I’m inching my way toward a decision to take a serious look at Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
I’m thinking about doing a book on ring-composition and I need another canonical text to make the argument more enticing to ‘traditional’ literary scholars – by which I mean just about all literary scholars currently working regardless of their interpretive methodology. Hamlet is a good choice for several reasons. In the first place, it’s Shakespeare and, to the extent that the canon has a center, Shakespeare is it, and Hamlet is at the center of the Shakespeare oeuvre. Second, it’s already been identified as a ring-composition. Mark Rose did the basic descriptive work in Shakespearean Design (Harvard 1972), but didn’t use the term. In 1976 R. G. Person reviewed a wide range of diverse scholarship, “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature” (PMLA, 91, 3, 1976, 367-375), and included Rose, asserting that he had in effect analyzed Hamlet as a ring-composition. Most recently, James E. Ryan has argued that all of Shakespeare’s plays are ring-compositions, Shakespeare’s Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays (McFarland 2016).
So, the basic work has already been done. I just have to check it. Except that, at first glace, Rose and Ryan don’t quite agree on the analysis. Uh oh! As I’ve not read the play in years I’m in no position to comment on this difference. Once I’ve (re)read the play for myself...
Which brings me to a third reason for looking at Hamlet. All of Shakespeare’s plays exist in two, or even three, early versions. The differences between the versions may be relatively minor – printer’s errors, different word choice scattered about, a few lines here and there – or not so minor. Hamlet exists in three versions and the differences between them are not minor; thus two texts are almost twice as long as the other and the two longer texts differ in some 300 lines out of almost 4000. Those are hardly trivial differences and there are many more local differences.
Now things begin to get interesting. If Hamlet is a ring-form composition, is that form preserved across all three texts? I don’t know. That’s what I want to find out. Hence both the adventure and the tedium. The process of reading the three texts and comparing them will surely be tedious, perhaps even tedious beyond belief. The prospect of finding out something at least interesting, but who knows, maybe even deep, is where the adventure comes in.
What qualifies as interesting? If all three of them turn out to be ring-compositions, and they have the same number of parts arranged in congruent ways, that would be interesting. If only one of them is a ring-composition, that too would be interesting, and become more so if the others diverge from ring-form – if that’s the way to put it – in intelligible ways. I don’t know what to expect. That’s adventure.
One text, one meaning
When you see a production of Hamlet, or a movie, you see one text, one play. If you purchase a text of the play, unless you are a scholar, you will purchase a single text; for that matter, most scholars work from single texts. That single text will have been prepared by an editor. A text that is acted will start with some existing edition and the director more likely than not will cut things here and there to produce a script that can be performed in a reasonable amount of time, say two hours plus or minus.
Just about the only people who work with the texts Shakespeare wrote are the editors who prepare the texts that the rest of us work from. Correction: Actually, no one works with the texts that Shakespeare wrote, at least not that we know of. Such things no longer exist.
We have no manuscripts and there is no documented relationship between any existing text and the man named William Shakespeare, son of a glover named John Shakespeare, actor, and partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatrical company. Two of the Hamlet texts were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Did Shakespeare have a hand in them? We don’t know. The third was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, 1616. It seems highly unlikely that Shakespeare had a hand in that edition.
What’s an editor to do? What’s at stake?
What Shakespeare editors in fact have done is to produce a single text. You correct printer’s errors as best you can, modernize the spelling, and examine the existing texts. Where they vary, pick the best variant. That last step, of course, leaves room for editorial discretion. But as long as the texts you start with do not differ in major ways, it is reasonable to think that the final result is a good approximation of the TRUE WORK.
For that’s what is behind this process, the idea of the true and original work of art by the true and original genius. That’s what we’re after.
In the case of Hamlet the existing texts differ from one another in such major ways that this process doesn’t work very well. As a practical matter, editors have mostly ignored the earliest text, which is also the shortest, and based their work on one of the two later texts. To be sure, they differ in significant ways, but still not so much that the search for the ONE TRUE TEXT can’t be patched up and pushed out on stage for another song and dance.
But things have changed over the last two decades or so. Postmodernism has given the search for the ONE TRUE MEANING the old heave-ho. And ONE TRUE MEANING strongly implies ONE TRUE TEXT, which can plausibly be edited from existing texts that ARE NOT SO DIFFERENT. Without the search for ONE TRUE MEANING driving critical practice, the need for the ONE TRUE TEXT all but disappears. And thus it is now possible to purchase a scholarly edition of Hamlet that includes all three texts.
What we’ve got, three texts
It didn’t happen all at once. It happened by stages, a story that is told in the introductory material for the Revised Edition (2016) of Hamlet in The Arden Shakespeare – one of several scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays. It is edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. Here’s what they say about their three texts (one of many things they say):
We are not assuming that William Shakespeare was necessarily the sole author of every word in those early seventeenth-century texts, nor that we know the degree to which any of them represent the author’s or authors’ intentions, nor how it was that they came to be in print. We do know, however, that they have a claim to be regarded as separate plays as well as separate versions of the same play. Our approach to editing them ultimately lacks intellectual purity, since ‘the dream of the original text’ inevitably informs every editor’s mind and, therefore, practice. But we nevertheless offer three Hamlets rather than one. (p. 95).
I’m not quite sure just what they mean by that penultimate sentence, unless it is that they too are haunted by that dream and that that has somehow affected the way they have approached each of the three texts in turn. For it seems to me that in offering three texts where three texts in fact exist they are being ‘pure’ in a way that pretending three-are-really-one is not – though one can’t help but notice a certain Christian resonance in that pretense. They seek the world as it is rather than as it ought to be in an ideal (literary criticism) universe.
As for that opening material about Shakespeare not being the sole author of every word, there’s more to that than the mere fact that we can’t connect his hand to those early texts. It seems to me – and here I’m embroidering on what they say – it would be useful to think of Shakespeare’s practice as being a bit like Duke Ellington’s. Ellington as you know, was a great jazz composer and bandleader during the middle five decades of the 20th century. The personnel in his band was unusually stable; some musicians stayed with him for decades. Hence Ellington wrote for and to the capabilities of the specific musicians in his band rather than writing for a general collection of capable musicians. Moreover, he often took suggestions or even whole tunes from his musicians. Drawing a clear boundary between Ellington and his musicians is all but impossible.
Surely the same is true for Shakespeare. He didn’t write texts for any theatrical company that would mount them. He wrote for the specific company he was involved with. He knew who would be acting what role. Surely these players would make things up on stage every now and then. Perhaps they forgot a line – it happens. Or perhaps they had an idea – it happens. How could some of these improvisations not find their way into a published text?
As for what really happened. We just don’t know. The historical record is spotty. We have to work from what we’ve got. We’ve been trying to turn WHAT WE’VE GOT into ONE TRUE TEXT with ONE TRUE MEANING for decades. That’s gotten us to where we are now. It’s about time we stick with WHAT WE’VE GOT and see what we can make of it.
What’s a girl to do?
And where does that leave you, gentle reader? All you want is to read a good play, or attend a good performance, whether on stage or in a movie. You don’t want to bother with three texts. One will suit you just fine.
For the most part, all that changes for you is truth in labeling. There’s nothing particularly secret about the story I’ve just told you about the three Hamlets. It’s likely not there on the playbill of the performance you’re about to watch, and it’s certainly not tucked away in the end-credits of the film you’ve just seen. But the information has always been available. Perhaps now it will be made more explicit in literature courses so you’re more likely to know what’s going.
One final thing. Perhaps the Hamlet you really want to read, or see performed, is one that’s been rendered in good modern English.* In that case it will be quite obvious that you aren’t reading or hearing the words of THE BARD HIMSELF. A loss no doubt. But you might also actually understand what’s being said. A gain.
You win some, you lose some.
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* John McWhorter, among others, has argued that Shakespeare's language is so difficult that it should be "adjusted" into modern English for modern readers and theatre-goers. I'm sympathetic. Yesterday I started watching the Zeferelli movie version of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and at times the language just lost me. Here's a podcast where he discusses the subject with John Lynch.