & Scene Divisions
  4. Character: Speech tags & Dramatis Personae
  5. Editorial Apparatus: Glossing and Annotation
  6. Copy-Specific Features (Performance Annotations)

For each week's seminar, students read a constellation of essays about editorial approaches to the week's textual feature and then each wrote a "THEORY POST" that laid out how they would prefer to handle that feature of the playtext. Students then discussed and debated various approaches until consensus formed around a shared set of conventions. These conventions will be explained in the editorial principles at the start of the edition once it is published. Based on the shared set of principles, students prepared the week's textual feature and encoded their interventions in XML for the following week. The final hour of each weekly seminar was reserved for an encoding workshop so that students could get started on this work and ask questions of John Russell, our text encoding consultant.

The full assignment sheet (including reading lists) provides details.

Four of the five acts had two student editors. Because of the individual labor involved in editing and encoding, it is our intention to publish both versions of these acts rather than conflate the work. We hope it will be interesting to see how subtle differences (especially with regards to glossing and annotation but also when it comes to modernizing punctuation and spelling) can affect the reading experience.

Overall, this model of collective editing was exciting but exceptionally labor-intensive in that it required students to edit and encode at the same time when few of them had prior experience with either. A future approach would be to have students edit their acts in word-processing software before learning how to encode their interventions. We successfully piloted this new approach with our research assistants in Summer 2020 and during the 2020-21 academic year.

Although we were hoping to publish A Wife for a Month alongside The Sea Voyage to complete the first phase of the project, workloads created by the pandemic have delayed the publication of this edition. We hope to publish by early 2022.

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