On Bears, tongues, sining and other typos

Professor ­Tiffany Stern

It’s easy to think that the First Folio must be a well-constructed book because it is so important. Actually though, it is as subject to error and mistakes as any other book of the early modern period, perhaps more so (it is, after all, big); it is filled with blunders, and those fascinating slip-ups give us a glimpse into the habits and working practices of some of the people who put the book together.

Let’s start with typos. In Shakespeare’s time, as you can read about elsewhere on this site, books were constructedin the printing house by ‘compositors’ who stood in front of two trays or ‘cases’ filled with pieces of metal type. The top case contained capital letters (that’s why we sometimes call capitals ‘upper case letters’); the bottom one contained lower case letters plus spaces – spaces also being physical bits of type. Each letter, each piece of punctuation, and each space, had its own compartment in the tray, including ‘i’ and ‘j’ and ‘v’ and ‘u’, though at the time i/j and v/u were used interchangeably; the more popular letters, punctuation marksand spaces had the biggest boxes.

‘White Beares have arm’d their thin and hairelesse Scalps
Against thy Maiestie’

Richard II

It was the job of compositors to read manuscripts and render them into print. For this, they had their own version of ‘touch typing’; they would pick type from the compartments in the typecases in front of them by location and feel. But naturally, compositors made mistakes, just as touch typists make mistakes. The most obvious error was to take a letter from the compartment next to the one intended (the mistake might equally happen if letters from a page that had already been printed and then ‘broken up’, had had its type ‘distributed’ into a neighbouring box). In the Folio of Richard II, we are told that ‘White Beares have arm’d their thin and hairelesse Scalps / Against thy Maiestie’. It is highly unlikely, though, that balding polar bears have joined the uprising against Richard II. But another text survives of the play, from 1597, and that book tells us that it is ‘white beards’ (i.e., old men) who have, despite their age, joined the army. Probably the Folio compositor’s hand slipped into the ‘e’ box, which is next to the ‘d’ box.

‘Why in this Wooluish tongue should I stand heere’


On other occasions, compositors had difficulty reading the manuscript that they were printing; this was particularly the case with plays which contained unusual or grandiose language. In the Folio, English words are sometimes substituted for Latin or Greek ones, probably because the compositors could not make sense of the passage they were setting. So there is a moment in the Folio text of Coriolanus where the eponymous hero, unwilling to stand and humbly beg for approval, asks ‘Why in this Wooluish tongue should I stand heere’? But he is not wearing a wolf-like tongue; he is wearing a wolfish (because he is playing the hypocrite in it) toga.

‘Thou was’t a Souldier
Euen to Calues wish, not fierce and terrible’


In that same play is the bit when Coriolanus is praised for having been ‘a Souldier / Euen to Calues wish’. Calves, though, do not have an ideal model for soldiership; Cato does (Coriolanus is praised in Shakespeare’s source, North’s translation of Plutarch, for having in his nature all that ‘Cato required in a Warrior’).

‘from Eptons rising in the East,
Vntill his very downefall in the Sea’

Titus Andronicus

Finally, there is the section in Titus Andronicus where we hear about the progress of the day ‘from Eptons rising in the East, / Vntill his very downefall in the Sea’. Epton is an English surname, however, and no such person is said to traverse the sky from dawn to dusk (it’s Hyperion, a personification of the sun, who does that).

These mistakes – there are plenty of others that are similar – give us a glimpse into the moment when one or several busy compositors try to wrangle sense from an obscure, and quite possibly messy manuscript play. And, though these errors are spottable, even now their solutions are open to question: some editors have Coriolanus in the passage above in a ‘woollen’ rather than wolfish ‘gown’ rather than toga. We should remember, too, that many compositorial guesses will have slipped through entirely because they seem to make sense in context, or because they are right.

As playscripts were not generally neat and tidy – they were written for theatre use, not for a printing house – a helper was sometimes hired to read them out loud and ease the compositors’ job. That, at least, seems to be behind some of the mishearings in the Folio (though mishearing mistakes may also have come about earlier in the process: the manuscript may have been read out to a ‘transcriber’ who then wrote out the words in neat for the printers).

‘My heart was to thy Rudder tyed by’th’strings,
And thou should’st stowe me after’

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony’s ships followed Cleopatra’s because, says Antony in Folio, his heart was tied to Cleopatra’s rudder, ‘And thou should’st stowe me after’. But she did not stow him, as she did not store or hide him; instead she towed him, which is to say that she tugged his heart (and the ships that came with it) along behind her. ‘Shouldst stow’ and ‘shouldst tow’ are, though, aurally interchangeable; hence, it seems, the mistake.

‘Her Pastors Grasse with faithfull English Blood’

Richard II

In Richard II, a threat is made that blood will bedew the ‘Pastors Grasse’ of England: but it is the ‘pasture’s’ grass that will be sprinkled with blood, the passage having nothing to do with church ministers. Or there is the stage direction in Much Ado About Nothing, for the entrance of ‘dumbe Iohn’. There is no one of that name in the play; there is, though, a character called Don John. This typo in particular shows a compositor responding to the words as heard without much sense of the story.

‘Enter Prince, Pedro, Claudio, and Benedicke, and Balthasar,
or dumbe Iohn, Maskers with a drum.’

Much Ado About Nothing

Mistranscription and mishearing remind us how many people helped to put the folio together, including compositors, transcribers and readers whose names we do not know. Only occasionally can we perhaps trace an error to an actual named person. We know, for instance, that the Jaggard printing house in which the Folio was composed had a new apprentice compositor whose name was John Leason (for more on him, read the section on ‘compositors’ on this website). Are some of the more egregious errors directly traceable to Leason as he learns his trade?

‘The poore Soule sat singing, by a Sicamour tree’


A few pages within particular surviving Folios show passages corrected with proofing marks (incorrect and proofed pages were often bound into books rather than discarded, as paper and the time to print it, were expensive). One proofed page is for Othello and contains the passage in which the unhappy Desdemona sings the famous willow song. But the song starts, in this version, with Desdemona intoning ‘The poore Sonle set sining, by a Sicamour tree’. Heavy manuscript corrections are made to the third, fourth and fifth words, and later settings of the page contain the improved ‘The poore Soule sat singing, by a Sicamour tree’. Does this show young Leason at work? And was he responsible for any of the other sometimes amusing errors that have made their way through into the Folio, like the scene in Hamlet in which Laertes exclaims, at the grave of his sister Ophelia, ‘Oh terrible woer’ (rather than, as the 1604 version of the play makes clear, ‘oh, treble [i.e. three times] woe’)? We cannot know for certain, and that is what is fascinating and frustrating about the Folio. It tells stories about itself, but what they are precisely and how we should interpret them are open to question.

‘Laer. Oh terrible woer,
Fall ten times trebble, on that cursed head’


What can be said is that imperfections throughout the wonderful Folio – and there are many, many more than the ones detailed here – give us an insight into the process of putting this large book together, under time constraints, and in a highly pressured environment. Crises in and around the printing house give personality to each Folio (as every one contains pages in different states of correction) and provide us with what is ultimately a highly compositorial take on the plays of Shakespeare, (added) warts and all.

Tiffany Stern, FBA
30th December 2022

Tiffany Stern

Tiffany Stern, FBA, is Professor, Fellow and Chair of Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Author of twelve books and editions, and over sixty chapters and articles, she is general editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature (16th century), New Mermaids Plays, and the Arden Shakespeare Fourth Series.