In a previous post, I wrote about how we are using fewer and fewer hyphens these days. But going back in time does not mean returning to a hyphenated (literary) world either! Lately, I was playing around with some Renaissance manuscripts in the Bodleian library in Oxford, and discovered some curious punctuation habits (including hyphenation) by one prolific commonplace book keeper, called William Sancroft, some time archbishop of Canterbury (between 1678 and 1690).

MS Sancroft 29 is one of his commonplace books in which he excerpts literary quotations for a variety of issues and situations (such as ‘Angry and Waspish’, or ‘Lust’).

The length of quotation varies, ranging from just one line to several. How far Sancroft preserves the original quotation also depends. Since he’s excerpting for use, he’s happy to change the pieces a bit, especially the grammar, changing pronouns, and syntax, so that it becomes a little hard to find the source text through EEBO. Most of Sancroft 29 are dramatic extracts, most from Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays. Only rarely does Sancroft record in the margin where the quotations are from, which makes for some exciting detective work.

As I familiarized myself with the volume, I realized that Sancroft is careful about punctuation, using the whole array at his disposal, ranging from question and exclamation marks to brackets, dashes, apostrophes, commas, colons, semi-colons, and, yes, hyphens, too. I was curious whether Sancroft copied the original punctuation (presumably from their printed sources), or whether he changed it according to his own needs and habits. And the latter is what he did.

I stumbled across a proliferation of hyphens, and started to track down their sources. Here’s one from As You Like It, Act II, scene iv, where the two Arden shepherds Silvius and Corin are arguing about love, and how the elderly Corin cannot understand young Silvius’ pains for unrequited passion for Phoebe.

Sil. No Corin, being old, thou canst not guesse,/ Though in thy youth thou wast as true a louer/ As euer sigh’d vpon a midnight pillow:

I checked the spelling of all three first folios, and the word ‘midnight pillow’ is always separete, always two. But Sancroft writes this: ‘As true a lover, as ever sigh’d upon a midnight-pillow’ (see top line).

The lines before and after are from different plays; unsuccessful in most attempts to discover the sources, I quickly gave up, and focussed on the juicy punctuation bits.

Sancroft has at least two more instances of adding hyphens between compound words, including ‘parish-church’, and ‘wits-pedlar’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The most delightful example, though, remains the outsized ‘Dort-what-d’ye-call’ from an unidentified play (see line 5 from the bottom up).

This is a lovely example of hyper-hyphenation which I unfortunately cannot read very well…Dort? I don’t know. Always the sixteenth-century secretary-hand-er. Italic is just too young for me! I particularly love this example, though. It feels so modern. Like when we say ‘what’s-his-name’.

In my previous post, I briefly spoke about the difference that this little horizontal line between two words makes: it links them in a little visual and cognitive burst in a way that a blank space simply can’t. There’s some crucial reason why two particular words are being connected like that, and it’s up to us to find that out. It’s not just a pillow, but a pillow for sleeplessness, but not just that, it’s for that particular insomnia coming in the middle of the night, when it’s neither yesterday nor tomorrow, and we’re locked in the fuzzy transitional zone of ambiguity. That’s when we lie on that pillow, that midnight-pillow. 

The hyphen makes a metaphor legible.

Sancroft, in his punctuation choices, intuits meaning, and increases its perceptible nature by adding that little belt of a hyphen. Of course, Shakespeare might have included a hyphen in his manuscript, and the lack of it is a personal choice of the type-setter’s taste, or the practicalities of printing. Of course, Sancroft might not have worked from the folios. But he can’t have used the quartos, at least not for As You Like It, because none existed. He might have worked from manuscript texts with their own punctuation, borrowed them from someone else, and just copied that, but one assumes he worked from the printed texts, since he did bequeath his enormous book collection of 6.000 volumes to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. And in any case, Sancroft was quite cavalier with the “correctness” of the original quotations, re-jigging words as he pleased, so why painstakingly keep the punctuation from someone else for something he was going to change anyway?

No, Bishop Sancroft chose to add hyphens, and although it might seem a small matter, it’s actually a big one: adding punctuation is not incidental, and not accidental. It’s a statement. It’s appropriating a text, words, some else’s words, and doing something to those words, and those meanings. Adding punctuation is literary criticism right there.

For more on the Sancroft manuscripts, see Laura Estill, Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century Manuscripts (Lanham, 2015).

[Last updated 28 August 2022]

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