The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0933 Monday, 23 October 2006
From: David Richman <
Date: Thursday, 19 Oct 2006 12:15:59 -0400
Subject: Hamlet "bad" Quarto
Here, for the amusement of SHAKSPERians, is my director's note for the
Hamlet so-called "bad" Quarto production set for November 8 through 12 at
the University of New Hampshire. Cheers, David Richman
"Hamlet" is probably the most famous play in human history, but we know
next to nothing about its origins. Precisely when was the play first
performed? When did Shakespeare first begin work on the play? When did he
complete it? . . .
As early as 1589, about the time Shakespeare was beginning to write plays,
there is a cryptic reference to "Hamlet." In 1596, by which time
Shakespeare had established himself as the decade's most successful
playwright, a rival writer describes a ghost which cried "so miserably at
the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, 'Hamlet, revenge!'" Some scholars, the
best-selling Harold Bloom among them, believe these are early references
to Shakespeare's "Hamlet," which was, Bloom believes, Shakespeare's first
play--a play he kept rewriting throughout his long career. Most scholars
are skeptical. The prevailing view is that Shakespeare began work on
"Hamlet" around 1600, and the play was first performed around 1601--give
or take a year or two.
We do know for certain that in 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth's death,
there was published in quarto--the 17th-century equivalent of an
inexpensive paperback--"THE TRAGICALL HISTORIE OF HAMLET Prince of
Denmarke" by William Shakespeare. A year and a half later, another quarto
of "Hamlet" was published, this one's title page boasting that it was
"newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was,
according to the true and perfect Coppie."
The play that has become the most performed, most talked- and
written-about play in human history is based in part on this newly
enlarged text, which scholars like unimaginative parents have dubbed the
"good Quarto." That 1603 script--shorter, cruder, maybe garbled in
places--has been called the "bad Quarto" and consigned to a sort of
permanent time-out chair. I don't propose to lose myself in the scholarly
fights about this text's provenance. Is it a work of piracy--the product
of the faulty memories of unscrupulous actors, who are trying to make a
little money by publishing a bootleg "Hamlet?" Is it an old play that
Shakespeare has been asked to tinker with? In touching it up, is he
discovering what a marvelous thing he is creating? Whatever the motives
and abilities of those who brought this text out, they were closer to the
play at its creation than we can possibly be.
This naughty script can cast fresh old light on a play we have perhaps
come to know too well. "Hamlet" has grown so central to our culture, so
iconic, that one grows numb to the play's power, to its thousand natural
shocks. Preparing this script for production, we found what I had expected
and hoped to find when I first contemplated freeing the bad Quarto from
its scholarly purgatory and letting it romp on the stage. It is a good
play--bitterly funny, shocking, heartbreaking. It wouldn't, by itself,
have gone on to become one of our civilization's central texts, but it can
illuminate that central text at least as much as the forty thousand books
that have been written about the melancholy Dane.
This script forces us to think, for example, about how miserably unhappy
and choked with fear is the country under its new king and queen.
"Tyrant's reign" is an important phrase in the bad Quarto, which doesn't
appear in the better known "good Quarto." That's why we were delighted to
learn that Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music gave expression to tyranny and
its consequences, had composed incidental music for "Hamlet." You will
hear some of this music during the show.
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