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The Bad Quartos: What Shakespeare Could’ve Been

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

It’s the best-known soliloquy in the world. Hamlet: To be or not to be! The chances are you know it already, and it’s likely that when you’re seated in the stalls of your local theater, after the stage clears and the actor playing the young prince steps into the spotlight, you’re able to mouth along with him: 

“To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point. To die, to sleep—is that all? Aye, all.”

Huh? 

For a full year, from 1603 to 1604, if you went into a bookseller’s shop in London and asked for a copy of The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to give the play its full name, you’d be given a bound copy of a text that had “Aye, there’s the point” as the totemic speech of the whole play. Today we call that edition a bad quarto, which was eventually replaced by a better good quarto, before the definitive edition of Shakespeare’s plays that we tend to read today—the first folio—was released in 1623 after his death.

What’s gone wrong? Where’s “Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”? What could the world have been like if we hadn’t been gifted Hamlet shuffling off his mortal coil?

It’s quite simple. Just as today pirates walk into cinemas around the world and record movies from the screen to sell as knock-off DVDs before a major release, so back in the 1600s unscrupulous businessmen would walk into the pit at plays and commit an equivalent act of piracy: They’d scribble down what they could remember, go back to their printing presses and put out a version cobbled together from their notes. 

If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody

How do we know that plays of the time were reconstructed from memory and issued by booksellers? Well, by a contemporary play, of course. Thomas Heywood was a friend and rival of Shakespeare, writing plays for Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences. One such play was If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, performed some time around July 1605. In the prologue to the first part, a character in the play utters the following lines: 

Your skilless tongue doth make our well-tun’d words
Jar in the Prince’s ears; and of our text
You make a wrong construction.

The key words there? “And of our text you make a wrong construction.” Heywood’s calling out a character for misconstruing his words, and directly referencing the people turning up to his plays to pirate his text. But as with all things, there are complications.

Of course, scholarship changes, and there’s no way of definitively knowing one way or the other whether a particular text is true to the one Shakespeare intended to be performed. Indeed, nowadays some scholars believe that many texts previously described as bad quartos are in fact just earlier versions of a play, and the so-called good quartos—that is, the ones taken as canon—are composites of one or more earlier versions. 

What’s in a phrase?

Romeo and Juliet is one such play where people are no longer so sure about the difference between good and bad. The supposed malignant text was first published in 1597; the good version two years later. For centuries, that was the accepted wisdom. But elements of the bad quarto have made their way into the texts in our classrooms and on our bookshelves: almost all the stage directions we see are from the 1597 quarto, which appears to have been used as an actor’s crib sheet (much abridged and paraphrased, but with the important stage movements a player would need to recall). 

Take one of Juliet’s most famous speeches: “What’s in a name?” 

The text most of us know goes as follows: 

What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

But the bad 1597 quarto is slightly shorter:

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme nor face, nor any other part ,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Your host and guide

It wasn’t just actors’ versions and audience recall that created our bad quartos: Some actors, likely in Shakespeare’s company, were responsible for some of the texts. We owe the hypothesis of memorial reconstruction being the cause of so-called bad quartos to Sir Walter Wilson Greg. In 1909, aged 34, he sat down with two versions of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor—one early quarto and the later folio edition (the terms refer to the way in which the texts were printed and bound; a folio page was 12 inches by 15 inches, a quarto 9½ inches by 12 inches). Not only did he find discrepancies between the two versions, but he felt that this version of Shakespeare’s story wasn’t dashed down by groundlings in the audience. 

Greg was sure that this quarto edition was pieced together from memory by an actor. In fact, Greg believed that he could pin down which role the actor played. To his eyes, the thespian playing the Host in the play was responsible for the bad quarto—mainly because his scenes were the fullest fleshed out. 

Canonical copies

We could well have been performing poor imitations of Shakespeare’s plays were it not for John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s friends and contemporaries. Eighteen bad copies of Shakespeare’s plays were floating around among London’s literati in the seven years after his death in 1616. Heminges and Condell wanted to change that, believing they were bringing down Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright.

So they mustered together the best and most canonical versions of his plays they could find, often direct from the source, and put them out in a 900-page folio. That folio—with a few changes, thanks to modern scholarship—forms the basis for the texts we know and love today. And we’ve got a lot to thank Heminges and Condell for. Without them we’d be quoting “To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point.”

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5 Things You Should Know About Chinua Achebe
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ABAYOMI aDESHIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Often referred to as the “father of African literature,” author Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria on this day in 1930. Though he passed away in 2013, Google is celebrating what would be his 87th birthday with a Google Doodle. Here are five things you should know about the award-winning writer.

1. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Though he was always an avid reader and began learning English at the age of eight, Chinua Achebe hadn’t always planned to become a beacon of the literary world. After studying at Nigeria’s prestigious Government College (poet Christopher Okigbo was one of his classmates), Achebe earned a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan. One year into the program he realized that writing was his true calling and switched majors, which meant giving up his scholarship. With financial help from his brother, Achebe was able to complete his studies.

2. JOYCE CARY’S MISTER JOHNSON INSPIRED HIM TO WRITE, BUT NOT IN THE WAY YOU MIGHT THINK.

While storytelling had long been a part of Achebe’s Igbo upbringing in Nigeria, that was only part of what inspired him to write. While in college, he read Mister Johnson, Irish writer Joyce Cary’s tragicomic novel about a young Nigerian clerk whose happy-go-lucky demeanor infects everyone around him. While TIME Magazine declared it the “best book ever written about Africa,” Achebe disagreed.

“My problem with Joyce Cary’s book was not simply his infuriating principal character, Johnson,” Achebe wrote in Home and Exile. “More importantly, there is a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery breaks through to poison his tale.” The book led Achebe to realize that “there is such a thing as absolute power over narrative,” and he was inspired to take control of it to tell a more realistic tale of his home.

3. HE DIDN’T THINK THAT WRITING COULD BE TAUGHT.

Though he studied writing, Achebe wasn’t all too sure that he learned much about the art in college. In an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled how the best piece of advice he had ever gotten was from one of his professors, James Welch, who told him, “We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.”

I thought that was wonderful. That was really the best education I had. I didn’t learn anything there that I really needed, except this kind of attitude. I have had to go out on my own. The English department was a very good example of what I mean. The people there would have laughed at the idea that any of us would become a writer. That didn’t really cross their minds. I remember on one occasion a departmental prize was offered. They put up a notice—write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize. I’d never written a short story before, but when I got home, I thought, Well, why not. So I wrote one and submitted it. Months passed; then finally one day there was a notice on the board announcing the result. It said that no prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard. They named me, said that my story deserved mention. Ibadan in those days was not a dance you danced with snuff in one palm. It was a dance you danced with all your body. So when Ibadan said you deserved mention, that was very high praise.

I went to the lecturer who had organized the prize and said, You said my story wasn’t really good enough but it was interesting. Now what was wrong with it? She said, Well, it’s the form. It’s the wrong form. So I said, Ah, can you tell me about this? She said, Yes, but not now. I’m going to play tennis; we’ll talk about it. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you. This went on for a whole term. Every day when I saw her, I’d say, Can we talk about form? She’d say, No, not now. We’ll talk about it later. Then at the very end she saw me and said, You know, I looked at your story again and actually there’s nothing wrong with it. So that was it! That was all I learned from the English department about writing short stories. You really have to go out on your own and do it.

4. HE WAS WARY OF MACHINES.

Though typewriters, followed by computers, were ubiquitous, Achebe preferred a “very primitive” approach. “I write with a pen,” he told The Paris Review. “A pen on paper is the ideal way for me. I am not really very comfortable with machines; I never learned to type very well. Whenever I try to do anything on a typewriter, it’s like having this machine between me and the words; what comes out is not quite what would come out if I were scribbling. For one thing, I don’t like to see mistakes on the typewriter. I like a perfect script. On the typewriter I will sometimes leave a phrase that is not right, not what I want, simply because to change it would be a bit messy. So when I look at all this … I am a preindustrial man.”

5. HIS DEBUT NOVEL REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TAUGHT PIECES OF AFRICAN LITERATURE.

Achebe’s status as the “father of African literature” is no joke, and it’s largely due to his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book—which follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion—has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies and has been translated into 50 different languages. Even today, nearly 60 years after its original publication, it remains one of the most taught and dissected novels about Africa.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
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Brad Barket/Getty Images

Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

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