Jan/Feb 2001 Miscellaneous

The Bard Tries to Get It Right

by Gary Sloan

Shakespeare has long been hailed an inspired genius, a gifted soul for whom writing was as easy as breathing. His theatrical colleagues boasted he never blotted a line. Mellifluous words poured from his pen as nectar from an Olympian chalice.

Now, from Stratford-on-Avon, comes news sure to set the literati on their collective ear. A remarkable find is here reported for the first time.

Flourish of trumpets, please. Or, if you prefer, strumpets.

Three pages from an autograph manuscript of Hamlet were found wadded in a tankard near the former site of a Stratford tavern. Never before had any "foul papers," as scholars call the original drafts of the Bard's plays, been found. This foul is fair.

Here is a descriptio externa of the pages.

They contain ninety-five lines of text. Every line, except the last, has been struck out, as have words scrawled between the lines (interlineations) and in the margins. The third page has a large star-burst splatter, as if ink were slung at it. Each page has been ripped vertically from the top center almost to the bottom. Under laboratory analysis, two of the pages reveal trace chemicals associated with human saliva, as though someone spit on them.

The final line, the unblotted one, is in a hand different from the rest.

The ninety-four deleted lines appear to be permutations of the idea expressed in the final line, now famous. Clearly, Shakespeare labored hard to be Shakespearean.

His indefatigable revisions give teeth to a comment by Edgar Allan Poe. Most writers, he said, "would positively shudder at letting the public take a look behind the scenes at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought, cautious selections and rejections, painful erasures and interpolations" that precede the final product.

Before the discovery of the Tankard Papers, the highest level of genius--Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Milton, and the like--was thought exempt from the sublunary indecisiveness and tinkering described by Poe.

Now we have reason to believe Thomas Edison's maxim admits no exceptions: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

What a boost the Tankard Papers give to writers everywhere! Heretofore, thousands have been balked by the myth that great writers are born, not made. Too often, when words fail to come trippingly off their tongues, novices abandon their literary dreams, assuming you've either got it or you haven't.

Now they will know the only barrier between them and Shakespeare is pertinacity, pertinacity, and more pertinacity. They will know, too, that cursing, wadding, ripping, and spitting on paper is okay.

Observe the Bard at work. Watch him discard line after line as he--or Hamlet--searches for the mot juste, the perfect words:

"Life virtue indeed hath, but so doth death."

"Should a noble man, then, do himself in?"

"Doth a prince ignobly himself do in?"

"Be it base to bare-bodkin your own self?"

"Should I on my own petard myself hoist?"

"Self-slaughter or self-preservation: which?"

Here is the penultimate revision, number 94:

"To live or to die: now that's a tough one."

Then, eureka, pertinacity reaps its reward: "To be or not to be: that is the question."

Scholars note the handwriting in line 95 matches Anne Hathaway's. Some indulge a wild fantasy--namely, that Mrs. Shakespeare ghostwrote her husband's plays.

Such speculation, in my judgment, is irresponsible, unethical, and perverse. Undoubtedly, Hathaway was simply an amanuensis, a helpmate, writing down her husband's hard-earned words.

Pertinacity, I say: that is the way...

This is my twenty-seventh draft. My wife merely... tied up a few loose ends.


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