Words, words…

I had a lovely birthday – thanks for all the greetings. Not very exciting, just relaxing with my family. I’m going to be taken to The Church Green at Lymm for a celebratory lunch in May. The chef there, Aidan Byrne, is I believe the youngest ever in England to receive a Michelin star, and he’s tipped to be the next big thing in TV cookery.

I’ve spent a lot of the last few days going through three versions of Hamlet simultaneously and noting down the differences, a task calculated to bend your brain badly after an hour or two of it. For those who don’t know and are interested, a fairly small subset I’d imagine, said three versions are the First Quarto (Q1) of 1603, the Second Quarto (Q2) 1604 and the Folio (F) 1623.

Q1 is basically a pirate copy, probably written from memory by a couple of the actors who played minor roles. It is just about recognisible as the Hamlet most people know, but misses out a great deal of the reflective speeches (not necessarily a bad thing, many would argue). The poetry is greatly inferior, probably because it wasn’t being remembered accurately, but it does move faster and gets through the story. There are some interesting differences, which I won’t go into here in great detail, but to give you a flavour, here’s a bit of Q1:

        "To be or not to be, aye there’s the point
       To do, to sleep, is that all? Ay, all
        No, to sleep, to dream, ay, marry there it goes…"

You get the idea. What really gets interesting and challenging is that the scene order varies a lot and I’ve been sitting down with a big notebook, Q1 on the left, Q2 on the right, and two highlighters in different colours, trying to do a running version of the two side by side, ready for an essay.

F differs again, but it is the Hamlet we recognise. The whole textual history is very much more complex than even this note implies, and what we tend to get in modern productions is some conflation of Q2 and F, because some fairly major speeches are omitted from F and directors like to put them in.

But sometimes directors borrow from Q1 as well. Greg Doran moved the great "To be" speech and the notorious nunnery scene that follows it from its usual position in Act 3 to halfway through Act 2, which is its position in Q1. Arguably this works better, because then it comes before Hamlet resolving to use the Players to trap Claudius, rather than after. In its usual position, we see Hamlet psyche himself up to form a plan and then go backwards as a character to become suicidal.

So what I have to write about is the fact that many Shakespeare texts, and particularly Hamlet, are not fixed in any one form, but that editors and directors have to make decisions all the time whether to attempt to recreate what they imagine Shakespeare originally wrote, or to look first and foremost at what works theatrically, or some combination of the two. It’s fascinating stuff, partly because the Elizabethans and Jacobeans had different ideas to ours today about what made good theatre.

I haven’t done anything this intellectually challenging for a very long time, and you do need to come up for air now and then. So I’m off now to dig the garden.

I’ve found some wonderful icons made from the covers of the Penguin Shakespeare by angevin2  – you’ll  be seeing quite a lot of them. All credit goes to her.


9 thoughts on “Words, words…

  1. I have just realised you share your birthday with Gareth David-Lloyd.
    My memory is terrible for anniversaries. The next thing scheduled in my mind is April 11/12, when I will be eating chocolate and watching Planet of the Dead.

  2. Billie Piper’s son was born the day after me. If the C-S had been 61 minutes earlier…
    I think the majority of modern Doctor Who first day covers were stamped on my birthday. The only one I really care about is the regeneration cover. I adore the coincidence.
    The birthday I notably share is Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen. Not many people care about sharing it with Sir Christopher Wren.

  3. I thought the to be speech did come before the plot with the players. I think it’s been that way in every version I’ve read or seen.
    If Byrne is going to be a tv cook he needs a catchphrase, like “Bam!” or “What’s not to like?” or “[bleep]!”

  4. In Q2 it comes after the “The play’s the thing” speech – ie, after Hamlet has decided what he’s going to do (though not before the plot is implemented). And there’s the rub…it seems strange that Hamlet’s seen the players, decided what to do next and is feeling reasonably positive, but then in the next Act he’s suicidally gloomy again.
    BTW have you discovered the wonder that is stickmanhamlet yet?

  5. Belated happy birthday! Sorry I missed it 😦
    Your account of the various versions is fascinating! It’s also amazing that these different versions actually survived, given the absence of mass-printing in the early 1600s. Good luck with the essay!

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