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HOW RELIABLE IS THE SWORD?
Anyone who has spent any time on source study will know that it is rarely conducive to absolute statements of unshakeable truth. What seems an obvious direct source to one scholar may seem a coincidental parallel to another. Furthermore, while some plays have been studied in great detail, others have barely been studied at all. The SWORD can be thought of as a collection of relatively authoritative judgements, but for the reasons discussed below it cannot be considered an infallible guide. Users should study the following points closely, and remember that the SWORD is best thought of as a starting point for further study, not as a final and definitive summation of the field.
The SWORD was not compiled from direct study of the plays and their sources. Instead, it was compiled from a study of available secondary sources: that is, scholarly publications on the sources of individual plays.
The SWORD lists only direct sources for the play’s narrative elements: that is, the overall plots and subplots, and the principal events and incidents. The sources of character names, individual lines, and short speeches are not listed. For example, in As You Like It, Shakespeare quotes a line from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, but the latter would not be listed in the SWORD as a source for the play.
The SWORD does not list every theory about a play’s sources. In order to make the SWORD a manageable project, a problematic but necessary shortcut was taken. For each play, only one secondary text was selected as the authority on the sources of the plays. Generally, the chosen text was a detailed scholarly edition of the play, or, if none were available, either G.E. Bentley’s or E.K. Chambers’s reference works. If more than one potential authority was available, the secondary text chosen was the most up-to-date and clear summary available. What this means is that the entry for each play reflects the conclusions of only one scholar, and thus may not express all sides of the possible debates about the sources. Users of the SWORD are encouraged to read alternative criticism where it is available.
The amount of information in the SWORD depends on the amount of scholarly research available. The SWORD is entirely reliant on the work of previous scholars. Some plays have never been subjected to a rigorous source study. Others, such as Shakespeare’s, have been analyzed in minute detail. This means that most of Shakespeare's plays have an enormous number of possible sources listed, whereas other apparently learned plays have none listed. This is an unfortunate situation, and one purpose of the SWORD is to highlight gaps in our knowledge to encourage further study.
On a happier note, the bibliographic details of the sources have been checked for accuracy. The titles, authors and dates of each source text listed have not simply been copied from a secondary reference work; wherever possible, they have been double-checked against a catalogue to ensure consistency and accuracy. All English sources were checked against the English STC catalogue, and all French sources against Alexandre Cioranescu’s Bibliographie de la Littérature Française. All Classical sources bear the titles assigned to them by the relevant Loeb edition. Sources in other languages were checked in various appropriate reference works. It is hoped that due to this checking process the SWORD is reliable and consistent in its representation of the biblographic details of the source texts, a quality that should assist users in locating them.
Within its admittedly considerable limitations, the SWORD hopes to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible. However, reports of lacunae and errors will be gratefully received by the editor (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), and will be incorporated into future revisions.
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David Nicol, Dalhousie University, 2004