Monday, September 05, 2016

How to Play Hamlet

     Hamlet: Two introductions. Back in ye Olden Days of Gold, school and college text producers took literature seriously. They asked academics for introductions, intended to prepare scholars for the treats that awaited them, to prime them to have the conventional responses and ideas about the books. I recently read two intros to Hamlet, and both display the writer’s certainty that his interpretations are the right ones. Both include orotund exclamations about Shakespeare’s genius and Hamlet’s philosophical world-weariness and such. Sentences that I can see an industrious student quoting, and attributing in carefully constructed footnotes.
      I don’t have the name of the person who wrote the introduction to the Canadian edition of the Swan Shakespeare. (Published in the 1950s) It begins with a Life, goes on to consider the Elizabethan Stage, and Shakespeare and the Renaissance Spirit, which the writer claims is best seen in Hamlet. There is a brief discussion of Elizabethan language, a great help to the naive reader I think. The writer takes it for granted that Shakespeare is the greatest writer and Hamlet his greatest work. I suspect that the Renaissance was his field of study, for he says about Hamlet, his love of philosophy, his student’s mind, his melancholy, his trust in “capability and god-like reason” his frequent references to classical myth, his love of music... remind one irresistibly of Leonardo [da Vinci] at the court of Ludovico of Milan... show he was a Renaissance Man. Well, maybe so, but don’t expect a high school senior or a college freshman to get anything out of this encomium, apart from labels of Renaissance traits.
     G. S. Gordon of Magdalene College edits the Clarendon (Oxford) Shakespeare (1912). His introduction focuses on the text, which exists in a bad first quarto, a reasonably good second quarto (reprinted several times), and the Folio, which omits some quarto material, and adds new lines. It is Shakespeare’s longest play, which in itself raises puzzles about how to think about the extended text. Was it ever acted at this length in Shakespeare’s day? To what extent does it represent Shakespeare’s and his acting company’s intentions? Impossible to say.
     Gordon’s take on the text is that it developed as the Company played it over many years. He approaches it as a script. It was very popular in its day, which suggests that the Folio text represents the final version(s). He points out, for example, that the variations in the Queen’s speeches in her interview with Hamlet affect how we answer questions about her possible complicity in the murder of her husband. A good point, and Gordon refers to Shakespeare’s “remodelling” of several scenes of the play.
     It’s not always clear whether he’s thinking about how Shakespeare reworked the older version of the play, or how he reworked his own version. But his focus on the craft of script-writing is welcome: most school- and college-text criticism discusses the plays as a text to be read, not as scripts to be acted. Still, he doesn’t go all the way, and still betrays a prejudice in favour of reading over acting.
     I think the focus on reading the text has for several generations been a weakness in Shakespeare criticism. The question is not, “How do we interpret the characters?” but “How should we play them?” Instead of asking whether the Queen suspected her husband was murdered,  I would ask, “How would you act the Queen if you think of her as suspecting (or not suspecting)  that Claudius killed his brother?” The answer is not obvious. If we assume that the Queen suspected Claudius killed the old King, then the interpretation of the text and hence the acting will be different than if we assume she was utterly innocent of any such suspicion.
     Was she, though? We have to consider all her appearances in the play to decide which version is more plausible, but whichever one we settle on will affect how we decide to play her. But this conception itself depends on a larger sense of what the play is about, of the world in which Hamlet must accept that he cannot reject the options that face him, but must choose. “Ripeness is all”, he says as he finally accepts his fate.
     That, too, is a major thesis of Gordon’s introduction. Thematically, Gordon’s essay is richer than the Swan introduction. Its implicit acceptance of the text as a script could have been made explicit. As it is, Gordon comes close to saying that we should read the text as if we wanted to produce the play. The puzzles of plot and character then become problems of direction and acting.
     Swan: ** Gordon: ***

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