THE SHAKESPEARE WARS:
THUS DIEST COMMON
I've recently been reading The Shakespeare Wars
by Ron Rosenbaum. The book is far from perfect (Rosenbaum has a
tendency to circle around a topic in endless repetitions and effusing
instead of explaining), but it does offer a rather nice survey of
several scholastic controversies currently swirling around
And thus, of course, it provides me with
ample opportunities to brush up against the uniquely eruditic idiocies
that only literary scholars seem capable of.
If you're looking for the really
interesting, fascinating material, then you should hunt down a copy of The Shakespeare Wars
and dig in. For an explication on the stupid stuff, just buckle your
seat belt and hang on for the ride.
I'm going to start by discussing a scholarly
emendation of a line from Hamlet.
The actual bit of dialogue being discussed is relatively minor in the
grand scope of things, but I think it serves as a more-than-adequate
example of the hubris and foolishness to be found in much of
Shakespearean textual work. (In the bigger picture, this seems almost
inevitable: Ask several thousand PhD candidates to masticate the
well-worn corpse of Shakespeare's work every single year
and you'll end up with all kinds of crazy shit being postulated by
people desperate for a thesis statement.)
Before we begin, let me lay out some
groundwork: All modern editions of Hamlet
are based on three source texts -- the Bad Quarto (Q1); the Good Quarto
(Q2); and the First Folio (F1). The first two texts were published
during Shakespeare's lifetime (although not necessarily with
Shakepeare's direct involvement) and the last was the first complete
collection of Shakespeare's plays (published after his death in 1623).
All of these editions differ from each other. (The Bad Quarto is
significantly different and is theorized to be a text reconstructed
from memory by an actor who performed in a touring production.) The
exact reasons for these differences is under debate (something I'll
touch on in a later essay), but at least some of the
differences are the result of the typesetters making mistakes. Thus,
modern editors are faced with imperfect, conflicting texts and must
figure out how to edit them in an effort ot produce a clean and
accurate version of the play.
With that in mind, let's take a look at an
except from Chapter Two of The
In 1997, when Harold Jenkins, former
Regius Professor at the University of Edinburgh and editor of a leading
scholarly edition of Shakespeare's play, went to see Kenneth Brannagh's
film version of Hamlet,
he was both excited and nervous. Sitting in his home two years later,
the ninety-year-old scholar became animated as he described to me the
anticipation he felt as the play reached the seventh scene, in the
fourth act, when Laertes, huddling with Claudius, reacts to the news
that Hamlet is back in Denmark.
It's a moment in which Jenkins had
made a crucial single-word change in his influential, encyclopedic
Arden edition of Hamlet,
and he wondered whether Branagh would adopt his emendation. "I listened
to see what was coming," Jenkins told me. "What would [Laertes] say?"
On screen the actor playing Laertes
turned to the King and told him, apropos Hamlet (who had killed
[Laertes'] father): "It warms the very sickness in my heart / That I
shall live and tell him to his teeth / 'Thus diest thou...'"
"Thus diest thou! Yes!"
the dapper, mild-mannered Jenkins exclaimed with all the fervor of a
soccer fan celebrating a goal. "He got it right. And of course it is so much more
Effective or not, Jenkins believes he
is not "improving" Shakespeare but restoring to us Shakespeare's own
long-lost word choice. In the two most substantial eearly texts of Hamlet that have
come down to us from his time -- the 1604 Quarto and the 1623 Folio
versions -- Laertes doesn't say, "Thus diest thou." He says
"Thus didst thou" in one and "Thus didest thou" in the other.
But Jenkins believes that what he has
done is recover the word Shakespeare wrote with his own hand and quill
-- before it was corrupted through carelessness in the printing house
or the playhouse.
Jenkins is wrong.
I say this for two reasons:
(1) You have only two sources of
information. They are both telling you the exact same thing. The only
possible reason to suspect that they're both lying to you is if the
resulting sentence were nonsensical. But it isn't nonsense. It
makes perfect sense. Ergo, there is no rational reason for making any
sort of change.
(2) Within the context of the play, "Thus
didst thou" is poignant and specific: Laertes is planning to kill
Hamlet the same way that Hamlet killed his father, and in that moment
of revenge he wants Hamlet to understand exactly why he's
being killed. "Thus diest thou", on the other hand, is generic. So
you're not only changing the line for no particular reason, you are
simplifying it and robbing it of its specific and dramatic content.
Now, here's the important thing: You see #2
up there? I think it's an interesting point. But it's also completely
irrelevant. Whether I think "didst" is more interesting than "diest" is
meaningless when it comes to making reasonable corrections to the
text of Hamlet.
It's just as irrelevant as Jenkins' opinion that "diest" is "much more
effective" than "didst".
And let's be clear: It's certainly possible that
Shakespeare wrote "Thus diest thou". But by the same token it's just as
likely that he wrote "Why didst thou". Once you go looking for words
be different (without any indication that they should be
different), you've turned all Shakespeare into a scholastic mad lib.
MOONS AND MURALS
I think there's also something perverse
about looking for problems where none exist when there are plent of
places in Shakespeare's works where we have actual problems... some of
them without any clear solution.
In Act 5, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream
there is a play-within-a-play. During that play, the character of Wall
exits the stage and one of the audience members says, "Now is the mural
down between the two neighbors."
Or, at least, that's what it says in many
modern editions of the play.
But we have only two primary sources for A Midsummer Night's Dream:
The First Folio (1623) and a quarto edition (1600).
The 1600 Quarto reads: "Now is the Moon used
between the two neighbors."
The 1623 First Folio reads: "Now is the
morall downe between the two neighbors."
These lines don't make any sense. Clearly
something is wrong. In 1725, Alexander Pope -- the first English poet
to make a living from sales of his published work -- produced an
authoritative edition of Shakespeare's plays. In that edition, he
created the emendation "mural down".
But using the word "mural" to mean "wall"
was something that Pope made up out of wholecloth. (In many
dictionaries you will, in fact, find the origin of this definition
cited to A Midsummer
Night's Dream.) But what are the odds that Shakespeare
made up a word, the typesetters screwed it up, and then Alexander Pope
Many modern editions (including, for
example, the Oxford edition) instead render this line as: "Now is the
wall down between the two neighbors." In doing so, they are imitating a
line Bottom has later in the scene, when he says, "No, I assure you,
the wall is down that parted their fathers." Is that right? I
dunno. It certainly sounds more plausible to me than "mural". On the
other hand, it has a significant influence on Bottom's line -- so if it
isn't right, the impact is felt beyond this single line.
Here's another fun one. Pretty much everyone
is familiar with Hamlet's famous soliloquy which begins, "O that this
too, too solid flesh would melt..."
At the moment, however, there's a
significant debate about this line because Q2 reads: "O that this too
too sallied flesh would melt..."
But here's the weird part: The argument
isn't that "sallied" is the correct word (although the image it
conjures forth of sallying forth to defend a besieged location is
interesting, particularly since Hamlet immediately goes on to equate
the situation to God turning a "cannon 'gainst self-slaughter"...
although you'll also find the word "cannon" changed to "canon" in many
modern editions). Instead, the argument is that the word should be
(You may find a few references online
claiming that "sullied" comes from Q1. As far as I can tell, this is
not true. Q1 also uses the word "sallied", and you can see
What's the truth here? Well, given
a choice between either:
(a) Picking one version of the text and then
using it exactly as it appears; or
(b) Picking one version of the text and then
emending it to something else
I think (a) is the better bet if you're
looking to play the odds. On the other hand, given a choice between:
(a) Picking a word which appears in one good
(b) Emending a word found in one good
edition and also used in a bad edition
I think the question becomes a bit hazier.
I'm sticking with "solid" for now... but I
could be wrong.