In these days of Amazon.com and the proliferation of mega-bookstores, it is hard to imagine that buying a printed copy of a play was once a difficult, if not unfathomable, notion. Before Guttenburg’s invention of movable type in the mid-fifteenth century, a single book was about as expensive as a hybrid SUV is today. A monk or scribe sometimes spent an entire year copying a manuscript. After Guttenburg, and certainly by the time Shakespeare had become famous in the theatre world of the early seventeenth century, quartos (in essence, Elizabethan paperbacks) were widely marketed at affordable prices. But plays were considered live entertainment and were rarely available in printed form.
The road to publication was circuitous at best. First, Shakespeare scribbled his story on paper and delivered it to a scrivener; those hand-written copies are now called “Foul Papers.” Next, the scrivener neatly recopied the play, creating “Fair Copy.” The “Fair Copy” was turned over to the theatre company’s stage manager, who wrote out the lines and cues for each individual actor (each actor received only his own parts, with cues); actors were not given the whole play. The stage manager would take the pages of a single actor’s lines, stitch them together from end to end, roll it all up into a scroll and hand each actor his “role.”
Though most were not printed until after his death (1616), several of Shakespeare’s plays were printed while he was still alive in quarto form. Scholars have speculated that some quartos resulted from actors reconstructing entire plays from memory; other quartos may have been officially licensed to the printer by Shakespeare’s company. In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of his fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, supervised the publication of 36 Shakespeare plays in one book. This first attempt to create a “complete” edition is called the First Folio (folios were larger than quartos, like coffee-table books). When it came time to give a copy of a play to a printer, which copy would they use? Shakespeare’s original Foul Papers? The neater Fair Copy? What about the stage directions for entrances and exits, probably
created by the stage manager by writing on the Fair copy and might have included cuts made by the actors? Shakespeare scholar Andrew Gurr thinks the actors cut the texts (that they never performed every line a playwright wrote) and that the cut texts used for performance were “too valuable to the companies to be used for printing.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first performed in 1602 with Richard Burbage in the title role. This play turned out to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular, and three different versions of this play were subsequently published:
1603: First Quarto(Q1)
thought by many scholars to be “unauthorized” and based on the recollection of actors, thought by other scholars to be an earlier and cut version of the play as performed by Shakespeare’s company.
1604: Second Quarto(Q2)
thought to be a response to the “bad” first quarto and based on Shakespeare’s papers.
1623: First Folio(F1)
the first collected works of Shakespeare, also thought to be based on Shakespeare's papers.
Each version contains peculiarities that make it unique. Q2 and F1 are very similar but not identical. Q1 was printed first but contains many lines and speeches that scholars call “corrupt,” but maybe it was an earlier, unrevised version. Q1 has about 2800-2900 lines and is, therefore, closer to the length of most Renaissance plays. Q2 has about 3800 lines. F1 is around 3650 lines, but it omits 230 lines from Q2 and adds 80 lines not found in Q2 or any other version. Harold Bloom calls Q2, F1, and
the conflated Hamlet of 3880 lines “Shakespeare’s White Elephant” and “an anomaly in the cannon” because they are so long. Andrew Gurr writes:
Shakespeare and his company were in the habit of trimming and redrafting his scripts for use on the stage quite drastically. They shortened long speeches and cut redundant characters in order to streamline the text into something that could easily be put on as a two-hour performance.
The most intriguing difference found in these versions (revisions?) of Hamlet involves the sequence of scenes. Q2 and F1 feature identical scene order while Q1 places the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (followed by the “get thee to a nunnery” scene) much earlier in the play. Some scholars believe that the Q1 scene order is “more logical” and that the story it tells is more direct and immediate. In Q1, “to be or not to be” and the nunnery scene are followed by the fishmonger scene, the arrival of the players, Hamlet formulating his plan “to catch the conscience of the king,” and Hamlet putting that plan into immediate action. In Q2/F1, the fishmonger scene comes first, followed by the arrival of the players, then Hamlet formulating his plan “to catch the conscience of the king”; but then Hamlet seems to lose his momentum, contemplating death with “to be or not to be,” followed by the nunnery scene, and THEN the players perform their play. Obviously, the arc of the story is significantly different in each of the two sequences; but which version is the “right” version? Which version plays “better”? Do the two versions feel different for an audience?
For a couple of months at the beginning of 2007, during our Actors’ Renaissance Season, we performed the Q1 Hamlet to rave reviews. Our 2008/09 Stark Raving Sane Hamlet will use the length of the Q1 text as our guide, but we will be selecting speeches and word choices from all three versions. And we will be rehearsing both scene sequences. At this point, my plan is to work up two versions of the show and perform the Q1 sequence on some nights and the F1/Q2 sequence on other nights. Maybe we’ll flip a coin each night and let an audience member choose our scene order by calling heads or tails (see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for more coin flipping). Whichever way we decide to go, the fact remains that we can never know which version of Hamlet is “right” or “definitive” or “Shakespeare’s favorite.” With such an abundance of material from which to choose, the adventure lies in the exploration.
ASC Artistic Director, Co-founder
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Cyrano de Bergerac
Sunday, August 31, 2014, 2:00 pm
Actors' Renaissance Season