It’s always bothered me, copyeditor that I am, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream features Theseus, mythological conquerer of the Amazons, and identifies him as the Duke of Athens, a role that did not exist until the 13th century (and was first held by a fellow named Otto).
Shakespeare would do poorly if held up to today’s standards for literary anachronism. We have a hobby of finding flaws in period shows such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Copyeditors reviewing historical fiction are expected to make sure the details of place, speech and manners match the setting.
Shakespeare’s audience didn’t seem too concerned with details of time and space. No matter what the setting, Shakespeare’s characters all seemed to act rather Elizabethan.
Saul Frampton made a compelling case last year that John Florio copyedited Shakespeare after the Bard’s death. Somebody had to handle the copyediting when the plays were put into folio form. Had Florio worried himself with anachronisms, he might have cleaned up these issues:
- In Julius Caesar, the clock strikes three, although clocks wouldn’t strike anything for another thousand years or more.
- Hamlet was a student at Wittenberg University, which was less than a century old when the play was written, despite Shakespeare setting it centuries earlier.
- Cleopatra decides to play billiards more than a thousand years before anything that resembled the game.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s light approach is why we often see modern settings for the plays. If Shakespeare could have ancient Romans wearing 14th century jackets, why shouldn’t we have a helicopter in Romeo and Juliet and bicycles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Or roller skates and tiny cars in my introduction to The Merry Wives of Windsor 28 years ago.
An aside: As copyeditors celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, it’s important to remember that Shakespeare was not born 450 years ago today. April 23, 1564, is a good guess for the date for the Bard’s birth, but we only know for sure that he was baptized on April 26. And as he was born under the Julian calendar, we need to add 10 days to translate to the Gregorian calendar (meaning we can celebrate again on May 3).