The Alexandrian

The Shakespeare Wars - Ron RosenbaumI’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 Shakespeare’s works.

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 excerpt from Chapter Two of The Shakespeare Wars:

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.”

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 early 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 that could be different (without any indication that they should be different), you’ve turned all Shakespeare into a scholastic mad lib.


I think there’s also something perverse about looking for problems where none exist when there are plenty 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 reinvented it?

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 “sullied”.

(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 it online.)

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 edition; or

(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.

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One Response to “The Shakespeare Wars: Thus Diest Common Sense”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    jan murray
    Just begun the Shakespeare Wars. Thought-provoking. Recently picked up an 1895 Globe Edition, The Works of Shakespeare, compiled by the boys at Trinity College, Cambridge, including a Reverend Jephson. Talk about ‘bowdlerizing’ the text. Oh those quaint Victorians!
    Act ll, Sc l of Romeo & Juiet: Mercutio’s bawdy speech, “Now will he sit under a meddlar tree…”
    Comes the part where he laughs, “…Romeo, Romeo that she were an open-arse and thou a popperin pear…” reads “…that she were an open et caetera, thou a popperin pear..”
    Saturday, February 06, 2010, 1:36:28 AM

    Steve Roth
    Oh and to add: actors have the luxury that editors don’t: pronounce it halfway in between.
    Wednesday, November 18, 2009, 7:40:13 PM

    Steve Roth
    I really like to believe (just a fond notion, but still) that S fully intended all the textual confusion surrounding Hamlet–it completely supports, embodies, and amplifies the whole theme *and practice* of uncertain knowledge, ambiguity, and multiple, rich, interrelated meanings that so imbue the play.

    So, is it sullied, sallied, or solid?


    By the way, on Hamletworks you’ll find 26 pages of single-spaced commentary on this line, with comments spanning centuries…

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009, 7:39:16 PM

    A couple of more thoughts on mural/moral.

    –Compressing time but following sequence, R&J wind up in bed together after the “wall”–and their “moralls”– are down.
    –In the Elizabethan dialect (as much as can be determined as to how it sounded) mural and morall would have sounded very much alike.
    –The Latin word for wall is “murus”. Shakespeare would have known this; as would many of the audience members, Latin being a staple of the grade school education at the time.

    –Both hard evidence references we have use a word beginning with the letter M; in this case, I tend to lean toward the Folio version, given all the clues.

    As well as seriously overdoing things, as you have so well noted, scholars also have a tendency to sometimes condescend to the ILL-Literate. Folgers does it in their annotations religiously. I think it’s what’s happening in this isolated example in the case of the Oxford edition. ( in effect, they eliminate a footnote, or a trip to their dictionary; which is where I got the Latin word for wall–not connected to Midsommer at all)
    Midsommer followed on the heels of Romeo & Juliet. The idea that Shakespeare was playing at some tongue in cheek and aping himself –and other poet/playwrights –on how NOT to write dramatic poetry in general and domestic tragedy specifically–is evident in the poetic structure, alliteration, rhyme, punctuation, acting, etc., in The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Piramus and Thisby…it all sucks– intentionally– Big Time. Members of the Court (hence WS) consistently comment on the structure, puns, execution, etc.
    Poor Harold Jenkins–the lengths some will go to in order to be “memorialized” along with Shakespeare –he’s clearly wrong.
    Friday, September 04, 2009, 9:57:50 AM

    I agree–choose what makes the most sense via the amount of proof available.

    Regarding “mural”/morall
    There’s so much downright and out there bawdiness in many of the lines in the Wall segment.
    And you know, one of Pope’s intents was, pre-Bowdler-like, to “clean up” the offensive references from Shakespeare’s work. It’s possible that the word morall was originally intended as a double entendre, meaning that the ‘mural’ (ref. to what is on the wall, hence the wall itself) which prevented the two lovers from any sexual contact, had been removed, hence the ‘moralls’ of the two were also ‘down’. Theretofore they could only kiss through the hole–or miss, and kiss the wall’s “hole”-or the wall’s “stones” (ie. testicles) both allusions clear as glass in the text.
    It could be that Pope chose the less offensive reference in an attempt to diffuse the literal power of rest of the allusions.
    –Although I shudder at the thought of anyone thinking I might be defending anything of what Pope thought about or did with the text–he had no respect for the idea that the material in front of him was theatrical, viewing much of what was on any page of any version as the crass attempts of a lowly actor – this might be a possibility. ?
    Thursday, September 03, 2009, 12:25:31 AM

    When our community theatre did Hamlet a few years back, our edition had it as “sullied” but we figured it (or “sallied”) both worked as puns on “solid”, and that it was meant to work that way.

    Agreed on The Shakespeare Wars–though I found its chapter on Harold Bloom to be a nice moderating influence on some of Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human–talk about hermetic knots of erudite noodling…
    Tuesday, September 01, 2009, 7:26:23 AM

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