Hamlet in the Prison of Arden

Graham Bradshaw

  • Hamlet edited by Harold Jenkins
    Methuen, 592 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 416 17910 X
  • The Taming of the Shrew edited by Brian Morris
    Methuen, 396 pp, £12.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 416 47580 9
  • Richard III edited by Antony Hammond
    Methuen, 396 pp, £12.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 416 17970 3
  • Much Ado about Nothing edited by A.R. Humphreys
    Methuen, 256 pp, £11.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 416 17990 8

New Arden English is a specialised, hybrid language – Elizabethan in some features, modern in others, but essentially unlike any English written in any period. That doesn’t disturb most people, including critics who would never dream of quoting Donne or Jonson from modernised texts: but it does mean that only the naive will suppose that the editorial aim is to give us, as nearly as possible, what Shakespeare wrote. The author of Hamlet wrote margent at 5.2.152, but in the New Arden text this is changed without comment to margin. Both the second Quarto of Hamlet and the Folio agree on impitious at 4.5.100, but this is changed to impetuous. Here there is a note, in which Professor Jenkins explains that the ‘secondary connotations’ of impitious were sacrificed in order to make clear the ‘primary meaning’ of the word which has gone. Given the context, that primary meaning could never have been unclear; moreover, the elimination of ‘connotations’ leaves us with a weaker idea, uncomfortably close to tautology. Jenkins should have left Shakespeare’s word in the text, and added a footnote on its ‘connotations’.

But of course an editor may modernise without being insensitive, just as we may object to this instance without attacking modernisation per se. Similarly, modernised punctuation may be more or less sensitive to the movement of Shakespearean verse – despite the theoretical difficulty that punctuation modifies metrical rhythm, which is a constituent of meaning. Dover Wilson and W.W. Greg believed that the light, dramatic pointing of the second Quarto Hamlet was both Shakespearean and a valuable guide to delivery. Modern punctuation is logical and syntactic, and therefore essentially different, but this does not mean that it has to be heavy and undramatic. Here is Dover Wilson’s version of Hamlet, 1.4.84-6, in the New Cambridge edition:

Still am I called, unhand me gentlemen;
By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! go on, I’ll follow thee.

And here is the New Arden version:

Still am I call’d. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.
I say, away. – Go on, I’ll follow thee.

Which sounds more like a man who ‘waxes desperate’? Or consider the ludicrously leisurely effect of sandwiching ‘happily’ between two commas when the excited Hamlet is begging the Ghost to speak:

If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid ...

Conversely, in a text as heavily punctuated as the New Arden Hamlet the omission of a comma or semicolon may sweep us on when we shouldn’t be rushed, as in

Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught.

I want the pause after ‘mind’: it makes sense, whereas the pedantic framing of ‘happily’ encourages an unwanted, metrically disruptive emphasis and doesn’t make sense in human and dramatic terms. Modernisation is the lowest form of translation, but still an art.

Since every ‘Shakespearean’ is likely to recognise indebtedness to Professor Jenkins, it is a pity to have to report that this long-awaited edition of Hamlet arouses yet graver misgivings: but the other volumes in this latest batch are very welcome. Brian Morris’s edition of The Taming of the Shrew is a model of its kind, for its critical as well as textual insights. The latter are especially significant since Morris conclusively establishes that Shakespeare’s play preceded The Taming of a Shrew, and must be assigned to a date considerably earlier than the ‘late start’ Malone-Chambers chronology allowed. The notes are excellent (that on 5.2.32 is typically judicious); there are particularly good discussions of the play’s relation to Gascoigne’s Supposes and of its folklore elements. Antony Hammond’s edition of Richard III argues, no less convincingly, for an early dating of that play (1591). His introduction includes a shrewd discussion of the importance of role-playing in the play, and of the ways in which the consequent Verfremdungseffekt ‘lessens the realistic and strengthens the dialectical, ritualistic qualities of the play’. Not surprisingly, Hammond needs to devote his first 53 pages to the daunting textual problems, whereas A. R. Humphreys needs only ten pages at the end of his introduction to Much Ado about Nothing – a refreshing reminder that the Arden format is adaptable and doesn’t demand a dragon at the gate. The comedy’s sources are well discussed, and so is its prose style; I liked the way the discussion of euphuistic elements continues in the second appendix. The lengthy discussion of whether the ‘world of Messina’ is ‘essentially good-natured’ or ‘hard’ seemed hampered by the impulse to generalise (the ‘world of Messina’ is made up of different people) and by Humphreys’s determination to exonerate the ‘shy and well bred’ Claudio; but he doesn’t underestimate the significance of the tomb scene and its music; and his discussion of the stage history is (like Hammond’s) critically enlightening. Each of these three editions opens doors – whereas the commentary and notes in the New Arden Hamlet resound with the noise of door after door being irritably banged shut.

Although nobody would underrate the textual difficulties confronting the editor of Hamlet, Professor Jenkins’s worst difficulties are of another, self-imposed sort. His text is conservative: setting aside spelling and punctuation differences, I totted up 66 verbal departures from Dover Wilson’s revolutionary New Cambridge edition, and in about two-thirds of these cases Jenkins opts for the second Quarto readings where Dover Wilson – who established the authority of Q2 – had resorted for one reason or another to the Folio text. Although we are all taught to be circumspect about saying such things, few of the differences are critically significant – that is, likely to change our understanding of Hamlet. Some of the notes are excellent (e.g. 1.3.130, 2.2.73, 3.1.121), some are sensible and persuasive (e.g. 1.1.96, 1.1.124); in other instances, even where Jenkins is arguing flat out against Dover Wilson (3.3.79, 4.7.166, 5.2.350) it is far from certain he has the stronger case.

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