Growing up my father used to recite Shakespeare often. He had studied the tragedies at Cambridge and the words were deeply ingrained in him but he is not a man who takes himself too seriously and he would always quote ironically.
For example if there was a delay in dinner he would pretend to be angry and threaten; “I will do such things - what they are yet, I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth!”
I love this quote (from King Lear act II scene IV) because it strikes me as essentially humorous. A furious father fails to actually think of a threat and is reduced to just threatening to come up with one later. It manages to encapsulate both rage and the diminishing powers of the aging parental brain. In Shakespeare there is often humour in the darkest moments.
Screenwriter John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator and Skyfall, advises screenwriters to read Shakespeare and he particularly suggests that we should read Hamlet and understand ‘every line’. I wouldn’t disagree with this and not long ago I set out to memorise all of Hamlet’s big speeches. I felt it would implant this beautiful poetry into my consciousness at a deep level and enable me to beat my father in a spontaneous quote-off. I only got about half way through the play before I ran out of steam and developed a new respect for actors memorizing skills. But one of the things I discovered is that not every line of Shakespeare makes sense. Of course a good deal of it is hard to understand because it is either written in archaic language, contains obscure allusions, is written in the form of a riddle or is just so heightened and poetic that it requires careful thought and reflection to understand it. But some of the written Shakespeare that has been handed down to us has never been understood. Take this line from Act I scene IV of Hamlet:
“The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.”
This comes in a speech in which Hamlet criticizes his countrymen for drunkenness and talks about how a single flaw in a man’s character can be his ruin (he is clearly having a go at his mother-shagging father-murdering uncle who has been out boozing).
In this line it is pretty clear that Hamlet is saying ‘a little drop of wickedness in a person can ruin all that is good in them and lead to his ruin’. But the words ‘Doth all the noble substance of a doubt’ don’t actually make sense – specifically the words ‘of a doubt’ are meaningless.
It has been suggested that the actor who once knew these lines misremembered them when he came to transcribe the play. Some of the Hamlet we know is taken from the 1603 quarto and despite being printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime this is regarded as a ‘bad quarto’ which the author had no hand in. Evidence suggests that actors who had performed in Shakespeare’s plays would slope off and transcribe them from memory then sell the text to unscrupulous publishers. Inevitably actors remembered their own parts better than others (apparently they tend to make the most errors in the smaller roles). They made mistakes and in some cases, simply remembered the rhythm and rhyme but not the actual words, so they had to fill the blank with nonsense
In the case of “the dram of evil” the line was possibly more like “Doth all the noble substance oft put out” but that doesn’t sound quite right either. I thought I would run this past the only Shakespeare expert I know – my cousin Robin Kirby who did a PHD in Shakespeare studies. He replied:
“The dram of evil line is, for me, a classic case of the missing line. Shakespeare scholars go to great lengths and contortions to elicit a coherent meaning - and when you see them trying too hard, you start to realise that there must be a simple explanation. I think it's the Occam's Razor theory that says that the simplest explanation is always the most likely. Assuming words are missing, the meaning isn't too difficult – i.e. it only takes a small amount of evil. Another inelegant solution I have read argues for 'doubt' becoming 'do out' but this makes a mess of other words in the phrase, assuming Shakespeare was keeping to his usual standards of grammar and syntax.”
As a great fan of Shakespeare I would humbly posit the theory that there is no man or woman alive who is going to be able to intuit Shakespeare’s lost words – and so we might as well stick with the misremembered line in printed editions and let individual directors decide what to do about it. More usefully, the next time you are watching a Shakespeare play and an actor says something you can’t comprehend, simply tell yourself it is nonsense offered up 400 years ago by an unscrupulous actor to an unscrupulous publisher. You’ll feel better about yourself.
It’s something I intend to do when I take my father for his eightieth birthday treat on March 5th. We’re going to see his favourite play, Macbeth, starring the Scottish actor James McAvoy at Trafalgar studios. Hopefully Dad he won’t start quoting out loud during the performance.