Claire Bloom once told me that if I was serious about Shakespeare and acting, I must read the Shakespearean variorum. Through the variorum, she said, I could delve into the language and gain better understanding of its history and deeper meaning.
I took this advice to heart, despite the fact that I’m not an actor.
And the fact that I didn’t know what a variorum was.
And the fact that she wasn’t actually talking to me, specifically.
Yes, on rare occasions I take things celebrities say rather more personally than they were intended, such as when Sir John Gielgud gave me advice on friendship. To put your mind at ease, when I do this, I do it in a completely non-“I see you when you’re not looking,” non-“unbalanced creepy stalker” type way.
Anyway… Once Ms Bloom told me this, I immediately went in search of a “variorum,” whatever it was.
Warning: Etymology ahead!
The word “variorum” derives from the Latin phrase cum notis variorum (i.e., “with notes by various people”), and unusually for Things Etymological, a variorum is exactly that: a compilation of the subject with notes by various editors/scholars/analysts. The variorum is to literature what the Talmud is to the Torah: each page has a small section of text from the source, and the rest of the page is filled with discussions and “notes by various people,” which relate to and expand our understanding of the text.
Sounds pretty dry, doesn’t it? Yeah. I know, and that’s what I thought originally but as a lover of Shakespearean language, it was still of interest to me.
And it turns out that it’s not as dry as first thought. In fact, I have had some laugh-out-loud moments reading my variorums. You see, the “notes by various people” were not made in a vacuum; each commentator has read the commentary made by the others who came before, and some of these folks can get pretty snarky. Seriously, they get downright snide at times (albeit in a toffee-nosed, scholarly, 18th/19th century kind of way. The commentary spans hundreds of years of scholarship, some going back as far as the late 1600s, and as I read, I get a view not only into the thoughts, but the lives of academics in years gone by.
Okay, that still sounds rather dry, I suppose. I guess it’s just me.
At any rate, I love reading my variorums. Shakespeare’s language is so lush and multilayered that I know I’m missing a lot of historical context, not to mention the meaning of archaic words. The commentary definitely helps with this. At times, my opinion of how to interpret a line (or word) changes as I read the centuries-long debates these scholars have. With time, the personalities of each commentator begins to surface–this one pompous, this one reserved, this one disliking anything this other one says seemingly on principle, as if they’d met in person instead of being separated by a generation or more. As I read along, I know I won’t agree with Crandell, but will agree with Knight.
Over the years, I’ve been expanding my collection, adding a volume here and there. I prefer the old Lippincott editions but if you want to try one out, I would recommend one of the modern paperback versions of the books. Be wary, though: some of the editions out there are cheap OCR versions that are impossible to read. The best paperback editions are from Dover Publications, printed back in the ’80s, and you can get them on eBay for very little coin.