Hamlets Lame Creator
Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars (Random House), is a fanatical pedant. Hes 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, hes a man after my own heart.
Alas, his delightful and learned book doesnt 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 aint. It sure as heck aint. 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 Hamlets most famous soliloquy:
To be, or not to be ay, theres the point: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 Shakespeares 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 couldnt 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. Hamlets mother, Gertred in the Bad Quarto, learns of her first husbands 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 Hamlets denunciation of the drunken Danes as heavy-headed.
It all fits. Unless Im very much mistaken, the Bad Quarto is even more important, by far, than Rosenbaum realizes. It tends to confirm Oxfords authorship and throws invaluable light on the origins and history of the worlds 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, Oxfords authorship, far from being a snobbish fantasy, also helps explain other Shakespearean mysteries, such as the puzzles of the Sonnets, which bewail their authors 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 Hamlets mother as youve never seen her.
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