Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare
6. The Unblotted Papers
In his Discoveries (c.1630), Ben Jonson wrote: “I remember the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose the circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted”. Earlier, in the Shakespeare First Folio (1623), its Epistle to the Reader, subscribed with the names of Shakspere’s fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, but probably drafted by Jonson, had said the same thing: “Who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together. And what he thought he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers”.
Was this true? And if so, how? Today an author delivers his work in a neat typescript. But in Shake-Speare’s day the author normally submitted a draft which was full of erasions, corrections and interlinings, so that the term “foul papers” by which such drafts came to be known, was a descriptive one. To have a fair copy made by a professional scrivener would have imposed a heavy burden on the purses of most playwrights, and would perhaps create a risk of piracy. For the author to make a fair copy himself in longhand was wearisome and somewhat superfluous since, if the play was accepted, the playhouse would itself have a fair copy made for the use of the prompter. Foul papers from Shakspere would have been even more acceptable than from an outside playwright since he was on hand to explain any obfuscations. Jonson and the players evidently assumed that he did not make a fair copy, or have one made, before submitting his draft. Otherwise their compliment to him would have been pointless. How then did his drafts come to be almost unblotted?
To suppose that any author - even Shake-Speare - can sit down at a desk and rattle off immortal poetry is (as the Stratfordian H.N. Gibson rightly commented in his The Shakespeare Claimants (1962)) “entirely incredible”. Parts of a script, such as prose passages or crowd scenes, might be written with relative ease. But the more intensely poetical passages in Shake-Speare could only have been produced slowly and painfully by thinking up ideas and phrases and fitting them together, with much recasting. Of course, the state of an author’s papers will depend to some extent on his method of working. The more he rehearses in his head before putting pen to paper, the cleaner his papers will be.
This was the explanation given for the allegedly clean papers of one other Elizabethan playwright, John Fletcher, who was paid the same compliment as Shakspere. In the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647, at the end of the address of the Stationer to the Readers, the publisher Hugh Mosely wrote: “Whatever I have seen of Mr. Fletcher’s own hand, it is free from interlining; and his friends affirm he never writ any one thing twice. It seems he had that rare felicity to prepare and perfect all first in his own brain, to shape and attire his notions, to add or. lop off, before he committed one word to writing, and never touched pen till all was to stand as firm and immutable as if graven in brass or marble”. None of Fletcher’s foul papers have survived for our inspection. But according to W.W. Greg in his The Editorial Problems of Shakespeare (1954), 3rd edition, pp. 29-30, a comparison of an extant copy of the foul papers of Fletcher’s Bonduca (made by the book-keeper of the King’s Men) with the Folio text, “suggests that an appreciable amount of revision took place, and there is no proof that this was not done by Fletcher himself”. Mosely’s comment on Fletcher must have been largely a fib to boost sales. The reality is that, however much an author mulls over his work before committing it to paper, a good deal of alteration will still be needed. And Shake-Speare, we know, was a compulsive reviser. He would revise plays even after they had been performed. This habit of revision makes it almost inevitable that he would have revised also during the initial process of composition. It is also a strong habit that Bacon shared (see below).
Some Stratfordians take the “unblotted papers” at face value. Others think the compliment must have been exaggerated. Exaggeration could certainly explain the comments in the First Folio since its promoters had the same sales motive as Mosely (who probably had the Shake-Speare Folio in mind). But it less easily explains the comment of the players. Jonson presumably heard it from their own lips in private conversation in circumstances in which they had no sales motive. They might have exaggerated a bit to make a better story, but the fact remains that the clean state of the Shake-Speare papers struck them as remarkable, or they would not have mentioned it. It seems that either they naively believed the papers to be Shake-Speare’s original draft (a belief which Jonson swallowed), or else they knew them to be copies of another man’s work, and dropped the comment about their state as a sly hint or by way of personal relish of the secret.
Whatever the players believed, the most probable explanation of the state of Shake-Speare’s papers is surely that fair copies had been made. And this is precisely what one would expect if Bacon was the author. He would presumably have had fair copies made of his autograph drafts by the young scribes in his employment. He certainly would not have released drafts in his own hand. The scribes would probably make a few transcription errors and have to correct them, and the author himself might make a few alterations when reading through the fair copies, so that they would not be completely unblotted (“scarce received from him a blot”). If Shakspere thought his colleagues did not know his secret, he might, before handing the plays over to them, have made further fair copies in his own hand, if he felt that precaution necessary, as it would be if his colleagues knew his hand. He too would probably make a few transcription errors and correct them. The “unblotted papers” raise at least a legitimate suspicion about Shakspere’s authorship.
Bacon’s habit of revision. For example, his essays would be altered after publication for later editions. And Canon Rawley tells us in his Resuscitatio: “I myself have seen at least twelve copies of the Instauration [by which he meant Novum Organum, a work of about 350 pages] revised year by year, one after the other, and every year altered and amended in the frame thereof, till at last it came to that model in which it was committed to the press….He would suffer no moment of time to slip from him without some present improvement.” Bacon himself wrote to Tobie Mathew in 1610: “My great work goeth forward and after my manner I alter even when I add, so that nothing is finished till all is finished.”