In Shakespeare’s grand historical drama Richard II, the titular king is a giant asshole. Richard is vindictive, shady, indecisive, corrupt, and totally unfit to rule a country. In the poetic words of the American Richard II, “He’s a bad hombre. SAD!” At one point during the play, Sir Stephen Bannon – um, I mean, Sir Stephen Scroop – approaches King Fuckface von Clownstick to inform him of how deeply the English rebellion runs. “White beares have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie.”
Wait. White bears? Was the English monarch so thoroughly despised that even the wild animals were taking up arms against him?
This explanation is plausible, but a few nagging questions remain. Why do the polar bears have “thin and hairless scalps”? And why are they “arming” themselves? Bears have claws. Huge intestine-extracting claws. At seven feet tall and 900 pounds, polar bears are living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. How did they organize? Can they hold town hall meetings? Etc.
Some printing context may shed a little light on these questions. Compositors used cases to hold individual letters, numbers, and punctuation while setting type. Not unlike using a keyboard today, compositors set their type without staring directly at their hands. If the E’s and D’s were sitting close enough (also like today), one letter could be “picked” by mistake. The whole Shakespearean white bears conundrum was probably nothing more than a typo. After all, if you change “beares” to “beards,” you get: “White beards have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie,” and that makes a whole lot more sense. Small printing errors can have far-reaching effects. In Shakespeare’s case, they changed a septuagenarian revolt against Richard II into an awesome but thoroughly nonsensical ursine one.