Dr. Susan May
Dr. Susan May

In Act I, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Quince has written a play for the marriage of the king, Theseus, and is doling out parts to his group of friends.

One of the friends, Snug, asks for a certain part.

Have you the lion’s part written? Pray you, if it be,

Give it me, for I am slow of study.

“Like Snug, I feel as though I’ve been slow of study,” says Dr. Susan May with a laugh.

She’s talking about the project that’s taken her a lifetime to complete—a project so massive in scope that it’s reserved for only the oldest and most enduring pieces of literature in existence. For close to a half-century, May has been working on the New Variorum Edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of William Shakespeare’s most famous comedies.

Since its first performance in about 1596, there have been more than 60 published texts of the play—each of them slightly different. Some of the changes are minor, for example Hermia says in Act I Scene 1 to Helena in the first Quarto—one of the earliest editions of the play—“His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.” Subsequent versions have the line as “His folly, fair Helena, is none of mine.”

Other changes are more substantive. In Act III, Scene 1, early versions have Quince utter the aside “A stranger Pyramus, then ere played here,” while others have Puck say the line as he exits the stage.

A variorum edition collects all of those differences, minor and major, into one publication, and supplements it with commentary on the changes within the text. It also gathers together an immense amount of related material, especially a summary of all substantive literary criticism related to the play. The result: a huge volume that encompasses the entire history and legacy of a book or play. It’s such an ambitious undertaking that it’s generally reserved for enduring cultural touchstones like the Bible, Canterbury Tales, On the Origin of Species, and nearly every one of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

To do the job correctly takes an extraordinary amount of dedication and focus. These are projects decades in the making (the last variorum edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was published in 1895) which are referenced by Shakespearean scholars for generations to come.

May’s job for the last 50 years: try to collect, read, and summarize every known piece of literary criticism that’s been written in English, French, or German (and a few other languages) about A Midsummer Night’s Dream since it was first performed. But these pieces of criticism are not always Siskel-and-Ebert-style two thumbs up. They are intense academic analyses of the play that run the gamut—the Bard’s plays and poems have been dissected from every conceivable school of literary theory: New Historicism, Deconstructionism, Feminism, New Criticism, and of course in the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, humor.

Many of the papers are published under esoteric titles:

Equity and the Problem of Thesueus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Or, the Ancient Constitution in Ancient Athens. A Speculative Political Allegory in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dreams and Ritual Process in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Susan May has read and annotated them all.

Susan May arrived in Farmville in 1968 after earning a master’s degree from the University of Delaware, teaching three years at Hood College, and entering the graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed all work for a Ph.D. except her dissertation. She was eager to continue her teaching career while finishing her dissertation, and accepted a position at Longwood. Her dissertation advisor, Dr. Matthias Adam Shaaber, was a noted Shakespearean scholar and helped May settle on her thesis: “A History of the Criticism of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”

I’m also doing a history of the criticism of the play since 1598, and a lot of those early books and articles don’t circulate, not even on interlibrary loan, so you have to go get them.

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“That started this journey,” she said. “Dr. Shaaber, a member of the variorum oversight committee, thought I would be good at that type of work, so he recommended me to the committee as someone to work on a future variorum edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I had no idea that it was going to take this long when I started.”

One reason for her years of work: her day job as an English professor at Longwood. In 1977, May was promoted to full professor and was teaching a full load of courses, which came with fewer and fewer opportunities to read and catalogue criticism.

One semester early in the 1980s, eager to make significant headway on the project, she and the administration agreed to a reduced course load, at half-pay, so that she could pursue her scholarship.

“Back then, we were very much a teaching college with what was essentially a teacher’s college library, so I didn’t have access to the materials I needed,” she said. “I’m also doing a history of the criticism of the play since 1598, and a lot of those early books and articles don’t circulate, not even on interlibrary loan, so you have to go get them.”

That semester, she put about 15,000 miles on her car, burning up the road between Longwood and the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill.

Her schedule went something like this: Monday night Shakespeare class in Grainger Hall, then home to grade papers and pack. A Tuesday morning drive to Washington, D.C., where she’d spend the next five days plowing through an endlessly growing stack of books and papers and photocopies until she returned home Sunday, exhausted but ready to repeat the process.

In 1992-93, May took one of Longwood’s first ever sabbaticals. She drove daily to the University of Virginia’s rare books room, where she sat for hours poring over texts that she hadn’t yet seen as her citations and bibliography kept growing.

Along the way, she got help from colleagues, whom she credits as an integral part of the completion of the work. German critics, she said, are some of the most important early Shakespeare scholars and a number of their works were not available to Furness when he compiled his variorum edition, an omission May was intent on correcting.”

“Unfortunately, I haven’t traveled extensively,” she said. “But I became good friends with Dr. John Reynolds who taught German at Longwood, and he traveled to Germany each summer. Every year I would give him a list of books and articles to track down over there and he would bring Xerox copies back and help me with the translations.”

May retired from teaching in 1996 to work on the variorum edition full time, but kept the first-floor Grainger Hall office and its filing cabinet filled with hand-written and typed notes on a half-century of research. For the last 25 years, she has dutifully made her way onto campus most days to read and organize criticism. Much of that time, she was an advisor and secretary to the Faculty Senate, an institution she was instrumental in creating as a young professor.

When I read through an article for the first time, I’m often looking for anything new about the play, even if it’s crazy.

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How does one organize tens of thousands of pieces of criticism, all about the same play? And what makes the cut? After all, literary criticism has evolved into and out of different movements, each with their own perspectives.

Sometimes, it’s surprisingly easy, said May, especially with some of the more outlandish articles.

“When I read through an article for the first time, I’m often looking for anything new about the play, even if it’s crazy,” she said. “You can only go so far with the lunatic fringe. I indicate they are there, but I don’t take them too seriously.”

But most of the time, lunatic fringe aside, May catalogued each piece into different categories, given what it said about genre (pastoral, festive comedy, romantic comedy, etc.); themes and significance (power and authority, class issues, transformation, etc.); characters (the fairies, the court, the mechanicals—the latter of which includes a discussion of her old pal Snug); and technique (structure, language and style, setting and meaning).

The result is a vast summary of more than 400 years of critical interpretations of the play, studded with citations that are often centuries apart. One early critic, Samuel Pepys, wrote in his diary in 1662:

“To the Kings’s Theatre, where we saw Misummer nights dreame, which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.”

That less-than-glowing review is included alongside serious discussions of subjects like gender and class. Gail Kern Paster, former editor of Shakespeare Quarterly magazine, wrote in 1999 of Queen Hippolyta’s relationship with the weaver Nick Bottom:

“The image, with its fairy gloss removed, is that of a ruling-class woman aggressively wooing a passive, bewildered lower-class man and finding him surpassingly beautiful. It is a love that manipulates not only customary hierarchies of gender and class but customary notions of bodily grace and beauty, the dignity of human form…”

Vast might even be an understatement. May’s criticism section of the variorum edition is 170,000 words long—more than double the length of the average novel. The bibliography alone runs several hundred pages, longer than a beach-read thriller.

It just feels good to know that people will use this for years. It’s totally worth the work.

Dr. Susan May

It’s taken a half-century to see her work published, but the result is a piece of work that will long outlive her.

“The variorum edition is for anyone who is curious about Shakespeare,” she said. “It doesn’t just have to be a scholar. It could be used by a student or an armchair Shakespeare enthusiast. It could be for a director who’s looking for ideas who references the section on stage history. It could be for someone who’s interested in 16th century music who references the section about the music in the play. It just feels good to know that people will use this for years. It’s totally worth the work.”

No one would blame her if A Midsummer Night’s Dream were not her favorite Shakespearean play. In fact, it’s not, and it never has been, but she has never grown tired of the Bard’s insight into humanity.

“Shakespeare has an understanding and an insight into basic human nature that’s still with us,” said May. “There’s a universality to the themes and concepts in his plays that we can all connect with.”

Most variorum editions of Shakespeare’s plays are now published in open-access electronic form rather than large printed volumes. The uncorrected beta version of New Variorum Edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be found here: https://newvariorumshakespeare.org/edition/mnd/

Read May’s summary of criticism about the play here: https://newvariorumshakespeare.org/appendix/mnd/#paratext-6376bcce38a1667972bca5aa

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