The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0075  Monday, 12 January 2004

From:           Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 11 Jan 2004 02:27:15 EST
Subject: 15.0041 Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0041 Hamlet

John Reed is right to question this reading of Q2 hamlet 5.2.218f, where
Hamlet says:

    since no man of ought he leaves, knowes what ist to leaue
    betimes, let be.

F is also suspect:

    since no man ha's ought of what he leaues.  What is't to leaue

Harold Jenkins emends:

    Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is't to
    leave betimes?  Let be.

Steve Sohmer approves Jenkins:

    The repetition of ought/ought typical of Hamlet's wordplay and
    is the character point of the speech; Q2 is correct, but for the
    typositor's eyeskip eliding the latter ought.

But eyeskip, the most common cause of omission, usually would result in
loss of all words from the first 'ought' through the second:

    Since no man, of aught, what is't to leave betimes.

Further, eyeskip from repeated words is usually recognized by reference
to a second text. Several passages in F show eyeskip in Q2, but not
here. I believe that 'ought/ought' is not the wordplay of the line.

John Reed amends Jenkins's emendation:

    Since no man, of when he leaves, knows aught, what is't to
    leave betimes?  Let be.

The conjectural 'aught' is retained, the Q2 'aught' is out, when 'when'
is in. This is more rewrite than emendation. Similarly, Reed's "Proposed
original reading" exceeds the limits. No Q2 in sight:

    . . . no man knows ought of when he leaves, what is't to leaue . . .

D Bloom adds:

    The editors of the Folio, knowing how the line actually worked,
    changed it back.

There is some question whether anyone other than a compositor took part
at this line.

    . . .  the F version remains notably obscure.

Good reason for John Reed to bring it up.

    The Arden tried to overcome this by adding some words

One word, which is admittedly economical.

    I remain committed . . . to the simplest explanation, but it is
    altogether possible that a better, but equally simple one will
    come along.

My commitments are equally tenuous. In this case, we should remember
that the textual transmission of Hamlet is not at all simple.
Nevertheless, a simple recovery may be suggested that allows for the
loss in Q2 and an explanation of the F differences.

The use of 'of aught,' in Q2 is non-idiomatic (now and then), at least
for aught I know.

We ask, "What did he die of?" Hamlet obviously means "to die" when he
says "to leave." If we don't know of what we'll die, neither do we know

Q2 and F are both full of single-word substitutions, split about even as
to their correctness. Often the changes make no sense, proving that
compositors are capable of anything. But there are reasons to think that
'ought' is a mistaken substitution for 'what':

    since no man of what he leaves knowes, what is't to leaue
    betimes, let be.

'Of aught' and 'of what' are near homonyms. A compositor could easily
transform one to the other by sound alone. Such errors are not uncommon.
'au' or 'ou' could be mistaken for 'w' if poorly formed. Abbreviation
('wt' or 'wht') might contribute.

The line above repeats the triplet, 'no, what, leaves; knows, what,
leave'. The choice of 'leave' for 'die' is fitted to Hamlet's unending
wordplay: What is't to "leave"? To "let be".

Folio compositor B ("whose inaccuracy has become notorious") printed
from Q2 copy. I would too, for damn sure. This fact is well-known for
Hamlet, though the preference for printed copy is often unappreciated in
the study of other plays. But it is also certain that the workmen also
used an independent manuscript.

In this case it seems Q2 was followed up to the setting of 'aught.' When
it became apparent that the passage was faulty, resort was made to the
manuscript authority, where the correct 'of what' was found and set.
Instead of choosing between Q2 and ms. readings, B used both -- and his
imagination -- to complete the line. Thus F is wrong, but supportive of
my suggestion.  The verb 'knows' was oddly placed in Q2, so it had to
go, lest B cudgel his brains excessively.

The compositor was under no strong compunction to recapture Hamlet's
line. But that's the emender's goal. I agree with Jenkins in believing
Q2 the better text. Changing the sensible 'what' for the problematic
'aught' is even more economical than adding a second 'aught.'

Gerald E. Downs

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