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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. The Text of Shakespeare

§ 4. Discrepancies in Texts: curtailment or omission for stage purposes or for want of actors; political expediency

The great discrepancies in these texts demand some explanation. There can be little doubt that they are due, in the main, to the fact that the defective texts were based on copies which had been adapted for the stage. From the fact that Shakespeare wrote for the stage, it must not be inferred that he allowed himself to be bound by the exigencies of stage performance. The need of adaptation for stage purposes has always made itself felt in the case of the texts of plays, even to the present day; and it is highly probable that none of the longer plays of Shakespeare were ever produced in the theatre exactly as they were written. There is, moreover, definite evidence that the plays of other dramatists were shortened for the stage. It is in this sense that we are to understand the statement made on the title-page of the second quarto of Hamlet, “newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie,” and similar statements in the quartos of other plays.

The references in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet to “the two hours traffic of our stage,” and in that of Henry VIII to “two short hours,” fix the average length of a performance. The mere length of such plays as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Part II of Henry IV, Henry V, necessitated curtailment. Thus, of the long scene in Richard III, numbering five hundred and forty lines in the folio, nearly eight are omitted (including a passage of over fifty lines); the quarto text of Hamlet omits sixty lines of Hamlet’s interview with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern concerning the players; and the folio text of King Lear lacks a whole scene, as well as a passage of nearly fifty lines.

Not only, however, the length of a play, but also the number of characters called for adaptation. Companies were often so thin that one player had to act two or three parts. A clear case of curtailment on this ground is the omission in the folio text of the dialogue between Hamlet and a lord, who comes to urge him to the rapier contest with Laertes. This is the only occasion on which this character appears. The folio text of King Lear omits the conversation between two servants after the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes, probably for the same reason. Sometimes, speeches are put into the mouths of other characters, instead of being omitted altogether. In Henry V, Westmoreland’s wish for ten thousand more men is transferred to Warwick.

A different reason for the omission of passages in the performance of a play was political expediency. Both Elizabeth and James I frequently witnessed stage performances, and a natural consequence of this personal patronage was a strict censorship of plays presented before them. Precarious as is any attempt to point out political allusions in Shakespeare, the magnificent compliment paid to “the fair vestal throned by the west,” and “her single blessedness,” would suffice to show that such allusions were, on occasion, introduced by him. The suppression of the deposition scene in the first quarto of Richard II was doubtless made out of deference to the queen’s well known susceptibilities on the subject. In King Lear, Edmund’s allusions to the results of the “prediction,” in which James is said to have had some faith, and the reference to nobles acting as spies in France may have been suppressed on similar grounds. Portia’s description of the “Scottish” lord contains a satirical allusion to the alliances of Scotland with France against England. After the accession of James, the players, instead of omitting the passage, altered “Scottish lord” to “other lord,” which is the reading of the folio.

The legal restrictions with regard to the use of oaths and the profane use of Scripture account for the excision of a great number of passages and the modification of many expressions, especially in Part II of Henry IV. A few seem to be omitted in both quarto and folio on account of their lewdness. Other passages were struck out by the players because of their inherent obscurity. The corrupt passages in Hamlet, containing “stars with strains of fire,” “dram of eale,” “that monster custom,” omitted entirely in the folio text, very likely owe their corruption to the tampering of the players.

The process of adaptation caused passages to be added as well as omitted. The clown’s duty was to afford amusement to the spectators after the play was finished; but he was also expected to add specimens of his own native wit to his regular part in a play. This practice is referred to by Hamlet in a well known passage of his address to the players, to which the first quarto adds samples—“Cannot you stay till I eate my porridge? and you owe me a quarters wages, my coat wants a cullison; And your beere is sowre.” The fool in King Lear is no mere clown. It is probable that for portions of this, and for “poor Tom’s” parts, buffoonery was often substituted; which would account for the disturbed state of the text both in quarto and folio in these passages. The omission of the prologue to Troilus and Cressida in the folio may be explicable in the same way. The omission from the folio text of several other passages seems to confirm doubts as to their genuineness.