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.