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The Bad Quartos: What Shakespeare Could’ve Been

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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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10 Things You Might Not Know About J.D. Salinger
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For the past few decades, if any artist has been celebrated for a slim body of work and subsequently disappeared from public view, they’ve invited comparison to Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger. The author (1919-2010) published only one novel in his lifetime, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye—but what a novel it was. A bildungsroman (coming of age) story about an aimless young man named Holden Caulfield on a mission to find himself after being expelled from a private school, The Catcher in the Rye ushered in a new era of philosophical literature, becoming a staple of classrooms across the country.

A new film about Salinger, Danny Strong's Rebel in the Rye, is once again stirring interest in the reclusive artist. If you’re a little light on Salinger trivia, check out some facts about his war experiences, his disappointing fling with Hollywood, and one curious choice of beverage.


Salinger was a restless student, attending New York University, Ursinus College, and Columbia University in succession. While taking night classes at the latter, he met Whit Burnett, a professor who also edited Story magazine. Sensing Salinger’s talent for language, Burnett encouraged him to pursue his fiction. When World War II broke out, Salinger was drafted into the Army. During his service from 1942 to 1944, he worked on chapters for what would later become The Catcher in the Rye, keeping pages on his person even when marching into battle.


Following his service, Salinger experienced what would later be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder: He was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in Nuremburg in 1945 after seeing some very bloody battles on D-Day and in Luxembourg. Writing to Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met while the latter was a war correspondent for Collier’s, he said his despondent state had been constant and he sought out help “before it got out of hand.”


Settling back in New York after the war, Salinger continued to write, contributing short stories to The New Yorker and other outlets before finishing The Catcher in the Rye. In literary circles, his name was already becoming known for insisting that editors not change a single word of his writing. When publisher Harcourt Brace agreed to publish The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger broke away from the deal after they insisted on rewrites. The untouched book was eventually released by Little, Brown and Company.


A supply of Catcher in the Rye copies by author J.D. Salinger
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Despite having published stories in The New Yorker previously, Salinger was dismayed to discover that the magazine wasn’t very supportive of his novel debut. Getting an advance copy of the book in the hopes they would run an excerpt, editors said the book's characters were “unbelievable” and declined to run any of it.


Early on, it became apparent that Salinger wasn’t going to embrace whatever celebrity The Catcher in the Rye brought to his doorstep. He insisted that Little, Brown not run an author’s photo on the book’s dust jacket and turned down any opportunities to publicize it—with one exception. After moving to New Hampshire, Salinger agreed to give an interview to a local high school paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger was later dismayed to find out an editor wound up putting it on the front page of the local paper. Annoyed and feeling betrayed, he put up a six-foot, six-inch tall fence around his property, further walling himself off from prying eyes.


Although his most celebrated work has been kept offscreen, Salinger did have a brief courtship with Hollywood. In 1948, producer Darryl Zanuck purchased the rights to one of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Released as My Foolish Heart in 1949, it earned actress Susan Hayward an Oscar nomination (plus a second one for Best Original Song). Salinger reportedly hated it.


Choosing a difficult subject to profile, author Ian Hamilton insisted on pursuing a biography of Salinger in the 1980s. Salinger was so peeved he sued Hamilton to prevent him from using excerpts of unpublished letters. A Supreme Court ruling gave him a victory, barring Hamilton from using the passages. Hamilton later wrote a book, 1988's In Search of J.D. Salinger, an account of his own legal dealings with Salinger.


By Time Inc., illustration by Robert Vickrey. Time Magazine Archive - National Portrait Gallery Collection, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Salinger’s reclusive habits made him easy prey for a litany of rumors, but some of his more intriguing habits were disclosed by his daughter, Margaret, in a memoir that described her father as speaking in tongues and occasionally sipping his own urine. That practice, called urophagia, is said to have health benefits, although no reputable studies have been able to demonstrate as much.


With its persistent interior monologues, The Catcher in the Rye might be almost unfilmable—but that hasn’t stopped directors as revered as Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg from trying. Throughout his life, Salinger famously rebuffed any attempt to purchase the rights to make a film from his book, but did leave open a small possibility that it could possibly happen after he died. “It pleasures me to no end, though,” he once wrote, “to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.” (The Salinger estate has yet to disclose whether they would seek to prevent an adaptation.)


In late 2016, the Cornish Center for Cartoon Studies Residency Fellowship accepted applications for cartoonists who wished to live in a one-bedroom apartment above the garage of Salinger’s former residence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The fellowship was granted so the winner could have a place to focus and produce “exceptional work.” The CCS repeated the offer this year, with a guest due to move in on October 16. Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, is the current owner of the property.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.


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