Some of Shakespeare's Greatest Blunders

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1998 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Pope once said of Shakespeare that "as he has certainly written better, so he has perhaps written worse, than any other." This is perhaps a harsh judgment, but anyone who wrote as much as Shakespeare did would be bound to make a few mistakes along the way. In addition, the playwright was constantly turning out new plays for his company to act, and he does not seem to have shared the modern obsession with making sure that everything in a piece of writing was consistent with everything that went before. In fact, he was frankly sometimes a bit cavalier about consistency, it would seem!

In the following examples, the text of Shakespeare is quoted exactly as it appears in the First Folio of 1623 (meaning the spelling and punctuation are unmodernized), and the line numbers are from the Pelican Shakespeare. The referenced scenes may be accessed in modern spelling in an edition like Pelican, or online at the Complete Works of Shakespeare site, where the interested reader may see the context of what is being quoted.

(The reader should be cautioned that some of the readings on the "Complete Works" site differ from what I have quoted from the First Folio because later editors have made changes, as detailed in my notes below. This is why I have gone to the Folio for my quotes rather than to a modern edition. Those interested in seeing what the earliest texts of Shakespeare looked like spelling-wise should check out the Internet Shakespeare Editions page, a work-in-progress by the University of Victoria in Canada, which already has available some texts from the First Folio and early quartos.)

Pist. Doeth fortune play the huswife with me now? Newes haue I that my Doll is dead i'th' Spittle of a malady of France, and there my rendeuous is quite cut off:

(--Henry V, V.i.72-75.)

Many editors have emended "Doll" to "Nell" on the grounds that Nell Quickly is the woman Pistol married, but the difficulty is not so easily resolved. Patently Shakespeare did not merely slip and write the name of Doll Tearsheet (who appears in 2 Henry IV) when he meant Nell Quickly, because not only does he associate Doll with easy virtue much more firmly than Mistress Quickly, but the mention of the "Spittle" (in current spelling, "spital," meaning "hospital") is earlier firmly linked to Doll by Pistol:

. . . O hound of Creet, think'st thou my spouse to get? No, to the spittle goe, and from the Poudring tub of infamy, fetch forth the Lazar Kite of Cressids kinde, Doll Teare-sheete, she by name, and her espouse. . . .

(--ibid, II.i.70-4.)

The linkage of Doll with harlotry and with trying to recover from venereal diseases in a "powdering tub of infamy" at the "spital" seems to be intended in the Act 5 passage, too; simply replacing Doll's name with "Nell" is therefore unconvincing. Indeed, the Yale Shakespeare notes cryptically that "much in Pistol's Act 5 speech may suggest Falstaff," a remark that the Pelican Shakespeare seems to explain by noting the argument of certain critics that when Shakespeare decided not to have Falstaff appear in Henry V (despite the promise in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV), the fat knight's part was rewritten and assigned to Pistol.

Queen. Be woe for me, more wretched then he is.
What, Dost thou turne away, and hide thy face?
I am no loathsome Leaper, looke on me.
What? Art thou like the Adder waxen deafe?
Be poysonous too, and kill thy forlorne Queene.
Is all thy comfort shut in Glosters Tombe?
Why then Dame Elianor was neere thy ioy. . . .

(--2 Henry VI, III.ii.73-9.)

Here we have the obvious fact that Shakespeare has here forgotten the name of Henry's queen, Margaret, and/or confused her with Gloucester's wife Eleanor. Four times in this scene (three times in this very speech! and also in line 26 ["I thanke thee Nell"]), Shakespeare gets the name wrong and has to be corrected by modern editors, though this confusion occurs nowhere else in the text of the play.

Messa. Cicero is dead, and by that order of proscription
Had you your Letters from your wife, my Lord?

Bru. No Messala.
Nor nothing in your Letters writ of her?
Bru. Nothing Messala. . . .

(--Julius Caesar, IV.iii.179-84)

In this very strange passage, Brutus has just revealed his wife Portia's death to Cassius, so that his professed ignorance here does not seem admirable. The Yale Shakespeare comments:

Various more or less plausible attempts have been made to defend Brutus from this most unpleasant appearance of deceiving Messala in order to win applause for his fortitude under affliction, but the best way out of the difficulty lies in accepting the suggestion of J. Resch that two alternative versions of Brutus' stoical conduct have been accidentally taken over into the Folio text from the MS. or prompt book copy.

It should also be mentioned that a similar phenomenon--if indeed the present passage is the result of draft and revision being accidentally retained together--seems observable in the text of Love's Labours Lost. In two different places (Berowne's speech in IV.iii.285ff. and the rejection of Berowne in V.ii.807-12 and 827-61), Shakespeare's initial version and his expanded and improved version seem to have both made it into the text.

Regarding Julius Caesar, this might also be the place to mention Ben Jonson's ridicule of a line in III.i., although it does not appear in the First Folio text of the play:

Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.


Ben Jonson's Discoveries ascribes to Shakespeare the line "Caesar did never wrong but with just cause," and the Yale Shakespeare remarks that some editors have inserted this line due to the possibility that the First Folio's editors "unwarrantably changed" the text to omit the supposed blunder. (Yale defends the line cited by Jonson on the grounds that "wrong" means "harm, injury," rather than "error, mistake," as he seems to have assumed.) Nevertheless, the speech seems to me more effective in the First Folio version, and it may be that Shakespeare himself made the revision because others misunderstood the line the way Jonson did, while Jonson (as Howard Staunton suggested), not knowing of the revision, quoted the line as he remembered it.

. . . Now, thus it rests,
Her Father meanes she shall be all in white;
And in that habit, when Slender sees his time
To take her by the hand, and bid her goe,
She shall goe with him: her Mother hath intended
(The better to deuote her to the Doctor;
For they must all be mask'd, and vizarded)
That quaint in greene, she shall be loose en-roab'd . . . .

(--Merry Wives of Windsor,

The problem here is that Shakespeare did not make Fenton's speech above agree with the final scene, which in the First Folio text makes Slender grab the fairy dressed in green and Dr. Caius the one dressed in white! Nicholas Rowe and Alexander Pope, the earliest editors of Shakespeare, reversed the "green"s and "white"s of the supposed Anne Page's garb in the last scene to agree with what Fenton says here, and their emendations appear in most current editions of this play.

King. Welcome braue Captaine, and victorious Lord.
When I was young (as yet I am not old)
I doe remember how my Father said
A stouter Champion neuer handled Sword.

(--1 Henry VI, III.iv.16-9.)

This is a rather ludicrous statement from the young King Henry VI, since as the epilogue to Henry V (as well as history) informs us, Henry VI was "in Infant Bands crown'd King" and therefore would scarcely remember his father at all, much less what he said. Malone used this passage in defense of his (now rather discredited) contention that the present play was not originally by Shakespeare, since Shakespeare knew that Henry V died when his son Henry VI was nine months old, and the Yale Shakespeare counter-argues that this passage may be "one of Shakespeare's purposeful tamperings with dramatic time." Neither explanation seems to me as good as supposing that in this early play, Shakespeare perhaps was unaware of exactly how old Henry VI was when his father died, but became aware of it by the time he wrote Henry V. (We might tend to overestimate the awareness of Shakespeare and his contemporaries regarding English history, simply because we know the events from Richard II to Richard III so well in Shakespeare's dramatizations.)

In 1 Henry VI we also find a curious episode regarding a "Sir Iohn Falstaffe" who is said to have "play'd the Coward" by fleeing from a battle led by Talbot (I.i.131). Since a Sir John Falstaff appears, famously, in the two parts of Henry IV, and is reported to have died in Henry V, confusion arose as early as 1625 (according to Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives [revised edition], p. 49) regarding how that Falstaff "could be dead in the time of Harrie the Fifth and again live in the time of Harrie the Sixth to be banished for cowardice." A scholar named Dr. Richard James resolved this confusion by revealing that the Falstaff in the Henry IV plays was actually named Sir John Oldcastle at first, but was renamed when the historical Oldcastle's noble descendants complained. (Apparently Shakespeare reused "Falstaff" because he had done so in 1 Henry VI, although this name, like Oldcastle's, also belonged to a real historical personage--"a man not inferior in virtue," James says, to Oldcastle.) Most editors until our own century actually distinguished between the similarly-named Falstaffs by respelling the 1 Henry VI character as "Sir John Fastolfe"!

Nor is this all. The "Falstaff" in 1 Henry VI is said above to have played the coward by running away from battle, and this is mentioned again at I.iv.35-7, but later, at III.ii.104-9, we actually see Falstaff running from battle. Were there two desertions by Falstaff intended by the playwright? This seems unlikely, as no mention is made of any double cowardice when Talbot strips Falstaff of his Garter in IV.i. in front of the king. It seems to me more probable that this jumble of incidents is presented out of order either for dramatic convenience or out of sheer indifference to the actual sequence of events.

Speed. Launce, by mine honesty welcome to Padua.

(--Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.v.1.)

Val. Thurio giue backe; or else embrace thy death:
Come not within the measure of my wrath:
Doe not name Siluia thine: if once againe,
Verona shall not hold thee. . . .

(--ibid, V.iv.127-30.)

The evident confusion in the playwright's mind regarding where the various scenes in his play are taking place (in both the above passages, one would expect "Milan" to be named rather than "Padua" or "Verona") is only one problem with Two Gentlemen of Verona, a very early play that shows us a Shakespeare who is still far from mastery of his craft. In the introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare's text of this play, Berners A.W. Jackson points out a good number of "inconsistencies and peculiarities" in it, such as the idea that one would travel by ship from Verona to Milan, the unexplained "wrong letter" that Julia snatches back from Silvia at IV.iv.119ff., and Proteus' speaking as though he has only beheld Silvia's picture when Valentine has just introduced him to her (II.iv.206). The preposterous dénouement of the play (where Valentine offers his love to his friend Proteus--"All that was mine, in Siluia, I giue thee" [V.iv.83]--immediately after saving her from being raped by Proteus, and just before threatening Thurio as quoted above) troubled earlier editors so much that they proposed ingenious but un-Shakespearean emendations to bail the playwright out! (Howard Staunton in his complete Shakespeare [published in 1860] asserts that "no one can believe the lines were spoken by Valentine" and offers a sampling of these emendations.)

Furthermore, as a read-through of Act III, scene 1, makes abundantly clear, Shakespeare's characters in Two Gentlemen move about as smoothly as marionettes manipulated by someone wearing boxing gloves. After Proteus tells the Duke of Valentine's intentions, which the Duke professes to have known about before, Valentine enters, wearing a cloak with a rope ladder hidden under it, and the Duke tells him a cock-and-bull story about how he himself loves a woman "in Verona heere" (line 81, another slip as they are in the Duke's palace in Milan!) and wants to find a way of meeting with her. Valentine basically tells the Duke to do the same thing he is doing, and the Duke takes the opportunity to inspect Valentine's cloak and thus finds his ladder and an incriminating letter. The whole thing is heavy-handed and hardly believable dramatically, and one only need compare it with Shakespeare's later handling of improbabilities in, say, The Winter's Tale (where a queen supposedly "dies" and then is revealed to be alive after sixteen years)--which are so skillfully managed as to be credible to the audience--to see the difference between Shakespeare's mastery of his craft and his apprenticeship.

(Last update 18 Aug 2001--dead links removed.)

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