Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0168. Tuesday, 1 March 1994.
Date: Tuesday, 1 Mar 1994 11:26:09 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Hamlet Q1
[The following letter was sent to the TLS by SHASKPERean Anthony Hammond, who
invites your comments. --HMC]
The Editor, Times Literary Supplement.
I write not to disprove what Professor Sprinchorn says about the first
quarto of Hamlet (Letters, 21 January), but to query the kind of evidence
he offers. Nonetheless I heartily endorse his defence of the actor: the
`incompetent actor' was always too easy a target for critics of a
fundamentally literary persuasion; like the incompetent, careless
compositor, the botching actor is probably a figment of the imagination.
To be sure, actors have trained memories; but the evidence Professor
Sprinchorn adduces, being often anecdotal, and mainly nineteenth-century,
cannot decide the question of what might or might not have been the
situation in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period. He says for instance that
when actors dry they do not make up words, but rely on the prompter. How
much actual prompting the bookholder did in the Elizabethan-Jacobean
period remains a matter of opinion, but evidence from a performance of
Shaw can hardly be considered conclusive. He says that when actors
memorize they neither invent nor paraphrase, they do not depart from the
script. I have documented cases indicating that even professional actors
are liable to two kinds of memorial error: the first when a line has been
mislearned, which then remains fixed in memory (and is very hard to
correct); the other, momentary lapses of memory in the course of a single
performance. Both of these can lead to the kind of improvisation which
scholars have observed in some of the `bad quartos'.
The best account of these kinds of memorial error is perhaps still D.L.
Patrick's, in his Textual History of Richard III (1936). The still
generally-accepted view, that the text of the first quarto of that play
originated in a collective memorial re-creation by most members of the
Chamberlain's Men, makes Richard III the best test-case against which the
vagaries of the other `bad quartos' may be assessed. It is very accurate;
any director whose cast managed as well would probably be very contented;
but it still differs verbally hundreds of times from the text of the play
in the First Folio.
The quarto of Richard III is a very different document from the Hamlet Q1;
the view that their differences reflect the circumstances under which
their reports were created is not unreasonable. If indeed the latter
derived from a report being made by actors no longer in the Company's
employ, who were perhaps no longer performing the play in repertory, and
who had not been major participants in the original production anyway, a
number of factors which Professor Sprinchorn fails to contemplate become
The Elizabethan acting company, with several plays in repertory at the
same time, new works constantly being rehearsed and put into production
whilst older ones were dropped, must have been one of the most severe
tests of the actor's ability to memorize and to retain in memory that has
ever obtained. How much time could a hired man spend hanging around near
the entrance to memorize other actors' performances? We don't know, of
course; but once again, I have some documentary evidence that while the
ability to memorize in this casual way is highly variable, few if any
actors will retain verbatim the verbal detail of scenes in which they are
At any event, it will not do for Professor Sprinchorn to exonerate the
actor at the expense of the dramatist. To suppose that Hamlet Q1 fairly
represents the work of a highly competent professional dramatist (to put
it no higher) is at least as problematical as any scenario that lays the
responsibility for that quarto at the door of an actor or actors unknown.
It has, unfortunately, again become fashionable in the current critical
climate to try to explain the `bad quartos' as authorial drafts; but to
paraphrase Professor Sprinchorn, competent professional dramatists don't
write rubbish, let alone allow it to be put into production, any more than
competent professional actors habitually mangle their lines.
Department of Drama, McMaster University,
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada