Shakespeare’s quartos


Quarto Hamlet cover 001When I studied textual criticism and palaeography at University under the legendary Peter Davison (editor of Orwell’s letters) I recall being impressed by the exceeding rarity of the original quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays. Rarer than hen’s teeth was, I believe, the phrase used. This was because the actors who used them to learn their lines in Shakespeare’s time had no reason to keep them after their acting careers had ended. Shakespeare was just another playwright, and it was only with the posthumous publication of the First Folio in 1623, when all the plays were collected together, that his true greatness began to be recognised.

These pamphlet-like quartos—often badly printed and containing countless errors—were published in small numbers and were not surprisingly badly treated by the jobbing actors who used them every day. Very few survived, hence their great rarity. Despite this, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century, when American multi-millionaires came into the market, that the first quartos began to fetch startling prices—startling, that is, for the time. Today, such treasures might bring in six figure sums. Continue reading

Hallucinations of Shakespeare

When English tourists abroad are accosted by foreigners on trains it is now more likely to be about Manchester United or Downton Abbey. According to the writer Maurice Baring, in his time it was often about Shakespeare, as in this intriguing account in his Lost Lectures (London, 1932):

Over and over again it has been my fortune to be told about English literature by foreign high-brows in trains, and to be initiated in the secrets of the literature of my country. I once met a Serbian professor who told me that he had written a book about Shakespeare. He spoke French (not Shakespeare—the Serb). Shakespeare was a well known case, he said, of self-hallucination. He knew, because he was a mind doctor. Hamlet was a well-known case of a man who thinks he sees ghosts.
“But”, I said, “the other people in the play saw the ghost.” “They caught his infection,” he said.
“But they saw it first,” I objected.
“It was Suggestion,” he said; “it often happens. The infection comes from the brain of the man who thinks he sees a ghost before he has seen the ghost, and his coming hallucination infects other brains. Shakespeare hallucinated, or he could not have described the case so accurately. All his characters hallucinated—Macbeth, King Lear, Brutus (he saw a ghost).”
I said enough things had happened to King Lear to make him go mad. “Not in that way,” he said. “Ophelia is mad; Lady Macbeth is mad; Othello is mad; Shylock is mad; Timon of Athens is very mad; Antonio is mad; Romeo is mad. The cases are all accurately described by one who has the illness himself.”
“Was Falstaff mad?” I asked.
“Falstaff,” said the doctor, “is a case of what we call metaphenomania.
He was a metaphenomaniac; he could not help altering facts and changing the facets of appearances.”
“What we call a liar?” I suggested.
The doctor said that was an unscientific way of putting it, but it was true. Then he got out.


Books in Shakespeare’s plays

Browsing Ayscough's An Index to the Remarkable Passages and Words made use of by Shakspeare ; Calculated to Point Out the Different Meanings to Which the Words are Applied (Thomas Tegg, London 1827) I checked out its dozen or so entries under 'books'. It is fairly comprehensive (Samuel Ayscough was known as 'The Prince of Indexers') but at about 500 pages is not  a 'concordance' and  its intention was somewhat different, as stated in the title. Henry IV (Part 2) seems to be the play with the most bookish references


Burn but his books. Tempest, Act 3, Scene 2.
Drown my books.  Ibid, Act 5, Scene 1.
The gentleman is not in your books. Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1, Scene 1.
Tire the hearer with a book of words. Ibid, Act 1, Scene 1.
These trees shall be my books. As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2.
I have unclasp'd to thee the book of my secret soul. Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 4.
By what time shall our book, I think be drawn. 1 Henry IV, Act 3, Scene 1.
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