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hamlet after q1

29 december 2014

The first edition of the well-known play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, appeared in 1603, and included the famous lines

To be, or not to be, aye there's the point,
To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye, marry there it goes.
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an euerlasting judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damned.
Or marry there it went something like that.

Fortunately an improved edition came out the next year, and the play was reprinted in the First Folio collection of Shakespeare's plays (F) in 1623, and the rest is history. But as Zachary Lesser argues in Hamlet after Q1, history doesn't run true in this case. Although the 1604 edition (the Second Quarto, or Q2, to distinguish it from the "bad" 1603 First Quarto, Q1) alluded to a shorter, less correct predecessor, that predecessor (Q1) dropped from sight for over 200 years, till a collector by the unlikely Oscar-Wildey name of Bunbury found a copy on an obscure library shelf. The bizarre First Quarto of Hamlet did not form part of the play's history for its first two centuries, as it became renowned as the greatest of all plays. When it re-emerged in the 1820s, the result was weird – or "uncanny," as Lesser puts it, in Freudian terms.

Lesser's book is about how readers, both contemporary academics and Victorian men (literally) of letters, have understood Hamlet. His central point is that the late discovery of Q1 has had a decisive impact on thought about Hamlet (and Shakespeare generally). If the quarto had been known all along, or never found, we'd see things quite differently. Lesser treats topics like the argument over Shakespeare's revision and use of sources; how Shakespeare's occasional obscenity exists, or gets perceived, in the text; the tensions between stage tradition and textual scholarship; and the meaning and textual significance of the Q1 version of "To be, or not to be."

And in fact, Lesser says of that garbled-sounding speech that

It was not any inherent obscurity in the Q1 "To be, or not to be" that made it seem uniquely "unintelligible" but rather its reemergence only after the more familiar text had been entrenched at the peak of the literary canon. (163)
Hamlet's Q1 soliloquy does seem like a misspoken version of the later wording. (Of course, why wouldn't the Prince misspeak; you'd stumble over some words if your dead father had just appeared and told you to kill your uncle, too.) But the speech makes sense; as Lesser shows, in Q1 the soliloquy is basically religious. It expresses certainty that we will be judged after death, and uncertainty over which of our actions will lead to acquittal. Conscience makes cowards of us all.

Which is the same thing Hamlet says in the more familiar later versions of the speech. But there he seems to be talking about the uncertainty of an afterlife, and not so much about murder as about suicide. (Though in strongly Oedipal readings, murder in this case is a kind of suicide.) Apparently, in the early 20th century, many critics argued that "conscience" in the familiar "To be, or not to be" speech meant "reflection, thought, consciousness: "the pale cast of thought," as Hamlet may (or may not) gloss the word in the next few lines.

Lesser builds a fascinating argument around the ways in which having Q1 around to pose a contrast to the later versions of Hamlet enabled readers to develop strong, particular, and often contrarian interpretations of the "standard" Q2 and F texts. In the case of the great soliloquy, reading "conscience" as "consciousness" gave us an agnostic Hamlet to contrast to the more piously-inclined Prince of Q1.

I will admit that many of the controversies over key lines from Hamlet have passed me by. I studied Shakespeare in college and graduate school, and have taught various plays several times, but I remain a naïve reader for the most part. I always assumed that Hamlet's reference to conscience making us cowards was shorthand for a residual fear of eternal Judgment, which puts a damper on earthly projects, like killing your uncle. Come to find that that reading of "conscience" was once standard, was eclipsed by a more secular interpretation about a century ago, and has once again become standard. The whole controversy went 360 degrees without my ever knowing it existed.

I also never dreamed that the phrase "country matters," though clearly a reference to barnyard sex, contained an obscene pun in its first syllable. I am happy to learn that no less a reader than Samuel Johnson didn't hear the C-word there either. Lesser shows that nobody before the late 18th century seems to have heard it, including a censor for the Spanish Inquisition. I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

Texts like the First Quarto of Hamlet, simultaneously prior to and later than related texts, are familiar to anyone who reads books in translation. Mystery authors in particular tend to be translated starting with a successful mid-career novel, and if they are popular enough, publishers will back-and-fill by bringing out earlier books in the series. One frequently has the uncanny experience of reading relatively tentative juvenilia by an author who established a strong later style. In fact, I had that experience just before reading Hamlet after Q1, when I read David Bellos's translation of Ismail Kadare's Twilight of the Eastern Gods, which precedes Kadare's career in the original Albanian but follows it in English translation. Bibliography rarely follows the arrow of time with great precision.

Lesser claims to solve no basic problems about the play's composition or publication or meaning – not that such problems are always solvable. Yet he can't help at times finding an ingenious answer to a question of fact. One puzzle about the Quarto editions of Hamlet is why the same publisher (Nicholas Ling) would bring out such a different edition of the play, just a year after its initial printing. If the first edition wasn't successful, he'd have a lot of copies on hand; if it was, he'd have stuck with a tried-and-true product. Lesser speculates that Ling marketed Q2 as an improved version that looked, physically, a lot like the original. A choosy consumer would buy Q2 – maybe even if he'd bought Q1 already. (Though Lesser doesn't make the comparison, that's like somebody buying the director's cut of a film with special features, when they already own the basic DVD.) Less choosy buyers might just grab Q1, I mean, it's Hamlet, right, and look, it's shorter. (Cheaper, too?) Lesser's conjecture is ingenious and plausible.

Lesser concludes with a look at current editorial practice. The newest Arden edition, by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (2006), balks at creating a single Hamlet from the disparate materials of Q1, Q2, and F. They simply print all three versions, and refuse to decide even if those three texts are "versions" of a single thing. One has to say that this diffidence is smart; as one of my graduate professors was wont to say, there is much about the English Renaissance that "we simply do not know." Confidence goeth before a fall.

But Lesser notes that this refusal to decide leaves Hamlet as "a play that has often seemed out of joint and out of time" (219). He suspects that future editors will reconstitute the play, and re-engage with the problems of what the three notably-different early publications represent. We have at least three Hamlets. There could be lots of other Hamlets, and it's certain that in terms of stage productions, there have been. As Lesser shows in his chapter on stage interpretations (centering on whether to show the Ghost in his "night gown," as Q1 has it), it's rare for any producer just to take Hamlet and stage an uncut version of even one of the texts, let alone a synthesis of the three. This is a play, more than most, that changes whenever someone touches it; like Iago's purse, "'tis something, nothing; /'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands." If the versions we have remain enigmatic, it's probably because they passed through many hands and mouths on their way to the page, and were assembled and reassembled for different theatrical purposes around the turn of the 17th century. But Lesser suggests that we won't stop trying to reconcile them into a single Hamlet.

Lesser, Zachary. Hamlet after Q1: An uncanny history of the Shakespearean text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.