“The play's the thing...”
Letter to the Editor
Times Higher Education Supplement, 3 July 1992
Sir, – For the past 10 years I have been publishing reasons (in Encounter, Hamlet Studies, Notes and Queries, Times Literary Supplement, etc) why the so-called “Bad Quartos” represent Shakespeare’s own early versions. No rational counter-argument has ever been offered by anyone, in any forum.
No objective evidence has ever existed, conversely, for the alternative theories of “memorial reconstruction”, invented early this century. It is most heartening, therefore, to learn that three plays (The Taming of A Shrew 1594, Henry V 1600, Hamlet 1603), currently rejected as “piracies” or “corruptions” by proponents of those still fashionable fantasies, are to be reprinted in the Harvester Press series Shakespeare Originals.
But why are the Harvester editors at such pains to doubt or deny (The THES, June 26) that these are indeed Shakespearean originals? Their objection to their own title seems to derive solely from their own notion that to accept Shakespeare as a revising artist, a proposition for which there is massive documentary evidence, somehow entails the assumption of “a single absent original”. But of course it entails no such thing; let them rest easy.
Even the predictable debate among professional scholars may not be as fierce as is feared. Thus Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, in their Oxford Textual Companion (1987, 169), have already freely admitted the possibility that the very different and forgotten play A Shrew 1594 is indeed Shakespeare’s own earlier version.
The real and important debate, which the new series will make possible for the first time this century, will take place among ordinary readers. They will surely wish to know for example why any modern editorial opinion on any side of any question should take the least precedence over the words “by William Shakespeare” on the title-page of the very different and forgotten play Hamlet 1603.