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The Bad Quartos: What Shakespeare Could’ve Been

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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.”


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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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.


"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."


"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."


"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."


"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."


"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."


"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."


"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."


"Never mistake motion for action."


"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"


"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."


"All things truly wicked start from innocence."


"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."


"Courage is grace under pressure."


"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."


"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."


"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."


"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."


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