Did Shakespeare revise his plays?

We should all revise our work.  And we shouldn’t spend too much time feeling sorry for ourselves because Shakespeare didn’t have to revise his work.  His plays, we are told, are all inspired first drafts.  At least, that’s what Heminge and Condell said in their “Epistle to the Great Variety of Readers” of the First Folio:

His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.

This has become part of the enduring image of Shakespeare — so supreme a genius that he he didn’t even have to labor over his masterpieces, like Mozart interrupting a game of billiards to jot down a movement in a string quartet. And, of course, this image is always paired with Ben Jonson’s envious comment:

“The Players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, ‘would he had blotted a thousand.'”

There was only one Shakespeare, and we’re not him.  And neither was Ben Jonson.

This image is under attack from modern critics.  Here is Stephen Greenblatt, interrupting his writing of The Swerve to write in the Wall Street Journal:

A number of Shakespeare’s plays survive in both the small quarto editions, inexpensively published during his lifetime, and in the first folio. Comparing versions of the same play, I and other scholars have concluded that many of the differences are probably due to Shakespeare’s own obsessive fiddling.

The Quarto

A particularly significant amount of fiddling occurred in King Lear, where there are extensive changes between the quarto edition and the First Folio.  As a result, some modern editions include both versions, instead of presenting a single edition that conflates both versions.  The Arden edition I own is of the conflated school.  It uses F and Q superscripts to indicate words that are only found in one version or the other.  Lear’s final line in the play, spoken over the dead body of Cordelia, appears only in the folio version:

Do you see this?  Look on her; look, her lips,
Look there, look there!   He dies.

Does he die joyfully, thinking Cordelia is really alive?  What was Shakespeare up to when he added the line?  Who knows?

Of course, there is no real evidence of revision, just of differences.  Maybe both the quarto and the folio are simply different versions of a lost original manuscript.  Maybe some of the differences are due to lines that were added by actors during rehearsals.  Greenblatt and others are convinced that Shakespeare fiddled, but that’s based on interpretation, not evidence.  The next generation of scholars may come up with some other interpretation — or decide that Heminge and Condell knew what they were talking about.

Still, it’s nice to think that Shakespeare was like the rest of us, adding words and taking them out and moving them around, trying to achieve some kind of perfection that is always just out of our reach.

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One thought on “Did Shakespeare revise his plays?

  1. Pingback: Great Expectations and sad endings | richard bowker

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