Colin Burrow

  • Hamlet edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor
    Arden, 613 pp, £8.99, March 2006, ISBN 1 904271 33 2
  • Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623 edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor
    Arden, 368 pp, £12.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 1 904271 80 2
  • ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet by Margreta de Grazia
    Cambridge, 267 pp, £17.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 69036 2

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.’

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[*] Arden 3 is the third series of the Arden Shakespeare, begun in 1995, under the general editorship of Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, David Scott Kastan and H.R. Woudhuysen. The first Arden Shakespeare was published by Methuen between 1899 and 1924, beginning with Edward Dowden’s Hamlet. The second series, including Harold Jenkins’s Hamlet, appeared between the 1950s and the early 1980s.