Assays of Bias


Notes & Queries ccxxxvi, 1991, 60-63

In my article ‘Taboo, or not Taboo?'[1] I have shown that modern Hamlet editions [2-7] are chaotically contradictory. In particular the Oxford editor, G. Hibbard of Waterloo, Ontario, and his Cambridge counterpart P. Ed­wards of Liverpool stand so far apart that one or both of them must have taken a wrong turning.

     “Edwards's textual hypothesis … appeared too late to be discussed by Hibbard.” So the latter's colleagues Taylor and Wells have now explained in the Hamlet section of their Oxford Textual Companion [8] (which appeared too late to be discussed in my article). They therefore take up the cudgels on Hibbard's behalf. The fundamental error of Edwards, readers are repeatedly instructed, is to assume all his own conclusions a priori and then select his few arguments to fit them. He “arbitrarily decides” this, he “conjectures” that, he “categorically denies” or “cannot allow” the other, all because he relies upon a premise which “is itself arbitrary and implausible”.

     He is not alone. All our Hamlet editors rely upon the same arbitrary and implausible pre­mise, which the Oxford editors call a hypothesis and treat as a truth. It is the house of cards known as “memorial reconstruction”, which now lies in ruins. [9] The cause of the uncivil war declared by Oxford on Cambridge is thus a territorial dispute about the right to erect rival edifices on the same collapsed foundation. But a truly firm factual ground would have sustained the same premises and permitted their joint occupation, instead of bombardment.

     Let us therefore inspect Oxford's own entrenched position. Taylor and Wells have at last rejected Duthie's confessedly absurd 1949 fantasy [10] that King Lear Q1 was a “memorial reconstruction”. Why then do they build their own Hamlet on Duthie's exactly parallel and equally baseless fantasy [11] about that play? Because “it is now generally accepted” although in fact it is not. As the Oxford editors themselves then concede, it has “been challenged by Weiner and, more recently, Urkowitz”. It has also been challenged by many other specialist experts; [1] but they, and their sources, and all the detailed arguments from any quarter, remain entirely unmentioned. However, Taylor and Wells must take some account of Urkowitz, as their precursor [12] and collaborator [13] in dispersing the fog of “memorial reconstruction” that has obscured King Lear Q1 for most of this century. Their sole response to his breath of fresh air about Hamlet runs as follows: “Urkowitz's argument … hinges upon a wholesale rejection of the possibility of memorially reconstructed texts; we believe [sic] that the existence of such a category of texts can be demonstrated.”

     Few readers would infer that those phrases are offered as the refutation of a closely reasoned 10,000-word analysis occupying thirty pages of a scholarly source. Fewer still would realize that the accusation of bias is utterly untrue; the Urkowitz Hamlet essay [14] hinges on no such rejection. In fact the opposite applies; Urkowitz's argument does not presuppose but will cause the collapse of any remaining “memorial reconstruction” theories all along the line. [15]

     It is the Oxford editors who begin with their own beliefs as a conclusion which they then tailor their material to fit, exactly as they complain about Cambridge. Thus the preamble to their Hamlet exposition omits to mention that Q1, the so-called “memorial reconstruction by actors”, was announced on its 1603 title-page as the work of William Shakespeare. We are however informed that it suffered from an “irregularity” in being published by Nicholas Ling, “despite” the 1602 entry of Hamlet to James Roberts on the Stationers' Register. But the same Roberts and the same Ling jointly produced the second quarto in 1604; the notional chicanery and dis­sension are mere conjectures inferred from beliefs and promoted to facts.

     Further, readers are six times told that “the compositors of Q2 made use of an exemplar of Q1”, which was ex hypothesi a botched corruption. This is just one more product of precon­ception, typically advertised as “accepted” by modern opinion, although Hardin Craig [16] for example explicitly rejected it. It is also incom­patible with the Q2 title-page claim to be “the true and perfect copy”, which could not have been thus derived from the untrue and imper­fect copy. The assumption of “contamination” from Q1 via the compositors of Q2 rests solely on the need to stave off the alternative explana­tion, namely a common manuscript connection between Q1 and Q2, with the manifest inference of Shakespeare's hand in both versions.

     Throughout Academia, editors apparently feel entirely free to reject as “non-Shakespearean” any line or phrase they dislike. This prejudice is then passed off as proof of authorship by “actors”, or anyone except Shakespeare. Here, for example, is how the Oxford editors defend their bizarre belief that Hamlet Q1 was brought to birth by the actor “Marcellus”. They find its text “difficult to assign to any period of Shake­speare's — or any author's — career”. If further confirmation is required, your editors can discern no “structural or artistic pattern” in Q1's “disparities”; they find “the verbal texture” of its dialogue “evidently incongruous”.

     Yet Q1 admittedly “contains passages which could only be attributed to Shakespeare at all if they were written earlier than any of his acknowledged work”. If any explanation of any incongruity is actually needed, then here it is; what could be simpler or more obvious? No wonder the Oxford editors have an uneasy feeling that all is not well with their theory, which might benefit from a dose of actual fact. What, they muse, if the “lost”1589 Hamlet lampooned by Greene's protege Nashe had been written by the young Shakespeare, and some of its text persisted in Q1? The trickle and flood from that breached dyke would wash away the entire Oxford methodology.

     Here is how they attempt to plug the leak, with two tiny fingers of pretext duly dubbed “two serious documentary objections”. This first is this. “The only words which we possess of the lost play (‘Hamlet, revenge’) do not appear in Q1.” Here is a hope so forlorn, a defence so desperate, that a last ditch is the best place for it. Who, in a rational frame of mind, would ever rely on the absence of two words quoted by a spectator? [17] And that reliance comes especially ill from an edition which brands no fewer than 150,000 well-authenticated words as '”doubtful or collaborative” and indeed distributes some 50,000 of them among such phantasms as “Marcellus”, or “George Wilkins”.

     The second serious documentary objection, like the first, is neither serious, nor documen­tary, nor an objection. It is that no Hamlet appears in Meres's 1598 list of Shakespeare's works, although the play's existence was well known. But Meres's silence about Henry VI and The Taming of the Shrew offers no obstacle at all to their early Oxford dating, which again is determined by belief, not fact. The obvious reason for which Meres would be unaware of Shakespeare's earliest plays is helpfully offered for our information: he was, we are told, living in Oxford. For Hamlet however, and for Hamlet alone, silence counts as a serious objection.

    “This method of conclusions first, reasons afterwards”, as Housman pointed out [18] “has one obvious advantage — that you are thus quite sure of reaching the conclusion you want to reach… But it has one drawback — that unanimity is thus unobtainable; every man gives the answer which seems right in his own eyes.” Thus similar lines of thought diverge to infinity. All pragmatic approaches however, that is, those beginning with the textual and dramaturgical facts as in Urkowitz's articles, [12-15] or the historical and documentary facts as in my own, [1,9] arrive at the same answer. Thus different lines of thought converge upon the same point. In Hamlet, just as in King Lear, and hence in other multiple-text plays, Shakespeare was a revising artist. Our orthodox experts should consider rewriting their works too.


[1] E. Sams, ‘Taboo, or not Taboo?’, in Hamlet Studies, x (Summer and Winter 1988), 12-46.

[2] Hamlet, ed. Nigel Alexander, Macmillan Shakespeare, Advisory Editor, Philip Brockbank (London, 1973).

[3] Hamlet, ed. T. J. B. Spencer, New Penguin Shakespeare, General Editor, T. J. B. Spencer, Associate Editor, Stanley Wells (London, 1980).

[4] Hamlet, as at n. 2 above; Introduction by Anne Barton.

[5] Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, Arden Shakespeare, General Editors, Harold F. Brooks, Harold Jenkins, and Brian Morris (London, 1982).

[6] Hamlet, ed. Philip Edwards, New Cambridge Shake­speare, General Editor, Philip Brockbank (Cambridge, 1985).

[7] Hamlet, ed. G. R. Hibbard, Oxford Shakespeare, General Editor, Stanley Wells (Oxford, 1987).

[8] William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford ‘1987’, recte 1988): on 'memorial reconstruction', 26-8; on Hamlet, 122-3, 396-8; on Edwards (n. 6 above) and Jenkins (n. 5), 398-402.

[9] See e.g. E. Sams, ‘Shakespeare or Bottom? The Myth of “Memorial Reconstruction”’, Encounter lxxii No. 1 (January 1989), 41-5, and ‘Fatal Fallacy’, ibid., body No. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 1990).

[10] G. Duthie, Shakespeare's King Lear; A Critical Edition (Oxford, 1949), advances the theory of “memorial recon­struction” which he retracted in King Lear, ed. G. Duthie and J. D. Wilson (Cambridge, 1960), 131f.

[11] G. Duthie, The 'Bad' Quarto of Hamlet (Cambridge, 1941).

[12] S. Urkowitz, Shakespeare's Revision of King Lear (Princeton, 1980).

[13] See The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, ed. G. Taylor and M. Warren (Oxford, 1983) with contributors including S. Wells (1-22), G. Taylor (75-120, 351-468), and S. Urkowitz (23-44).

[14] S. Urkowitz, ‘”Well-sayd olde Mole”: Burying Three Hamlets in Modern Editions’, in Shakespeare Study Today, ed. G. Ziegler (1988), 37-70.

[15] See n. 12 above, and S. Urkowitz, ‘I am not made of stone’, in Renaissance and Reformation, x (1986), 79-93; ‘Reconsidering the Relationship of Quarto and Folio Texts of Richard III’, in English Literary Renaissance, xvi (1986), 442-6; ‘If I Mistake in those Foundations Which I Build Upon’, in English Literary Renaissance, xviii (1988), 2.30­56; ‘Good News about “Bad” Quartos’, in ‘Bad’ Shakespeare, ed. M. Charney (1988), 189-206.

[16] H. Craig, A New Look at Shakespeare's Quartos (New York, 1961), 75-83.

[17] T. Lodge, Wit's Miserie (London, 1594), describes a devil that “looked as pale as the vizard of the ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!

[18] A. E. Housman, Introductory Lecture, 1892 (Cambridge, 1937), 1.