How many Hamlets would you like? A play of that name was performed in the late 1580s. It was probably bloody and Senecan, and probably written by Thomas Kyd. Another one (probably Shakespeare’s) was performed on board a ship anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 at the request of the captain, William Keeling: ‘I invited Captain Hawkins to a ffishe dinner, and had Hamlet acted abord me: which I permitt to keepe my people from idlenes and unlawfull games, or sleep.’ An ineffectual footman called Hamlet has a walk-on part in Eastward Ho! (1605), which also has room for a lustful city wife called Gertrude. Then follow the great actor-Hamlets of Kean, Betterton and Garrick, and after them the deluge: the thoughtful, pausing hero of Coleridge (a ‘man whose ideal and internal images are so vivid that all real objects are faint and dead to him’), Freud’s mother-lover, T.S. Eliot’s searcher after an objective correlative. Lacan’s Hamlet is a manlet preoccupied with the nom or the non of the father, haunted by desire for the phallus that is lost first in his father’s death, then buried in Ophelia’s name (maybe it sounds more plausible in French) and finally in her grave. There are also more sportive Hamlets around: the notably unreflective Skinhead Hamlet, who dies with ‘I’m fucked. The rest is fucking silence’; the Klingon Hamlet, whose final words are ‘DaH tamchoH Hoch’; or the recent manga Hamlet set in 2107 with a spiky-fringed, fist-clenching, button-nosed hero, so stylised that it’s difficult to take much from it except that Hamlet is well hard, well cool, and well hard done by.
There are three early printed texts of Shakespeare’s play which have some claim to independent authority. The quarto of 1603 is some kind of record of a Hamlet pared down for performance. ‘To be or not to be’ comes out as ‘To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,/To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all,’ and Hamlet tells Ofelia (as she is called in this version) no fewer than eight times ‘To a Nunnery goe.’ (A quarto is a book in which the individual sheets of paper have been folded twice to make four leaves; a folio is a bigger book in which the sheets are folded only once.) Q1, as it’s known, was probably pieced together from memory by one or more of the actors who appeared in the play, perhaps in a version adapted for touring. It has been described as ‘Hamlet with the brakes off’. Certainly, this version does not encourage its audience to contemplate the inward enigmas of the hero. Its equivalent of ‘The rest is silence’ is ‘Mine eyes haue lost their sight, my tongue his vse:/Farewel, Horatio, heauen receiue my soule.’
A year or so later, in 1604 or 1605, a much longer text, known as the second quarto or Q2, appeared. Most people now think Q2 derives from authorial manuscripts (or ‘foul papers’, as they’re called) which had not been worked up for performance, because it doesn’t always make clear which actors are meant to be onstage at each point, and because it prints some passages that look as though they were marked for deletion. A rather different Hamlet then appeared in the First Folio of 1623, which seems to have been cut and revised. F has about 30 lines that aren’t in Q2 (notably the section in which Hamlet laments the rise of the ‘eyrie of children’ who have been doing the adult players out of work), but lacks about 230 that are: notably, Hamlet’s speech on the drunkenness of the Danes and his soliloquy ‘How all occasions do inform against me.’ It also has scores of local verbal differences from Q2, and some signs of having been either worked up for the stage, or worked on by performers, depending on one’s point of view. The F Hamlet bids farewell with ‘the rest is silence,’ and then adds: ‘O, o, o, o.’
No irrefutable theory about the relationship between these three texts of Hamlet has ever been put forward. Eighteenth-century editors were all more or less content to believe that Shakespeare wrote a single Hamlet which was then ‘sophisticated’, by which they meant corrupted, by irresponsible players and printers. This belief licensed widespread conjectural emendation of the text, as well as a tendency to take what was ‘best’ (grammatically, poetically or theatrically) from Q2 and F and combine them into a single vast and sometimes not entirely coherent play. The last great hybrid Hamlet (still probably the best edition) was Harold Jenkins’s New Arden edition of 1982. It appeared only four years before a revolution occurred in the theory and practice of editing Shakespeare with the publication of the Oxford Shakespeare.
This collected edition was founded on two major beliefs which have shaped, and sometimes deformed, thinking about Shakespeare for the past two decades. The first was that Shakespeare was a man of the theatre who collaborated with actors, rather than having his texts contaminated by them. Hence the Oxford editors favour texts which give signs of having a theatrical provenance. The second, related premise was that Shakespeare revised his work, usually in the light of theatrical experience. This led the editors away from what are called, in the pejorative terminology that’s now routinely used, ‘conflated’ texts of the plays, which combine passages and readings from separate versions. The Oxford Shakespeare printed two texts of King Lear, one from the Folio of 1623 and the other from the Quarto of 1608. With Hamlet, they printed a single text based on the Folio (since this version was probably revised for the stage) and reproduced passages unique to Q2 in an appendix. The editors have since said they probably should have given us a two-text Hamlet too, but they were tired.
The Arden 3 Hamlet, which presents modernised texts of Q1, Q2 and the Folio in two volumes, is the lineal descendant of the Oxford Shakespeare.It is, in both good and bad senses, an extraordinary achievement. The editors are generous and unprescriptive almost to a fault, seeking not to present a particular view of the play, but to allow their readers to choose which of a range of interpretations they prefer – and even, in effect, to construct their own text from its three versions. Its introduction is enriched by more Hamlets: in performance, in novels, in operas, in prequels and sequels. The editors are especially good at imagining what might be going on onstage, and often cite in their notes the different ways in which potentially ambiguous moments have been played in the past.
But there are other respects in which this edition is extraordinary. The editors believe, unexceptionably, ‘that Q1’s copy was based on an anonymous reconstruction of a performance based on the text behind F, that Q2’s copy was largely based on Shakespeare’s foul papers, and that F’s copy was no more than one step away from a manuscript containing some significant authorial revisions to the text in the foul papers’. They go on, however: ‘It seems to us to follow from the argument above that each of Q1, Q2 and F records a distinct Hamlet.’ Or, as they put it elsewhere: ‘The only features that these three Hamlets have in common are the name and designation of the chief character, and the fact that they are plays.’
The three texts are clearly in some sense ‘distinct’. Each is a separate book. But they are also all so clearly related to a continuing theatrical project that it is absurd to suggest that all they have in common is ‘the name and designation of the chief character, and the fact that they are plays’, or that each text is equally distinct from both the others. Q1 is clearly a different sort of text from Q2 and F, and interesting enough to be edited separately. F and Q2 each contain some different material, but how ‘distinct’ are they otherwise? The larger of the two Arden volumes – the one intended for students and general readers – follows Q2’s text whenever it can be defended. The defence often depends on performability. That is, if a reading can be made to make sense by an actor, then the editors don’t emend it. This principle produces a number of readings which, to put it kindly, would seriously perplex a non-specialist reader. In Q2, Polonius says to his son: ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender, boy.’ The note to this says: ‘F’s “be” is an easier reading, but Polonius could be addressing his son as boy and suppressing the obvious verb.’ You can defend ‘boy’; but it’s also very easy to construct a plausible narrative of error to explain how the reading arose. The line that follows Polonius’s injunction ends: ‘and friend’. The compositor probably took the ascender of the ‘d’ from the line below for the tail of a ‘y’, and so ‘bee’ became ‘boy’.
Underlying many older editions of Shakespeare was a belief that printed texts were witnesses to a single authorial archetype which had behind it a single authorial intention. That belief now looks like a superstition, as we become increasingly aware of the complex compositional histories of many – indeed most – texts. But the Arden 3 Hamlet suggests that a new fetish is growing up to replace the old belief in the singularity of authorial intentions: a belief in the sublime, inviolable irregularity of each early modern printed text, with a corresponding terror of angering the fetish by emending it. Printed texts are the outcomes of processes we can only partially understand. Where different printed texts of early modern works exist, we certainly should not think of them as imperfect manifestations of a single authorial intention. But we should not simply worship their distinctness either. They should be treated as stages of a larger process about which we can only make conjectures with varying degrees of plausibility. A 16th-century compositor would not have sought to reproduce his copy exactly, and would have looked a bit puzzled if you’d asked him what he thought the author intended. He would, though (as we know from the lists of ‘faults escaped’ appended to many early modern books, although not, alas, to Hamlet), have known what a mistake was. One of the many great, indeterminable and infinitely arguable questions about Hamlet is how many of the local divergences between Q2 and F are the result of mistakes.
The answer we give to this unanswerable question can affect the way we read significant moments in the play. When Hamlet tells himself not to kill Claudius while he’s at prayer, in the Folio and in most modern editions he says: ‘Now I might do it pat, now he is a-praying.’ Arden 3 has him wobble and rewobble: ‘Now might I do it. But now ’a is a-praying./And now I’ll do it.’ The Q2 text they follow suggests a melodrama of indecision (partially draws sword; resheathes it) which is performable. The question to put, though, is not whether it’s performable, but whether it’s likely to result from error. ‘Pat’ is unusual. That makes it probable that a compositor or scribe has substituted ‘but’ for the less familiar word. In F, Hamlet goes on to say that killing Claudius in circumstances that would lead him to go straight to heaven ‘is hyre and Sallery, not Reuenge’. In Q2, he says: ‘This is base and silly, not reuendge.’ The Arden 3 editors follow this reading because it’s in Q2 and can be defended, though their defence is as lame as the reading they defend: ‘The F reading would be Shakespeare’s only use of “salary”.’ The conviction that Q2 and F are ‘distinct’ again trumps a plausible narrative of error: flip their argument on its head and you have a compositor encountering a word he didn’t know and turning it into ‘silly’, and then making ‘hire’ into something that might go with ‘silly’.
The editors reproduce scores of readings of this kind: partly, I suspect, because they conflate ‘conflationism’ in the sense of ‘producing a text which includes all lines and all speeches from all versions of the play’ with ‘conflationism’ in the sense of ‘thinking critically about the relationship between two texts and using one to emend the other in cases where it looks as though one is in error’. There are limits to what they’re prepared to defend, though. Q2 contains a Greenpeace God, who fixed his canon ‘’gainst seale slaughter’. The editors at this point opt for F’s more orthodox Almighty who is opposed to ‘self-slaughter’, and the seals go to’t.
Somewhere in all this is a larger perplexity in our thinking about Hamlet, and in our ways of thinking about texts historically. We want a text that is pluralistic and open to infinite reinterpretation, that can be played any number of ways and imitated in any number of forms. But we also want to pare away the patina of modernity that has dulled the genuine Hamlet, so that we can, as it were, hear it played on original instruments. Margreta de Grazia’s ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet elegantly wrestles with a similar bind. Its argument is that our Hamlet needs unmodernising – conceptually rather than typographically (she, rather magnificently, quotes from a fully conflated text). De Grazia thinks that Hamlet the play is not about consciousness, and that Hamlet the prince does not mark the emergence of a modern psychological heroism as Hegel, Marx and (in his way) Coleridge believed. Instead, she brings to the play a dose of materialist historicism: the hero’s chief problem is the loss of his succession to the crown of Denmark. This is his unutterable secret, ‘that within which passes show’. This gives the play its preoccupation with land, land tenure and the decay of bodies into earth. It also generates the backdrop of imperial and dynastic struggles, the sense of an epoch and an empire ending in the background. And it is why Freud thought Hamlet had an Oedipus complex. Gertrude’s body is not simply an object of desire, but the key to regal succession: ‘Had Gertrude elected to commit incest with her son rather than her brother-in-law, Hamlet would have stood in better stead to succeed his father.’ When Hamlet says that he will not kill Claudius while he is praying, but will wait until he’s ‘At game a-swearing, or about some act/That has no relish of salvation in’t … that his soul may be as damned and black/As hell, whereto it goes’, he isn’t being the pausing, self-deceiving hero that late 18th-century critics thought he was. Instead, he’s a version of the traditional figure of the devil who carries a sinner off to hell before the horrified eyes of the audience.
De Grazia makes many palpable hits in her analysis of the way Hamlet came to be psychologised, and how the prince came to dominate the play. But the central problem with her book is the problem that always besets attempts to unmodernise. The Sistine Chapel ceiling isn’t quite the Sistine Chapel ceiling when you scrape off the smoke of ages. When a text is restored to its ‘authentic’ state, you can end up hearing the erasures with something rather stronger than nostalgia. Q2’s unmetrical ‘thus conscience does make cowards’ makes you want to shout out: ‘of us all’. De Grazia’s account of Hamlet, in the same way, makes you end up wondering about the bits of Hamlet that have to be ignored in order to establish that it is more about land-tenure than consciousness. In no text of the play does the ghost say: ‘Hamlet, thine inheritance reclaim.’ He tells Hamlet to perform a mental act (‘remember’), and dwells far more than de Grazia would probably want us to believe he should on the sexual union between Claudius and Gertrude: ‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/A couch for luxury and damned incest.’
There are also good reasons to think of Hamlet as being, in one way or another, about individuality. The whole play works, in a variety of ways, with logics of identity and singularity. Is a ghost ‘in the same figure like the king that’s dead’ to be identified with the king that’s dead? Is likeness sameness? Hamlet himself is pretty much always unlike what you expect him to be. He is like Laertes in that his father is murdered, but unlike Laertes in what he does about it. Hamlet repeatedly sets up a general principle, often an old one – revengers get on with it; devils drag sinners off to hell – and then suggests that Hamlet is a particular instance who doesn’t quite fit that general principle. This is what makes the play seem modern, and its hero seem the peculiar focus of the play.
The process of making Hamlet look like an exception to a general rule begins in the first scene in which the prince appears, when Gertrude says that he should stop mourning his father because ‘’tis common all that lives must die,’ and then asks: ‘Why seems it so particular with thee?’ The general truths about death and inheritance, the undifferentiating legal and biological facts of life, run underneath the play; but it sets them alongside an individual who has to live with the fact of a particular death that hurts. The now all-too-familiar moment when Hamlet says ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ ought always to be shiveringly splendid when it’s performed: Hamlet has caught himself in the graveyard reflecting on the universality of death like one of the older generation in the play, and then finds that the skull he has in his hand is a particular instance of what it is to die: ‘I knew him, Horatio.’ Knowing that death is certain does not make missing an individual who has died any easier to feel when you’re feeling it, or to understand if you’re observing someone feeling it.
That, in a way, is Hamlet’s mystery: what happens when someone feels a general truth in a way that is particular to him? Hamlet probably isn’t about consciousness, exactly, and probably isn’t quite ‘psychological’ in the sense that Coleridge or Freud thought it was. But its hero – who was never quite a bloody revenger of the Thomas Kyd type – has always been modern, ‘particular’. The play as it was written, with a thinking and particular hero, makes its audience realise that an individual is an entity who only partly fits a general truth. We probably do need to keep unmodernising the play in order to save it from becoming something common, a weary general truth about death, or consciousness, or mothers, or heredity; but in doing so we shouldn’t forget that it forces us to think about particularity – of the play, of its hero, of each of our deaths, of each of our thinking.