The Reactionary Utopian
                     October 3, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     Ron Rosenbaum, author of THE SHAKESPEARE WARS 
(Random House), is a fanatical pedant. He's the kind of 
guy who does back flips over the republication of a 
short, obscure, mutilated version of HAMLET -- the 1603 
"Bad Quarto," as it is called, which has always puzzled 
scholars. In short, he's a man after my own heart.

     Alas, his delightful and learned book doesn't get 
into the most important of all the Shakespeare wars: the 
debate over who "Shakespeare" really was. He dismisses 
the whole question as "snobby," to which I can only 
reply: No it ain't. It sure as heck ain't. Who you 
callin' a snob, Rosenbaum? Moi?

     The Bad Quarto was the first version of HAMLET to 
appear in print. It appears to be a comically bad 
transcription of the play by an actor who had played a 
minor role in it and reconstructed it from memory. He 
recalled some early scenes almost perfectly, but he made 
a botch of most of the lines in other scenes. Here is how 
he remembered Hamlet's most famous soliloquy:

       To be, or not to be -- ay, there's the point:
       To die, to sleep -- is that all? Ay, all, No;
       To sleep, to dream -- ay, marry, there it goes;
       For in that sleep of death, when we awake,
       And borne before an everlasting judge,
       From whence no passenger ever return'd,
       The happy smile, and the accursed damn'd.

It gets worse.

     In the following year, 1604, another quarto was 
printed, twice as long and far more accurate, and the 
version we read is usually a conflation of this second 
quarto and the 1623 version of the famous First Folio. 
The Bad Quarto has generally been ignored by 
Shakespeare's editors. Until now.

     For a long time, some scholars believed the Bad 
Quarto was a "lost" pre-Shakespearean Hamlet play, 
referred to in 1589, 1594, and 1596. No trace of this 
supposedly lost play, by some other author, has ever been 
found, despite a long search for it. But this view 
reflected the orthodox consensus that the author was the 
Stratford man, who couldn't have written his version of 
the play, the scholars assume, before about 1600.

     I think they were half-right. But I believe the Bad 
Quarto reflects an early version of the "Shakespearean" 
play by its actual author, Edward de Vere, Earl of 
Oxford. Its plot is somewhat different from that of the 
play we know, several characters have different names 
(Polonius is "Corambis"), and it has a scene absent from 
the final version. Hamlet's mother, "Gertred" in the Bad 
Quarto, learns of her first husband's murder and promises 
to help her son take revenge.

     The title page of the Bad Quarto suggests that the 
play was written well before 1600. Far from saying that 
the play was new in 1603, it says "it hath been diverse 
times acted ... in the city of London: as also in the two 
Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and elsewhere." The 
phrase "diverse times" implies "many times," and 
"Cambridge and Oxford" and "elsewhere" surely mean that 
the play had been around for a while and was already well 
known, as other allusions of the time confirm. 
(Startlingly, it would also be performed aboard a ship 
off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607!)

     So the Bad Quarto is indeed the supposedly "lost" 
play first referred to in 1589 by Thomas Nashe, a friend 
of the Earl of Oxford. In a 1592 pamphlet, Nashe also 
echoed Hamlet's denunciation of the drunken Danes as 

     It all fits. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the Bad 
Quarto is even more important, by far, than Rosenbaum 
realizes. It tends to confirm Oxford's authorship and 
throws invaluable light on the origins and history of the 
world's most famous play. Instead of twisting the facts 
to prove the existence of a "lost" play that never did 
exist, we can simply accept the facts we have and see 
them in their proper relation at last.

     Moreover, Oxford's authorship, far from being a 
snobbish fantasy, also helps explain other Shakespearean 
mysteries, such as the puzzles of the Sonnets, which 
bewail their author's "lameness" and "disgrace." Oxford 
lived a scandalous life and in his personal letters often 
referred to himself as "lame."

     And by the way, if you know HAMLET, the Bad Quarto 
is great fun to read. It shows Hamlet's mother as you've 
never seen her.


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