Take Heart: Shakespeare’s Drafts Were Pretty Damn Rough


After learning of his father’s early death, Prince Hamlet of Denmark wallows in despair. He contemplates ending his own life, and from those pain-racked lips falls one of the most quoted monologues ever uttered:

To be, or not to be; that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—No more.

From the mind of Shakespeare, to his pen, to the words before you, Hamlet’s soliloquy is among the finest ever crafted by the great Bard. Or was it? There is another version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the earliest printed version, that is somewhat less refined in the philosophizing of the crown prince. “To be, or not to be, Aye there’s the point, / To Die, to sleepe, is that all? Aye all.” These yokelish lines belong to a version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that, for a hundred years, scholars called the “bad” quarto.

Single plays were most often printed in quarto format, meaning four pages to each side of a sheet of paper. In Elizabethan England, these quartos were roughly the dimensions of a cheap square paperback book. What made some of these particular quartos “bad” was how rough they were in comparison to later versions of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s like when someone says this is a “bad casserole.” You do not eat that casserole. It will make you puke your guts out. For almost two centuries, scholars felt the same way about “bad” Hamlet.

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But what if the “bad quarto” isn’t really that bad? What if that quarto is just an earlier version of Hamlet? Or what if Shakespeare, arguably the most important writer in English literature, wasn’t really as good as we remember him today? And what if the Bard’s reputation was shaped, in part, by the people who memorialized him in print?

For two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, scholars had no idea that an earlier version of Hamlet even existed. Then, in 1823, a man with the very English-sounding name of Sir Henry Bunbury stumbled across a copy at his Barton Hall estate, in Suffolk. He would later document this amazing find as a footnote to a memoir he was writing about someone else: “the edition of 1603, the only copy of which, known to be in existence, was found by me in a closet, 1823.” Bunbury writes this so nonchalantly that it would appear as if English closets were routinely the sites of astonishing discoveries. (Behind this closet door, a land of mythical creatures led by a talking lion. Behind this one, we keep a boy wizard. Behind that door, a previously unknown work of Shakespeare that will turn the literary world on its head.) Sir Henry Bunbury sold the collection to the booksellers Payne and Foss for £180; they quickly turned around and sold it “at a tidy profit” to a friend of Charles Dickens.

Thirty years later, a second “bad quarto” was discovered—likely hidden for so long because it was missing its title page—and sold to a bookstore in Dublin. Shockingly, the bookseller, M. W. Rooney, had a hard time selling this book at first. Since it was an incomplete copy, he was ignored by the British Museum, which considered his asking price too high. Yet this was literally one of the only known copies of the earliest Hamlet! Some of us would saw off our own pinky fingers just for a chance to hold the thing. Sure enough, a presumably repentant British Museum did end up purchasing the quarto through a private collector (for more than Rooney had initially offered it).

These two copies are all that have survived of the earliest-known printing of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The discovery of the 1603 Hamlet and several other “bad quartos” (including such well-known plays as Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and yes, even Romeo and Juliet) forced the world to face the very real possibility that Shakespeare may not have been as great as we remember him. Some scholars have spent their entire lives debating these points, fighting among themselves to explain how Shakespeare became Shakespeare.

To descend into the world of Shakespearean scholarship is to descend into a particular species of madness. Factions with names such as the Disintegrationists, the New Bibliographers, and the Revisionists rise like Elizabethan houses to duel one another with collating machines and proof sheets and watermark catalogues. They lob insults at one another: “Bardolator” (bard + idolatry) and “Bardoclast” (bard + iconoclasm). Diving into the nerdy carnage in their wake tests the mettle of any researcher, and at a certain point, you’d rather take a poisoned rapier to the heart than read one more goddamn textual criticism. But if you take anything away from the labyrinth of that scholarship, it should be this: what you think you know about Shakespeare may not be so.

Was Shakespeare the best-selling playwright of his time? Yes. Could just putting his name on a title page sell books, even if they weren’t his? Absolutely. Was Shakespeare an insightful storyteller whose writing ranged from the sublime (“Duke Orsino: If music be the food of love, play on . . .”) to your garden-variety smut jokes (“Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother. / Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother”)? No doubt. But when we look at Shakespeare’s plays today, we simply cannot ignore that, on some level, centuries of editing have fine-tuned and honed what we know as the Works of William Shakespeare. The man who wrote these works was a real person whose fallibility and roughness has been smoothed out over time. Yet, stripping away that polished veneer is a worthwhile endeavor. Only by discarding the dust of our reverence do we get a clearer picture of the brilliant writer remembered by the world as William Shakespeare.

Now, not all scholars have agreed on this point. The struggle to keep Shakespeare on his pedestal has influenced how editors have presented his plays to generations of readers who were happily ignorant of the warfare raging behind the scenes. As scholar R. B. McKerrow summarized in 1933, “if an editor likes a reading, that reading is (a) good, and (b) attributable to Shakespeare.”

It was more than just editors, though. Books are not a direct line from the minds of authors to their readers. Many people along the way have their hands in that cookie jar, and Shakespeare was no exception. Publishers, printers, typesetters, and even the actors and playhouses before them—all had an effect on Shakespeare’s plays. Almost all the changes they made to his work occurred without Shakespeare’s participation or after he was already dead. So how do we determine what an “authentic” Shakespeare play would have looked like?

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Let’s take a minute and consider the famous 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. In the 1720s, Pope edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays that paid special attention to the earliest printed texts, following a “historically based editorial practice.” For instance, he took pains to compare different editions of the same play. This seems obvious today, but in that period it was a notable change in editorial philosophy. As an example, one of the reasons the fourth collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays (the Fourth Folio) survives more than any other is due to 17th-century buyers assuming it was the most up-to-date and therefore the most accurate. This mind-set prompted folks who owned earlier editions to start tossing them out after they had purchased the new one . . . a physically painful realization for any historian or collector. To twist the knife even further, the first collected edition of Shakespeare, the First Folio, today sells for between $4 million and $6 million; copies of the Fourth Folio sell for around $200,000 to $250,000.

Pope may have been the first to look back to the earliest printed Shakespeare texts, but even he wasn’t above tweaking the Bard. He would revise Shakespeare’s verse when it seemed to show metrical errors, and occasionally “update” the text for contemporary readers, removing verses or wording he didn’t like. He moved about 1,500 “degraded” Shakespeare lines to the footnotes, when he kept them at all.

Pope’s edition was viciously attacked by the scholar and translator Lewis Theobald in a 1726 work called Shakespeare Restored: or, a Specimen of the many Errors, as well committed, as unamended, by Mr. Pope in his late Edition of this Poet. Designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the True Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever yet publish’d. The criticisms in this snappy little title range from petty interpretations to major misunderstandings of Shakespeare’s work. Mostly, Theobald took issue with Pope “refining” Shakespeare’s style into what was trendy in the 18th century. In response, Pope made Theobald the dull, maligned chief of the dunces in his new poem, “The Dunciad.” This attack in verse is one of the crowning achievements of an era celebrated for its satirical bitterness. One scholar calls “The Dunciad” “the greatest work in English literature to which Shakespearean controversy has given birth.”

Writing one of the great works of verse of your era, however, doesn’t save you from legitimate criticism. After the dismal sales of Pope’s Shakespeare, his publisher turned traitor and chose Theobald, of all people, to edit their next edition of the Bard. Ouch. Of course Theobald had his own issues with Shakespeare. “There are very few pages in Shakespeare,” he wrote, “upon which some suspicions of depravity do not reasonably arise.” This cycle of suspicion is probably the single unifying link between the major editors of Shakespeare across hundreds of years. They all agree that the play texts are suspect, even if they can’t agree on anything else.

Surprisingly, the one person who appears to have been the most blasé about the interpretations of his plays is the man himself. Outside of possible rewrites (one of the many proffered explanations for the existence of earlier “bad quartos”), there is no direct evidence that Shakespeare was concerned with how his plays would be remembered.

This wouldn’t have been out of place for the time. Plays were usually sold to a theater team at a price of around six to eight pounds. Shakespeare worked with the Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men in 1603. He could sometimes offer revisions to his plays, but the troupe itself was free to make changes to the text as they saw fit. It’s a bit like authors selling their book rights to a film production company. Once sold off, the adaptation belongs to the company. It can do whatever it wants with it. It can make it way better than the original (as in the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather), or it can murder it and bury it quietly in the backyard (like James Franco’s 2013 As I Lay Dying).

Shakespeare wrote plays for the same company in which he was acting, so he likely retained some influence on the texts. Yet other people, including very powerful Elizabethan figures, made their influence known as well. After leaving Shakespeare’s pen, his work would have been perused by the Master of the Revels. If the title isn’t obvious enough, this actual member of the royal household was in charge of all royal festivities. He was also in charge of censoring plays to make sure “nothing too seditious or blasphemous was played on the stage.” Luckily, both for English audiences and for every eighth-grade literature class, thinly veiled references to lady parts were considered neither seditious nor blasphemous. (Reading a letter from his employer in The Twelfth Night, Malvolio says, “By my life, this is my lady’s / hand. These be her very c’s, her u’s, and [’n’] her t’s.”) At a time when the word nothing was a euphemism for vagina (no-thing), Much Ado About Nothing isn’t even trying anymore.

After the Master of the Revels granted his approval, a play could be altered to fit the needs of a particular theatrical troupe or performance. With its focus on action and plain language, one past theory of the Hamlet “bad quarto” suggests the play is an abridged traveling version used by the King’s Men.

As the play texts passed from actors to private investors to publishers and printers, changes were unavoidably made along the way. One particularly grievous theory of the “bad quartos” involves memorial reconstruction. Rather than making changes to a play text in front of him, memorial reconstruction involves an actor from a troupe, one with a bit part, reconstructing the play from memory, writing it all down, and selling it to a publisher. Thomas Heywood, a poet and playwright contemporary to Shakespeare, observed, “some of my plays have (unknown to me, and without any of my direction) accidentally come into the printer’s hands, and, [have become] therefore, so corrupt and mangled (copied only by ear).” However, it is questionable just how widespread memorial reconstruction was in Elizabethan England for drama.

The only instance of Shakespeare seemingly exhibiting displeasure comes to us secondhand, from the previously mentioned Thomas Heywood, but it wasn’t even about his plays. In 1599 a printer named William Jaggard published a collection of poems entitled The Passionate Pilgrim, attributing the entire thing to “W. Shakespeare.” As it turns out, only five short poems in the 120-page octavo had actually been penned by Shakespeare, and the Bard wasn’t too happy about this little advertising scheme. “The author [Shakespeare] I know [was] much offended with [W.] Jaggard (that altogether unknown to him) presumed to make so bold with his name.”

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But here’s the thing: it wasn’t just Jaggard. Shakespeare’s name was big business, even while he was alive and kicking. No other playwright with the initials W.S. “was deemed worthy of publication” between 1590 and 1616, yet a number of play texts found their way to market with just those initials. Shakespeare scholar Lukas Erne borrows from Romeo and Juliet to make the point “What’s in a name? . . . money. [And] a name to make money with was ‘Shakespeare.’”

Scholars have been inclined to believe that disapproval from Shakespeare worked when it came to The Passionate Pilgrim because in the 1612 edition, Jaggard removed Shakespeare’s name from the title page. This dispute with Jaggard concerned Shakespeare’s poems, however, a much more respected literary medium at the time. When it came to his plays, we have no documentation for how Shakespeare felt.

It might best suit our purposes to avoid the black hole of time and hope that is Shakespearean textual criticism and focus instead on how the history of print influenced what we know of the famed playwright. That Shakespeare is one of the most important writers who ever lived is not exaggeration. That his plays have had a profound impact on four hundred years of Western civilization is beyond question. All this notwithstanding, it’s just a fact of history that we still don’t “know Shakespeare” (a little tip of the hat to the master of the double entendre). “Any tale that scholars tell about these plays must on some level be a story about how little we know, or our story will not be true,” observes Shakespeare scholar James J. Marino.

We might start with Shakespeare’s name. There are 83 variants. Not too surprising in a time before “the dictionary” or “standard spelling.” More important, we have six autographs that have been directly attributed to the Bard. The spellings range from “Shakspeare,” to “Shakspere” to even “Shakspe” and “Shak sp.” The common thread here is the notable absence of the letter e after the k in any of his signatures. So how did “Shakspeare,” which our spellcheck is highlighting angrily, become “Shakespeare,” which irritates exactly no spellchecks? The answer is the printing press.

When typesetting Shakespeare’s name, specifically in italics, the k and the antiquated long s (ſ ) overlapped. Under the mechanical pressures of the printing press, the two letters tended to chip or break. In order to resolve this issue, compositors slapped an e between the letters, a typesetting practice called kerning. “Shak-” became “Shake-,” the k’s and ſ ’s were saved, and the great Bard was condemned to have his name misspelled by everyone everywhere for the rest of time.

Both the inevitable processes of printing and the equally inevitable mistakes of compositors have had an impact on how we read Shakespeare, and we don’t even realize it. As book historian Roger Stoddard famously put it, “Whatever they may do, authors do not write books. Books are not written at all. They are manufactured.” This process of manufacturing leaves its own marks.

When planning the printing of a particular volume, printers had to estimate just how much text would fit on each page, a practice called casting off. If these calculations weren’t accurate, the compositor was faced with a real problem, since he couldn’t just hit Backspace and magically reformat the document. In these cases compositors might cram more text onto the page, or simply cut lines.

There’s even the (remote) possibility that some lines were added to plays to pad out a block of text that was too short. As one scholar put it, “The worst-case scenario is that the compositor might feel compelled to add the odd word, phrase, or clause to fill out a speech and get it into a new line. The prospect of Shakespeare’s quartos containing material ‘written’ by a compositor trying to fill out a page fills bibliographers with horror.”

While the practicalities of casting off wouldn’t have had a huge impact on our interpretation of Shakespeare, typesetting mistakes certainly have. In Richard II, Sir Stephen Scroop approaches King Richard to inform him of how deep the rebellion against him runs. “White beares have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie.” Apparently King Richard was so despised that even the follically challenged wild animals of England were reaching for their swords—or the typesetter’s hand slipped into the e box of type, which sat next to the box of d’s. After all, “White beards [old men] have armed their thin and hairless scalps against you” makes a whole lot more sense.

For years, people were confused about a seemingly nonsensical list of questions found in a speech in The Merchant of Venice—until it was realized that the compositor had just run out of periods and substituted question marks in their place. That doesn’t change the meaning at all, does it./?

In the middle of King Lear, “Edmond,” an illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, gets a name change to “Bastard” in the stage directions and speech prefixes. Entire studies have been written on the significance of this appellation, as if the change showed that “his ‘bastard’ birth shaped and defined Edmond’s true self.” Or it’s entirely possible that the capital E, which was in heavy demand in a play text with frequent Enters and Exits, was sidestepped by calling [E]dmond “the Bastard,” a move that had no significance whatsoever outside the printing shop.

So the history of print mangled Shakespeare a bit here and there, but it made up for it by immortalizing him to the ages. Single quartos were printed sporadically throughout his career as a playwright, but the first attempt to gather his plays into a printed “collection” of great Elizabethan dramas took place in 1619, three years after his death. And who better to print those plays than the object of Shakespeare’s one recorded resentment: William Jaggard.

From Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History, by Rebecca Romney and J. P. Romney. Copyright © 2017 by Rebecca Romney and J. P. Romney. Reproduced with the permission of Harper.

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