Some of you may be familiar with the following lines:
“To be or not to be — ay, there’s the point. To die, to sleep — is that all? Ay all.”
What may seem like the literary equivalent of drawing a moustache and glasses on the Mona Lisa is, in fact, what many scholars believe to be the original text of those famous lines. This was known, unsmilingly, as ‘the bad quarto’, and was published some years before the traditional text we all know.
Some believe that this was a window into Shakespeare’s soul, and some think dissolute actors cobbled it together from memory. The esteemed Jonathan Bate might question the whole damn edifice and, if there’s one person who knows his onions, it’s JB.
What really happened that fateful day, you might ask. Will we ever really know?
On balance, no.
But remember this moment when you think about your early drafts, and the scholars who will gaze at them a thousand years from now.
(Incidentally, if you want to buy a special somebody the best collection of Shakespeare out there, this was edited by Jonathan Bate, and published by Palsgrave in association with the RSC, and it’s here. Eye-wateringly good. On the other end of the scale, if you think it nobler in the mind to read a very quick version of Hamlet, you can do that here.)