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Why didn’t Shakespeare keep his manuscripts?


Writers are mostly vain creatures. For one thing, writing anything longer than a shopping list and expecting that anyone else could be bothered to read it, is a kind of egotism. This is inevitable. Composing even a bad novel of average length would take at least several weeks, almost certainly months and possibly years – and unless you were sustained by the belief that what you were working on would redefine the genre, top the best seller list and guarantee you the Nobel Prize for Literature you would probably give up after a few pages and go and watch TV.

However worthless it might prove to be, at the time of writing, you have to be convinced of its value. Which is a paradox because the part of our brains that isn’t in a state of permanent fantasy (admittedly quite a small part), is perfectly aware that almost no art has any value whatsoever – beyond paying a few bills and incurring brief minor celebrity if you’re incredibly lucky.

Books that are all the rage today will be largely unread in fifty years and totally forgotten in one hundred. Comparatively few writers endure for long, but way ahead of the field is William Shakespeare. Which is all the more extraordinary because he seems to have made no effort to preserve his work for posterity, seemingly indifferent to its survival. All that’s left to us definitely from his hand are six signatures attached to four legal documents – each with variant spellings with none as we spell his surname; Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and William Shakspeare.

There is also the possibility that three pages of Sir Thomas More, a play by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle were written by Shakespeare, one of several other contributing authors. Probably written between 1591-93, the manuscript’s survival is astonishing – none exist of any successful play produced on stage before the English Civil War (with the questionable exception of a few lines from The Massacre at Paris by Kit Marlowe). There are reasons for this, not least the fact that once a play was available in printed form, the handwritten scripts were not considered worth keeping.

There are reasons for this, too, since plays were written to be performed rather than read. Their commercial value was in the theatre and there wasn’t much money to be made by their sale in book form. Even so, it seems mind boggling that someone coming across a manuscript copy of Hamlet or Othello shouldn’t have thought it worth tucking away in a drawer. And one reason for this is that Shakespeare wasn’t especially esteemed by his contemporaries; his plays were popular but he wasn’t regarded more highly than Marlowe, Kyd, Jonson, Dekker and the rest. Pirated editions of his work began to appear in Quarto or Octavo format from 1594 onwards, selling for sixpence each, but it was not until 1597 his name appears on the title page. This would suggest that in the early part of his career at least, printers didn’t think it worth adding to the work as it wasn’t going to boost sales.

Had two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, not decided to produce the First Folio of his work in 1623, the Quartos or Octavos might have been our only record of such plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V and Julius Caesar. And as with everything else to do with Shakespeare, their origin is something of a mystery.

Some scholars argue they were compiled by people who’d attended performances and memorised chunks of text; that they derived from stolen prompt books or copies of the actors’ scripts; that the actors themselves sold their parts in return for a few shillings; or that they were in fact copies of other plays which themselves plagiarized Shakespeare’s material. However they came about, they are often incomplete and with notable divergences from the First Folio, that described them as ‘stol’n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors.’

It was naturally in their interest to rubbish the competition, but comparing versions of the most famous soliloquy in world history, Heminge and Condell seem to have a point. While they go with, ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’, the 1603 Quarto opts for ‘To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point/To die to sleep, is that all? Aye all.’ Some academics have suggested these discrepancies suggest the extent to which Shakespeare was a constant reviser; that they represent an earlier form of a work in progress. I would suggest this theory indicates how far from reality some academics have floated.

Yet if there was any money to be made from publishing the works, why didn’t Shakespeare publish them himself? Why leave it to pirates? One reason is perhaps that he didn’t own the work, that they were the property of the company for whom he was writing. A likelier explanation is that the big money was to be made from the works on stage and that an accurate published edition would mean gifting valuable intellectual property to other companies which could then perform it themselves.

Even so, it’s hard to believe that having written Hamlet, Lear, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and more, Shakespeare had no interest in ensuring accurate copies were retained. At least two works, Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio have been lost, possibly with several others. He wasn’t alone. Hundreds of plays written in the period have vanished. Only Shakespeare’s friend and rival, Ben Jonson, troubled to supervise the printing of his own collected work, in 1616.

By contrast, Shakespeare’s rare authorised publications began in 1593 with Venus and Adonis, written to earn a bit of cash when plague closed the theatres, as well as seek an aristocratic patron in the Earl of Southampton. This was followed in 1594 by The Rape of Lucrece and Phoenix and The Turtle in 1601. Otherwise, that’s it. Even the Sonnets, published in 1609, appeared in an illegitimate edition by Thomas Thorpe and contain so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies that Professors of Eng. Lit have been busy ever since.

Shakespeare’s colossal unconcern about posterity seems all the greater when modern writers hoard every jotting. It is not surprising that they should, given the huge sums universities pay for literary archives. Last month the Harry Ransom Center, Texas, paid two million dollars (£1.2m) for a collection of Ian McEwan’s early drafts, abandoned novels, seventeen years’ worth of emails and letters from other authors.

Whether anyone will have the slightest interest in any of that, let alone his fiction, in two hundred years’ time is conjectural. The Harry Ransom Center has also acquired the archives of, amongst others, Julian Barnes, JM Coetzee, Doris Lessing and Tom Stoppard. Good luck to them and all writers everywhere. Stocks in some may rise, most will fall. I guess institutions gamble that kind of money in the hope that at least a small percent of the material they buy will have permanent value.

By coincidence, a draft of Like a Rolling Stone 
by Bob Dylan was sold at auction to an anonymous bidder last week, also for two million dollars. The manuscript comprises four pages of hotel stationery on which the song had been hand-written in pencil, accompanied by notes, doodles and drawings.

Such a dizzying price for four scraps of paper asks all kinds of questions. What can owning them confer? Will possession enhance the buyer’s song writing capabilities, deepen an understanding of the song or make Bob Dylan his or her friend? Can it mean anything other than that he or she (but almost certainly a bloke) made a fortune inventing the last but one big thing on the internet and can’t think how to spend even a fraction of that wealth?

More generally, does it help to know that Dylan contemplated rhyming ‘truth’ with ‘Vermouth’ before deciding against? Would the world be a worse place if the manuscript had been thrown in the bin or even if the song itself had never been recorded?

I seem to have managed quite well without knowledge of the abandoned rhyme, but my experience of life would have been poorer without the song. I’ve listened to Like A Rolling Stone perhaps more than any other, in multiple versions by Dylan and various artists, particularly his own incensed interpretation at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 and Hendrix’s incendiary performance of it at Monterey Pop in 1967 (the guitar he played that day, before setting fire to a cheaper model, incidentally selling for £250,000 at auction in 2012).

If the lyrics of a pop song are now deemed worth $2m, it’s hard to imagine how much might be paid for even a dodgy sonnet in Shakespeare’s hand. Rather quaintly, another reason manuscripts were not preserved in his day is that paper was expensive, mostly imported from France. Once used, it was recycled for other purposes, often stiffening the spines of books. It is therefore possible that fragments of his foul papers, the term used to describe an early draft, could have survived hidden in ancient tomes in forgotten corners of little visited libraries.

Would the discovery that he really did write, ‘To be or not to be. Aye, there’s the point’ alter our perception of Hamlet? Impossible to say, but it would be fun to find out. In the meantime, if you’ve read all the way through to the end, thank you for your commitment. And if you’re from the Harry Ransom Center and would like to buy any of my old emails, unpublished novels, juvenilia or letters from my bank manager, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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