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 Hamlet’s Lame Creator 

October 3, 2006 
indent Bad QuartoRon 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, Today's column is "Hamlet's Lame Creator" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.which has always puzzled scholars. In short, he’s a man after my own heart.

indent Bad QuartoAlas, 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?

indent Bad QuartoThe 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:
indent Bad QuartoTo be, or not to be — ay, there’s the point:
indent Bad QuartoTo die, to sleep — is that all? Ay, all, No;
indent Bad QuartoTo sleep, to dream — ay, marry, there it goes;
indent Bad QuartoFor in that sleep of death, when we awake,
indent Bad QuartoAnd borne before an everlasting judge,
indent Bad QuartoFrom whence no passenger ever return’d,
indent Bad QuartoThe happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
It gets worse.

indent Bad QuartoIn 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.

indent Bad QuartoFor 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.

indent Bad QuartoI 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.

[Breaker quote for Hamlet's Lame Creator: Secrets of the "Bad Quarto"]indent Bad QuartoThe 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!)

indent Bad QuartoSo 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 “heavy-headed.”

indent Bad QuartoIt 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.

indent Bad QuartoMoreover, 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.”

indent Bad QuartoAnd 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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