Monday, April 27, 2009

Would He Had Blotted 1000

"I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, 'Would he had blotted a thousand."

Maybe I’m just slow.  I’ve certainly heard that quote before, and always took it to be an insult, suggesting that there’s plenty of errors where Mr. Shakespeare could have done better.

It only just now dawns on me that that’s the point – given how good he actually was, can you only imagine what we would have ended up with if he *had* improved upon all the mistakes and weaknesses?


Willshill said...

I don't think you're "slow" about this at all, Duane.
Unless there's been some recent new revelation from further scholarship, I think the general concensus has been that Jonson was indeed referring to Shakespeare's inability to adhere to the "Classic" form when he made the thousand blot statement.
Ben Jonson had some very nice things to say about our hero in his dedication included in the First Folio. But even then,the compliments were modified by what Jonson made clear about his opinions of Shakespeare's abilities as a composer of Dramatic/Poetic Theatre in the scholarly sense. That he knew "little Latin and less Greek", couched as it is--surrounded by laurel wreaths-- still reveals, I think, Jonson's prejudice toward elevation of the academic/scholarly aspects of poesy, no matter how successful Shakespeare might have been at building larger, more impressive and popular castles in Jonson's very own sandbox:

There's every indication in the poem that he truly loved Shakespeare's efforts. He knew they worked, saw and heard how accepted they were. But I believe he was more than amazed at the acceptance and success of those efforts, being, as they were, so far removed from the formality and formula that would have lent them the respect of Academia. And Jonson goes a long way in the dedicatory in his efforts to explain this "enigma" to the reader; his rationalization, in the end, attributes it to Shakespeare's "Art". But he also makes a point about what that Art implied, as its beauty was clearly, to him, able to outshine convention, in terms of popularity, in a very big way; this, while circumventing, in an equally big way, the rules of Jonson's own professional standards:

"Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please;
But antiquated, and deserted lye
As they were not of Nature's family.
Yet must I not give Nature all; Thy Art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the POETS matter, Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion. And, that he,
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses anvile : turne the same,
(And himselfe with it) that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurell, he may gaine a scorne,
For a good POETS made, as well as borne.
And such wert thou.

(the typeset of "Poets" stands out much the same in the original as it does here)
It's apparent that Shakespeare simply "had it" better than all of his contemporaries. What "it" is? --we've been trying to define for centuries. Some later scholars, like Alexander Pope, took it upon themselves to show Shakespeare how wrong and uncouth he'd been, by excising and/or rewriting "unacceptable" words, poetic structure, passages, etc.; altering meaning, intent, rhythm, tempo, and playability;the very qualities--though "wrong"--that mesmerized Jonson--the HEARER. Some of those changes remain. (which is why I'm such a Draconian nut when it comes to as close as we can get to the original everything--punctuation and all) :)

But I do think the blot reference was a negative one. Even so,to his great credit, Jonson stood in awe, and not aghast.

As to your desire that the Bard might have made more "blots" as a means of showing us his genius in an ever brighter sphere of light, (as I believe that they were the "mistakes" that made him great) I say amen.

Willshill said...

PS: I think the timeline on Jonson's statements helps to reveal something.
1616-Shakespeare's death
1623-Folio dedication
1630-Jonson's statement in which he admits to having always responded:

"My answer hath always been," 'Would he had blotted a thousand,'

--only now is he choosing to "explain" exactly what he meant in making the statement so many times without the additional qualifiers he now tacks on:

"...which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any."

It seems to me old Ben may have gone through a process of soul-searching in the 7 years on the way to the Folio dedication, and in the 7 more leading up to his ultimate conclusions. It could possibly be the antithesis of how I see it, but then why would the hearers of "Would he had blotted a thousand" have ALWAYS taken it, up to this point, as a statement indicative of "...a malevolent speech" ?

catkins said...

I think Jonson was trying to say, "I wish he had taken more care and made his work even greater. If, instead of dashing off his great thoughts, he had spent time considering his work and making some changes here and there he could have improved it even more, and we all would have benefited." This, I think, is what Duane is pointing out. The brevity of Jonson's remark (and its quotability) is what makes it seem "malevolent" and requiring explanation. I suspect it a remark that Jonson dashed off carelessly and wished he had blotted!

Willshill said...

You know Carl, considered that way, that makes the most sense of all. I'm sure all of the university gang had problems, to whatever varying degree, in processing the brightness and meteoric success of this "Comet". I only imagined the "malevolence" as a possible initial knee-jerk reaction, along the lines of and conjunctive to Greene's "upstart crow", that Jonson later "filtered".
Jonson, it would seem, from everything he put in print, truly did admire and simply like the person of Shakespeare as well. I'm led to believe that of all of them--given his apparent feelings--he would have been the one most ready to act as mentor. And, as you say, might have later wished any sort of off-the-cuff judgment "blotted out", given the possibility of it being taken the wrong way.

Willshill said...

So Duane, who among us was apparently somewhat "speed-challenged" on the particular point you zeroed in on re:this issue? Hint: his screen name begins with W.

william sutton said...

Coming late to this discussion. The Oxfordians twist Ben's words into more than malevolence. But let's not go there. Duane's link on the WSJ article today brought me to this discussion.

Ben and Will had a strange relationship. Will apparently got Ben's play Every man out of his humour i think performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. As Shakespeare's career was waning his was rising. the Jacobean period consolidated Ben as the go to man of performance. His collaboration with Inigo Jones the designer of Masque settings earned him top dollar.

He was, lest we forget, the first playwright to bring out his collected works in Folio in 1616. Will would have known of the project. Ben was anecdotally present at a drinking session with Will and Michael Drayton that lead to Will's demise.

His bragging to Drummond of Hawthornden in his walking visit to Scotland. His mentioning of every poet and playwright then living includes Will.
Great link to the conversations here:

I think Ben thought himself better than Will. Don't know where i'm going with this comment. so i'll end.