Hamlet: Getting to our Script
Throughout the 19th century, Hamlet rarely encountered Claudius at prayer: actors and audience in the age of melodrama couldn’t abide the idea that a hero, even one pledged to revenge, would consider stabbing someone, even the villain, in the back. Stabbing someone through a tapestry was fine, however.
by Walter Bilderback
Hamlet is almost always cut for performance. What people read in school runs about 4 1/2 hours uncut - and that “complete” Hamlet is actually something created by editors in the 18th century, who saw the First Folio (1623) and what we now call the Second Quarto (1604) as imperfect representations of what Shakespeare “really” meant to write, and tried to create their ideal. Each version has unique passages, and only around 200 lines out of nearly 4,000 are identical in the two versions. This has given editors 300 years to put their own interpretation on the play, hoping to channel Shakespeare’s intent.
Meanwhile, actors, producers, and directors have always cut and pasted for performance, sometimes from personal vision or ideology, sometimes to conform to the tastes and prejudices of the time. Throughout the 19th century, for instance, Hamlet rarely encountered Claudius at prayer: actors and audience in the age of melodrama couldn’t abide the idea that a hero, even one pledged to revenge, would consider stabbing someone, even the villain, in the back. Stabbing someone through a tapestry was fine, however.
There’s also a third version of the play. In the early 19th century, scholars discovered a version of Hamlet published a year before the Second Quarto. This First Quarto is probably a pirated version of the play, reconstructed from the memory of an actor who played Marcellus (and probably Voltemand) - those scenes are very close to the Second Quarto, while elsewhere the language doesn’t always feel “Shakespearean” - for instance, in the First Quarto Hamlet says “To be or not to be? Ay, that’s the point!/To die, to sleep - Is that all?” Some character names are changed: Polonius is “Corambis” here, and there’s a scene between Queen “Gertred” and Horatio where they plot to help Hamlet. But most significantly, this version is about half the length of the Second Quarto and First Folio, running about 2 1/2 hours, which we know was the usual length of performance for London’s outdoor theaters, so it may give important clues about how the play may have looked in performance in Shakespeare’s time.
In recent decades, Shakespeare scholars have increasingly decided that these different versions represent different stages of the play’s development. (Similar critical thinking has been evolving about King Lear, whose Quarto and Folio versions also show significant differences: the Oxford Shakespeare printed both versions of Lear back-to-back in 1986.) What precisely the differences meant to Shakespeare and his company is open to interpretation. The First Quarto appeared in 1603. The Second Quarto, the longest version, appeared hard on its heels in 1604.
It seems obvious that Shakespeare and company wanted to both to cash in on the play’s popularity in book form and to stake their claim on Hamlet material (copyright laws didn’t exist at the time). The noted critic James Shapiro suggests that the Second Quarto was Shakespeare’s rough draft, “letting the writing take him where it would.” After the First Quarto hit the bookstalls, Shapiro feels Shakespeare rushed this draft to the printer to fill the gap, rather than waiting for a clean copy of the performance script.
Looking at the play in terms of staging, we have some questions about this, particularly in regard to two scenes: the end of the scene where Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet’s disheveled visit to her, and the sequence of “To be or not to be” and Hamlet and Ophelia’s scene following it. In both the Second Quarto and the First Folio, Polonius and Ophelia rush offstage together so Polonius can tell the King and Queen his theory for Hamlet’s behavior. In the next scene, Polonius enters alone with this news. Then, several scenes later (and the next day, if we follow the internal chronology) Polonius and Ophelia show up to the King and Queen again, with a plot to use Ophelia as bait while Claudius and Polonius spy on him. Additionally, the content of “To be or not to be” is clearly the consideration of suicide. Hamlet has expressed suicidal thoughts in his first soliloquy (“O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt”), but if we follow the plot sequence of Q2 and the First Folio, Hamlet has already met the Players and put his “Mousetrap” in operation to prove Claudius’ guilt: why is he talking about suicide again at this point? The question led David Ball, in his book Backward and Forward, a commonly-used introductory book for script analysis, the answer is that Hamlet knows as he comes on that he’s being spied upon (he’s had his first scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and figured out they “were sent for. If we look at the First Quarto, however, Polonius and Ophelia re-enter together, Polonius presents his plan to Claudius, and the two spy on Hamlet and Ophelia together. Hamlet enters, contemplating suicide because he hasn’t found a way to test the Ghost’s veracity, and we move along. (I should acknowledge we weren’t the first people to feel this progression made sense.)
About ten years ago, the Arden Shakespeare series made the decision to publish all three versions of Hamlet separately (the First Quarto and First Folio in one volume, the Second Quarto in another), to allow non-experts the chance to compare them directly.
Last spring, while we were casting Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from a two-week workshop with actors, we took the opportunity to read the First Quarto aloud. Although the language convinced us that we didn’t want to do the First Quarto, Blanka Zizka and I felt that the First Quarto’s structure had a very strong sense of narrative drive (partially because of where it places “To be or not to be”) and showed a Hamlet who was definitely not “a man who can not make up his mind” (as Laurence Olivier called him). We decided to start by looking at the play through the First Quarto’s structure and the First Folio’s language.
In cutting the play, we had to make some other decisions to start with. The first was that we wanted our Hamlet to be about Hamlet within his society. Many productions, probably starting with Olivier’s “Freudian” version, focus only on the family dynamics; others only on Hamlet’s personal subjectivity, even to the point of eliminating everyone except the melancholy Dane.. This meant paying attention to Polonius, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even Fortinbras (who is frequently cut out of British productions entirely), as well as the “Hamlet family,” and giving some priority to the passages dealing with Danish society and politics (many of which also imagine a degraded natural world). On a more practical note, Blanka knew she didn’t want the long “Globe stage” entrances and exits for this production, so all lines of the “looks where he/she comes yonder” would be cut, along some of the more obscure references to classical mythology (Niobe’s tears), the Bible (Jephthah and his daughter, anyone?), or heraldry (although the First Player’s old-fashioned speech about the fall of Troy still references “gules” - the color red - unless the reference vanishes in rehearsal).
Blanka and I spend three days on a retreat looking at the script and making a first cutting. During this time we watched a film of the Polish director Andrei Wajda’s remarkable Hamlet from 1989, featuring Teresa Budzisz-Kyryzanowska in the title role. This production shared a great kinship with Blanka’s emerging ideas about the play, and had an impact on our treatment of what is usually called Act 4 of the play. In November we had an opportunity to hear this first pass read by the cast and then spend five days talking through the play with our Hamlet, Zainab Jah, making further revisions. I think we have found a political and psychological thriller at the heart of Hamlet (which we’ll of course bring to life with the anti-psychological style Blanka is developing). I’m sure more revisions will take place in rehearsals, especially as we discover what the actors and the design bring to the world of the play. The result, I hope, will be intellectually stimulating, emotionally gripping, and a great couple of hours in the theater.
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Andrei Wajda’s remarkable Hamlet from 1989, featuring Teresa Budzisz-Kyryzanowska