Improving Shakespeare

Editors are fond of saying hilarious things like, "Shakespeare had probably forgotten that he had given Michael Cassio no wife." But what if he hadn't forgotten, and Iago's assigning a wife to Cassio has to do with the problem of Iago himself?

Most of these editors are not playwrights. Playwrights know that you go over the text again and again, and you pay special attention to the parts that are already written, because the bulk of the work has been done on them, and there is a certain amount of pleasure in reading what you have written, despite what Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando:
He wrote, and it was good.
He read, and it was vile--
--which is why you go back and rewrite, and why it is unlikely that poor, dumb Shakespeare had forgotten that Michael Cassio had no wife.

But I am supposed to be talking about things editors fixed up for poor, dumb Shakespeare in All's Well.

Here's what happens in All's Well after Parolles has been given terrific abuse by Lafew:
It may be you have mistaken him, my lord.

And shall do so ever, though I took him at's prayers. Fare you well, my lord; and believe this of me:
there can be no kernel in this light nut; the soul of this man is his clothes; trust him not in matter of heavy
consequence; I have kept of them tame, and know their natures.
     (to Parolles:)
Farewell, monsieur; I have spoken better of you than you have or will to deserve at my hand;
but we must do good against evil.   (Exit.)

     at's prayers = at his prayers
An idle lord, I swear.

BERTRAM (Bertram sees Helena approaching)
I think so.

Why, do you not know him?

Yes, I know him well, and common speech
Gives him a worthy pass. Here comes my clog.

However, the Arden editor, and some others, change Bertram's line to "I think not so," on the grounds that Bertram is arguing with Parolles. I suggest that Bertram's problem at the moment is not with Parolles, or Lafew, but with the fact that he has just been forcibly married to the beautiful Helena. All his life he had thought he detested her for her warmth and clinginess. But neither he nor anybody else can deny that she's beautiful, and she's his. Should Bertram run away to Italy with Parolles, as he had planned? Or should he at least take Helen to the Marriott and try her out before leaving? Bertram is attempting to entertain two contradictory ideas in his brain, and it makes his speech complicated. I suggest when he looks at Helena, what comes out of his mouth is "I think so."

Consider: here is what Diana has to say when she realizes that Bertram has no honorable instincts and is only interested in getting her into bed, n'importe quoi.

I see that men make rope's in such a scarre
That we'll forsake ourselves.

G.K. Hunter prints the speech as he found it in the Folio, the only text, and makes no attempt to elucidate it. Hooray for Hunter!

Here's what the kindly, usually thoughtful Penguin edition prints:
I see that men may rope's in such a snare
That we'll forsake ourselves.

This emendation has the virtue of making slightly more sense of what Diana said. Unfortunately there's no justification for it in the Folio, and the editor prints it brazenly without explaining that he's had to help poor old Shakespeare out by printing what he would have written had he not been drinking.

The Signet edition prints the Folio text:
I see that men make rope's in such a scarre
That we'll forsake ourselves.

But the Signet editor (maybe Sylvan Barnet himself) shyly qualify his work with: "the text is probably corrupt."

Let me point out that Diana's speech contains many of the themes in the play. "Scarre" or "scar" is one of the major images; Bertram returns from Italy with what Lavatch describes as a "scar" on his face; Parolles boasts that in a previous battle he gave Spurio a "cicatrice," and a cicatrice is a scar. Parolles' flamboyant clothing includes many "scarves," a short jump from "scarre." And when poor Diana muses that "I see that men make rope's in such a scarre," she's repeating a garbled version of what almost every editor agrees is the play's topic sentence: "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn," (IV.3.68), that is, the life which men weave is like a scar.

And--fellow editors--why would Diana make perfect sense at this instant? Her world has crashed down around her ears. She had hoped that Bertram would prove honorable and faithful to his wife, and yet some perhaps unconscious part of her hoped that she herself might in fact wind up in bed with Bertram. She's not going to get either result. Bertram will be unfaithful, but not really, because he'll be in bed (finally) with his wife Helena. Diana, who has been used as bait, feels as if she'd been violated, which, you will recall, is signified by the name Shakespeare gave her
character, Violenta, when he was thinking about this scene.