James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)

 

Chapter 15

 

Second Thoughts

 

Of the many remarkable things about Hamlet, perhaps the most

extraordinary is its length. At roughly four thousand lines, the

Second Quarto-the closest thing we have to what Shakespeare

wrote in late I599-could not have been performed uncut at the

Globe. Nor could his revised version of the play, a couple of hundred lines

shorter, that eventually appeared in the First Folio. Though the Elizabethan

stage dispensed with time-consuming intermissions and changes

in scenery, these versions of Hamlet would still have taken four hours to

perform; even at top speed, actors couldn't rattle off much more than a

thousand lines of verse in an hour. With outdoor performances at the

Globe beginning at two in the afternoon and the sun setting in late win

 

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ter and early autumn around five o'clock, an uncut Hamlet staged in February

or October would have left the actors stumbling about in the fading

light by the Gravedigger scene; the fencing match, fought in the dark,

could have been lethal.

 

Shakespeare alluded in the prologue to Romeo and Juliet to the "two

hours' traffic of our stage." Ben Jonson was probably closer to the mark

when he spoke in Bartholomew Fair of "two hours and a half, and somewhat

more." By any measure, Hamlet uncut was truly, in the play's own

words, a "poem unlimited" (2.2-4). After a decade in the theater, Shakespeare

knew how long scripts ran and could cut to size when he wanted

to: Julius Caesar (at twenty-five hundred lines) and As You Like It (at

twenty-eight hundred) could have gone from study to stage uncut. As

they should have: given the culture of playwriting at this time, there was

little to be gained by submitting a play far too long to be performed.

The most tempting explanation for Hamlet's unusual length-that

Shakespeare had finally begun to care more about how his words were

read than how they were staged-is implausible. Had Shakespeare suddenly

become interested in having a play published he could have followed

the path just taken by Ben Jonson, who had carefully seen Every

Man Out of His Humour into print. Jonson had indicated on the title page

that it contained "more than hath been publicly spoken or acted" by the

Chamberlain's Men in late 1599 and declared himself the play's "author"-

both novel claims. There was a strong market for Jonson's book,

and the printed version was a best-seller, going through a remarkable

three editions in eight months. But Shakespeare neither pressed for the

publication of Hamlet nor cared much for this kind of literary status. And

several years would pass before even an unauthorized, pirated version of

Hamlet was published.

 

Shakespeare's early versions of Hamlet don't show him to be overly

concerned with writing something that could be immediately performed

or published. He was letting the writing take him where it would. Alone

among contemporary playwrights in 1599, Shakespeare-as shareholder,

principal playwright, and part owner of the theater in which his plays

were staged-had the freedom to do so. But he would never write so long

a version of a play again, and only King Lear would undergo such exten-

 

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sive revision. His fellow sharers may even have given him time off from

rehearsing and acting to work on Hamlet, for Shakespeare's name is conspicuously

absent from the list of those who acted in Jonson's Every Man

Out of His Humour this autumn, though it was given pride of place

among those who had performed Every Man In His Humour a year earlier.

The differences between the first and second versions of Hamlet reveal

a good deal about how Shakespeare wrote and for that reason alone

are worth attending to. The revisions also tell a story of Shakespeare's decision

to alter the trajectory of the play and shore up the resolve of its

hero. Scholars differ on details, and some remain committed to radically

different accounts of the relationship of the surviving versions of Hamlet

and of how the play changed. What follows, though necessarily simplified

(for to deal with all the vexing issues raised by the play's multiple

versions would take volumes), seems to me to be the most plausible and

economical reconstruction of what happened.

 

Shakespeare finished tinkering with his first version of Hamlet in the

waning months of 1599 but wasn't yet ready to turn it over to his fellow

players. When he returned to his finished draft not long after, he revised

extensively as he wrote out the play again in a fresh copy. It doesn't appear

that he knew in advance what kinds of changes he would make,

and most of the thousand or so alterations are minor and stylistic. This

revised Hamlet was still not, as his fellow players might have hoped, a

performance-ready script: Shakespeare trimmed only 230 lines (while

adding 90 new ones), so that the revisions wouldn't have reduced the

playing time by more than ten minutes. Even in this second version he

was still letting the work follow its own course. When he was done with

the new draft in the winter of 1600, Shakespeare turned it over to his fellow

players; a significant abridgement would still be necessary before it

could be performed at the Globe.

 

Because versions of both Shakespeare's first and second thoughts survive,

it's possible to follow the process of revision (while recognizing that

some of the changes can be attributed to compositors, bookkeepers,

scribes, censors, and others through whose hands they passed). Shakespeare

tinkered obsessively-far more than his reputation for never blotting

 

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a line would suggest. He turned Hamlet's famous cry, "What's

Hecuba to him, or he to her" into the more sonorous "What's Hecuba to

him, or he to Hecuba" (2.2.559). He modernized old-fashioned words and

simplified obscure ones so that Gertrude's description of the drowning

Ophelia chanting "snatches of old lauds" is changed to "snatches of old

tunes" (4.7.177) and Ophelia's "virgin crants" becomes "virgin rites"

(5.I.232). There are dozens of similar examples.

 

Seemingly insignificant changes prove to be consequential. The most

famous is the substitution of a single word in the opening line of Hamlet' s

first soliloquy, which had begun, "0 that this too too sallied flesh would

melt." The second time around this appears as "too too solid flesh"

(I.2.129). Hamlet's initial sense of being assaulted or assailed ("sallied" conveys

a sense of being sullied or polluted by his mother's infidelity) is replaced

by an anguished desire for nothingness that has less to do with his

.mother's behavior than with his own inaction.

 

The smallest of changes complicate Hamlet's character. When an

armed Hamlet comes upon Claudius at prayer, Shakespeare first had his

hero say, "Now I might I do it, but now a is a-praying." When he returned

to this passage he substituted the words "do it pat" for "do it, but"-so that

the line now read: "Now I might I do it pat, now he is praying" (3-3.73-74).

There is a world of difference. In the earlier version, a more hesitant

Hamlet can't take revenge because Claudius is praying. In the revised

version a more opportunistic Hamlet can act precisely because he has

caught his adversary off guard but won't because to do so would mean

sending a shriven Claudius to heaven.

 

A more striking example of revision occurs early on when Hamlet

angrily turns on Ophelia:

 

I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given

you one face, and you make yourselves another; you jig and

amble, and you list, you nickname God's creatures, and make

wantonness ignorance.

 

When Shakespeare reworked these lines he shifted the grounds of Hamlet's

attack and sharpened its staccato rhythm:

 

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I have heard of your prattlings too well enough. God has given

you one pace, and you make yourself another; you jig, you

amble, and you lisp, and nickname God's creatures, and make

your wantonness your ignorance.

 

It's no longer about how Ophelia looks but how she speaks and moves, prattling

and lisping (while "pace" replaces "face," connecting up with

"jig" and "amble").

 

Shakespeare also caught himself on the verge of incomprehensibility.

In the revised text, for example, Claudius straightforwardly brings act 4,

scene I to an end, saying:

 

we'll call up our wisest friends

To let them know both what we mean to do

And what's untimely done. 0, come away,

My soul is full of discord and dismay.

 

Had Shakespeare's earlier version not survived, we could never have

guessed that in the middle of this speech Claudius digressed in an impossibly

dense metaphor about how "slander flies in a line of fire like a cannon-

ball":

 

we'll call up our wisest friends,

And let them know both what we mean to do

And what's untimely done. [So envious slander]

Whose whisper o'er the world's diameter,

As level as the cannon to his blank,

Transports his poisoned shot, may miss our name,

And hit the woundless air. O, come away

My soul is full of discord and dismay.

 

The sheer number of changes to the earlier version suggest a degree of

uncertainty on Shakespeare's part, as if he were not quite as sure as he

 

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had been in Julius Caesar or As You Like It where his characters and plot

were heading.

 

The revisions went smoothly enough until Shakespeare got to act 4,

scene 4 and Hamlet's final soliloquy: "How all occasions do inform against

me / And spur my dull revenge." Until now the soliloquies had deepened

our sense of Hamlet's character while circling around problems whose

complexities resisted resolution-though by the end of each Hamlet manages

to find a way forward, hopeful that the right course of action would

become clearer. As he prepares to depart for England in act 4, Hamlet

comes upon young Fortinbras leading an army through Denmark on the

way to Poland "to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit

but the name" (4-4.I8-I9). Except for the play's final moments, this is the

only time that we see Fortinbras, though we have heard of him periodically.

Horatio tells us in the opening scene that "young Fortinbras" of

"unimproved mettle, hot and full," is leading an army of "lawless resolutes"

(I.I.95-98) to regain lands that his father had lost to Hamlet's

thirty years earlier. Fear of Fortinbras's invasion produces "this posthaste

and rummage in the land" (I.I.I07) and explains why Bernardo and

Francisco are standing guard as the play begins. We later learn that Fortinbras's

bedridden uncle, the King of Norway, at Claudius's urging, has

apparently persuaded him to redirect his attack against the Poles. Fortinbras

is Hamlet's foil: a restless young prince chafing under his uncle's authority

and eager to avenge his father.

 

The chance encounter is the turning point of the play, crystallizing

for Hamlet the futility of heroic action. Looking on as Fortinbras's troops

march off to the wars, Hamlet sees the invisible rot at the heart of this

martial display:

 

This is th'impostume of much wealth and peace

That inward breaks,- and shows no cause without

Why the man dies.

 

His words echo a line in Holinshed's Chronicles that had stuck with

Shakespeare: "sedition," Holinshed had written, "is the apostume of the

 

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realm, which when it breaketh inwardly, putteth the state in great danger

of recovery." There's no cure for this cancer. It may well be the darkest

moment in the play.

 

The soliloquy that immediately follows returns to ideas Hamlet has

long wrestled with. Beastliness has been much on his mind, whether it's

that of Phyrrus, an "Hyrcanian beast" (2.2-45 I), that "adulterate beast"

Claudius (I.5-42), or even his mother: "0 God, a beast that wants discourse

of reason / Would have mourned longer" (I.2.I50-5I). Hamlet now unexpectedly

reverses himself. "Thinking too precisely" is as beastly as acting

impulsively. "What is a man," he asks, "if his chief good and market of his

time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more" (4򉕗3-35) He can't

shake the idea of his own beastliness, which now seems to him grounded

in his cowardly habit of hairsplitting analysis:

 

Now whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th' event,

(A thought which quartered hath but one part wisdom,

And ever three parts coward), I do not know

Why yet I live to say "this thing's to do,"

Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means

To do't.

 

Hamlet repudiates the very thing that had won us over, his refusal to act

unthinkingly. He has discovered that he's a beast if he acts and a beast if

he doesn't. The example of Fortinbras confirms for him that there can be

no right way forward:

 

Examples gross as earth exhort me;

Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure,

 

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To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell.

 

It's Hamlet at his most sardonic. Fortinbras is a "gross" example not only

in the sense of "obvious" but aIso "monstrous". The ironic "delicate" and

"tender" are the last adjectives the ruthless Fortinbras calls to mind.

Fortinbras is "puffed" with ambition and childlike makes "mouths" or

faces at unseen outcomes. He is willing to sacrifice the lives of his followers

for nothing, for "an eggshell"-with the hint here of broken

eggshells as empty crowns (an image Shakespeare would develop in

King Lear).

 

Hamlet's conclusion has exasperated critics, and some have refused to

take him at his word, insisting that he means the exact opposite of what

he says and that we should take his words "not to stir" as a double negative,

"not not to stir." But this is desperate. Hamlet concludes that greatness

consists not in refraining to act unless the cause is great but in

fighting over any imagined slight:

 

Rightly to be great,

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honor's at the stake.

 

It's the discredited argument for a culture of honor left in tatters by the

events of the previous year. In the aftermath of Essex's Irish campaign,

Elizabethans didn't need to be reminded what an "army of such mass and

charge" leading to the "imminent death of twenty thousand men"

amounted to. The relentless pursuit of honor can be used to justifY anything.

Fortinbras is a perfect example, for he is willing to sacrifice his

men for a "fantasy and trick offame":

 

to my shame I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men,

 

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That for a fantasy and trick of fame,

Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot

Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,

Which is not tomb enough and continent

To hide the slain.

 

It's a grim, almost savage soliloquy. And the image of Fortinbras marching

through Denmark on his way to slaughter Poles can't help but invite

comparison to a scene enacted thirty years earlier when Hamlet's father

had taken the same route to the same end. Were his actions against the

Poles any less brutal than Fortinbras's-and are we to think that these are

the "foul crimes" (1S12) that still haunt him? Will Fortinbras's costly

campaign be recalled in similar heroic language?

 

"How all occasions" is a fitting culmination to the sequence of soliloquies

that preceded it-but only if we want to see the resolution of the

play as dark and existential. Hamlet knows that he has to kill Claudius

but cannot justify such an action since the traditional avenger's appeal to

honor rings hollow. This bitter and hard-won knowledge serves as a capstone

to earlier, anguished soliloquies. Yet as Shakespeare saw, it derailed

the revenge plot. The resolution of the play was now a problem, for it had

to be more motivated than the "accidental judgments" and "casual

slaughters" Horatio describes (5.2.361). Yet for a resigned Hamlet-capable

only of bloody "thoughts" not deeds (4-4.66)-to take revenge after this is

to concede that he is no better than Fortinbras. In the final scene, mortally

wounded and having killed Claudius, Hamlet hears the "warlike

noise" (5.2.349) of Fortinbras's approaching army and declares,"1 do

prophesy th' election lights / On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice"

(5.2.355-56). What could possibly justifY Hamlet's urging Fortinbras's succession?

These words are either spoken ironically or are the stoical observation

of someone who knows that even Alexander the Great and

Caesar return to dust. The entry of Fortinbras backed by his lawless

troops confirms that there will be no "election" in Denmark-the country

is his for the taking. Hamlet can have no illusions about the fate of Denmark

under the rule of an opportunist willing to sacrifice the lives of his

 

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own followers. A play that began with hurried defensive preparations to

withstand Fortinbras's troops ends with a capitulation to them, the poisoned

bodies of the Danish ruling family sprawled onstage, a fitting image

of the "impostume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks."

In allowing his writing to take him where it would in his first draft,

Shakespeare had created his greatest protagonist, but the trajectory of

Hamlet's soliloquies had left the resolution of the play incoherent and

broken too radically from the conventions of the revenge plot that had to

sweep both protagonist and play to a satisfying conclusion. Shakespeare

now had to choose between the integrity of his character and his plot, and

he chose plot. Hamlet's climactic soliloquy had to be cut. When he revised

this scene, Shakespeare eliminated the long soliloquy entirely,

along with Hamlet's words with Fortinbras's Captain. All that was left to

the scene was a perfunctory nine-line exchange between a courteous

Fortinbras and the Captain that provided a plausible explanation for why

Fortinbras would be in a position to pick up the pieces at the end of the

play. One immediate effect of the cut was that in the revised version (in

which Hamlet neither sees Fortinbras's army nor speaks of him so trenchantly),

the lines in which Hamlet offers Fortinbras his "dying voice"

strike a more upbeat, hopeful note. Their edge is furthered softened by

Shakespeare's decision to return to the opening scene and change Fortinbras's

"lawless resolutes" into the more understandable "landless" ones the

kind of men, younger sons and gentleman volunteers, who had

sought their fortune in Ireland.

 

Eliminating Hamlet's soliloquy firmly shifted the play's center of

gravity. Far more weight now fell on what was now the play's final soliloquy,

immediately preceding Fortinbras's entry. There, Claudius had declared

that the only thing that can cure him is "the present death of

Hamlet": "Do it, England, / For like the hectic in my blood he rages,

/ And thou must cure me" (4.3.65-67). The elimination of Hamlet's words

in the following scene turns Claudius into a more formidable adversary

as well as one who has the last word until act 5. Shakespeare retreated

from locating the conflict within Hamlet's consciousness and reverts at

the end to a more conventional (and for the audience more viscerally satisfying)

struggle between adversaries.

 

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With Fortinbras' s role now diminished to the point where he could

no longer serve as Hamlet's opposite, Shakespeare had to go back and

turn Laertes into a worthier antagonist and ultimately Hamlet's double.

In a clumsy but now necessary addition, Hamlet announces this by

telling Horatio that "to Laertes I forgot myself, / For by the image of my

cause I see / The portraiture of his" (5.2.76-78). And in the revised version,

Hamlet voluntarily seeks a reconciliation with Laertes (where in

the earlier version he had only done so at his mother's urging).

Shakespeare still had to find both a new turning point and a rationale

for why Hamlet had to kill Claudius. He managed to do both by adding a

few key lines to one of Hamlet's speeches in act 5, scene 2. In the earlier

version of this scene, Hamlet had launched into another litany of

Claudius's crimes-

 

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon?

He hath killed my king and whored my mother,

Popped in between th' election and my hopes,

Thrown out his angle for my proper life,

And with such cozenage, is't not perfect conscience?

(5.2 .63-67)

 

-only to be interrupted in midspeech by the entrance of a courtier. You

can see why Shakespeare cuts him off in the aftermath of "How all occasions,"

Hamlet's complaint seems rhetorical and verges on self-pity. It

may be "perfect conscience"-that is, conform to what is right-but in

such a relative world, what difference does that make? When he rewrites

this scene, Shakespeare delays the courtier's entrance and extends Hamlet's

argument to allow him to build to a new conclusion:

 

Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon-

He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,

Popped in between th' election and my hopes,

Thrown out his angle for my proper life,

And with such cozenage-is't not perfect conscience

To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned

 

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To let this canker of our nature come

In further evil?

 

The additional lines counter Claudius's desire for a "cure" and restore the

metaphor that had been cut about the "impostume," though it's no longer

an undetectable cancer that destroys the state. Now, a cure is possible:

this canker, Claudius, can and must be removed. And to fail to do sois to

invite damnation. Salvation, not honor, now justifies the killing of a king.

Hamlet realizes that he no longer needs to dread being damned for "taking

arms against the foe," a fear so eloquently expressed in the "To be or

not to be" soliloquy, where he was tormented by "the dread of something

after death" (3.1.77). The Hamlet of the revised version is no longer adrift,

no longer finds himselfin a world where action feels arbitrary and meaningless.

The change is so deft that it's as if Shakespeare had activated

something that had been dormant in the play~ Other lines-"There's a divinity

that shapes our ends" (5.2.10) and "There is special providence in

the fall of a sparrow" (5.2.219-220)-now fall neatly into place and reinforce

the argument for salvation through revenge. And this new determination-

with its emphasis on salvation-corresponds with Hamlet's

words in what is now his final soliloquy, back in act 3, where he commits

himself to killing his uncle only when Claudius is "about some act / That

has no relish of salvation in't" (3-3.91-92). For most of the revised version,

Hamlet is the same reflective, melancholy Dane as he is in the earlier

one. It's only near the end that the two Hamlets significantly diverge each

one achieving a different kind of clarity.

 

Shakespeare was also forced to change Hamlet's unforgettable words

as he prepares to fight Laertes. In the earlier version Hamlet's speech

served as a coda that echoes the resignation of his famous soliloquy, "To

be or not to be": "If it be, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; ifit be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all, since no man, of

aught he leaves, knows what is't to leave betimes. Let be" (5.2.220-24).

Hamlet's emphasis here, as it has been all along in this first version, is on

knowing, or rather, his acceptance of not knowing: you can't regret what

you don't know. Samuel Johnson's paraphrase of Hamlet's philosophical

 

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resolve is helpful: "Since no man know aught of the state oflife which he

leaves, since he cannot judge what other years may produce, why should

he be afraid ofleaving life behind?"

 

When he revised these lines, Shakespeare made the last sentence less

dispiriting. Hamlet finally has an answer to his persistent fears about the

afterlife: "The readiness is all, since no man has aught of what he leaves.

What is't to leave betimes?" (5.2.222-24). Now that he is a more committed

avenger, Hamlet's calm insistence that there are no easy answers"

Let be"-must also be eliminated. And while the new Hamlet also

acknowledges that death is both certain and inevitable and that it doesn't

matter if you die young, he shifts attention away from the impossibility

of knowing (which has also dropped out) to the unimportance of having.

In this revised version, Hamlet's last piece of advice is that you can't take

it with you-"since no man has aught of what he leaves." SamuelJohnson

summarizes the difference and signals his preference: "It is more characteristic

of Hamlet to think little of leaving because he cannot solve its

many mysteries, than because he cannot carry with him his life's goods."

Johnson prefers the Hamlet of the first draft here, the one characterized

by a philosophical equanimity in the face of a disappointing world, rather

than the one whose revenge is now tied to salvation and a renunciation of

wor Idly things.

 

As Shakespeare saw (and as editors from the eighteenth century on

who are reluctant to part with these and other profound lines that Shakespeare

eliminated, confirm), the cuts come at a price. The radical argument

for a sacred act of violence that underpins the lines "is't not to be

damned / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?" returns

us to the self-justifying fantasy of the conspirators inJulius Caesar

("Let's be sacrificers, but not butchers" [2.1.166]) and more broadly to the

language of theologically sanctioned tyrannicide that permeated that

play. But Shakespeare inJulius Caesar had also shown that while this argument

can be justified intellectually, in the real world chaos and bloodletting

invariably follow. It didn't help, then, that the earlier version of

Hamlet had included a long speech by Horatio reminding playgoers how

"a little ere the mightiest Julius fell, / The graves stood tenantless, and

the sheeted dead / Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets"

 

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(LLII4-17) In Julius Caesar, fresh in the minds of playgoers at the Globe,

Cassius had also seen in these portents "instruments of fear and warning

/ Unto some monstrous state" (1.70-71). Gesturing toward the argument

that Hamlet was damned if he didn't kill Claudius was one thing; foregrounding

its now disturbing political implications was another: ultimately,

killing a bad ruler, though justified, fails to resolve anything. So

Shakespeare went back and cut Horatio's speech, too. The changes may

have temporarily solved Hamlet's problem but not the deeper one, which

remains in the play, of what justifies-not just morally but pragmatically-

the killing of a bad ruler: when Hamlet finally stabs Claudius, it's

easy to forget that in both versions everyone onstage cries out, "Treason,

treason" (5.2.323). As Shakespeare's plays from Henry the Sixth to Julius

Caesar had already shown, removing the canker, however necessary,

doesn't cure the state, because men who are even more ruthless than

their predecessors fill the political vacuum, just as Fortinbras will.

The revised version still had to be shortened for the stage, cut to

fewer than three thousand lines. Whether Shakespeare abridged it himself,

left it to others, or collaborated in the effort, we don't know, but this

performance version of Hamlet was an immediate and unqualified success.

Fellow playwrights, who qUickly quoted, parodied, and shamelessly

stole from it, were clearly dazzled. It must have had a great run that first

year or two; demand was so great that the Chamberlain's Men, or some

part of the company, also took it on the road, performing it by early 1603

in Oxford, Cambridge, and probably elsewhere. Since the two universities

were not ordinarily on the same touring route, it may have toured

more than once at this time. For this itinerant production a new and further

abridged version of Hamlet was made, though this script, too, is lost

(so that the two most valuable scripts for understanding how Hamlet was

actually performed no longer exist).

 

Scholars have been able to reconstruct much of this textual history

because in 1603 one or more of those involved in the touring production,

including the hired actor who played Marcellus (we know it was this

actor because in putting the text together he remembered his own lines a

lot better than he did anyone else's) cobbled together from memory a

2,200-line version of the road production and sold it to publishers in Lon-

 

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don. In the course of three years the play had now gone through five versions,

each one shorter than the last. Book buyers coming upon "The

Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare"

in 1603 would have encountered a mangled version of what they had

heard onstage, with some scenes transposed, some characters given

names that probably derived from the old and lost Hamlet (Polonius is

named Corambis and Reynaldo is Montano), and some of the most memorable

speeches badly butchered. The opening lines of Hamlet's most

famous soliloquy offer a striking example. What audiences had once

heard as:

 

To be, or not to be, that is the question,

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them; to die to sleep

No more, and by a sleep, to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to-'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished.

 

now appeared in print as:

 

To be, or not to be. Ay, that'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 again before an everlasting judge,

From whence no passenger ever returned,

The undiscovered country, at whose sight

The happy smile, and the accursed damned.

But for this, the joyful hope of this,

Who'd bear the scorns and flattery of the world

Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?

 

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The pirated edition nonetheless proved to be enormously popular, so

popular that it was read to shreds: only two copies of this First Quarto

survive, each missing a page or two, and the first wasn't rediscovered

until 1823.

 

In response to this unauthorized quarto, in late 1604 the Chamberlain's

Men decided to turn over a better version of the play to be published.

They could have supplied anyone of a number of manuscript

versions: a copy of their playhouse promptbook; the longer revised sCript

that was behind it; a better version of the touring text that was behind

the First Quarto; or Shakespeare's dark first draft. They chose this first

draft-"newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was,

according to the true and perfect copy." Why this draft was chosen is another

of the play's mysteries. The company may simply have decided not

to release a version of the play that other companies could easily stage. As

a sharer, Shakespeare would have had a say in the decision, though we

don't know which version he preferred. Even if Shakespeare wanted to

see his early draft in print, he made no effort to touch it up before it was

handed over to the printer-and it was so difficult to decipher that the

confused compositors had to check the opening scene against a copy of

the bad First Quarto is was intended to replace. There's one more twist:

when it came time to publish Hamlet in the 1623 Folio, Heminges and

Condell broke with their usual practice of printing play texts that were

based on good extant quartos: they decided to reject the early version

found in the Second Quarto of 1604/5 in favor of the (unpublished) revised

one, perhaps because it more closely resembled the acting version

with which they were familiar.

 

Their decision to do so opened up a Pandora's box: editors who could

now choose between two good but quite different texts of Hamlet were

sorely tempted to combine the best of both, and few could resist the urge

to do so. As a result, since the eighteenth century the play has existed in

multiple, hybrid versions-some editors relying more heavily on the Second

Quarto, others on the Folio text, and still others promiscuously

draWing on both as well as on lines from the First Quarto. One reason

why no two readers' or actors' Hamlets are alike is that no two modern

versions of Hamlet are either. Combining different parts of these texts,

 

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editors have cobbled together an incoherent Hamlet that Shakespeare

neither wrote nor imagined. It's not the excision of motive but its duplication

that makes the conflated versions of Hamlet that are now taught

and staged so puzzling: Hamlet is both resigned and determined, caught

between knowing and having, damned if he does and damned if he

doesn't kill Claudius. We're left with a Hamlet who is confused-but not

the confusion Shakespeare intended.

 

Some recent editors have come to regret their decision to fall into line

and produce a conflated Hamlet they didn't believe in; others have dug in

their heels, preferring what's familiar. The only major edition to break

with tradition and choose an unconflated text is the Oxford Shakespeare though

its editors went with Shakespeare's revised version rather than his

first draft, basing their edition on the Folio text. The long-awaited publication

of the new Arden edition of Hamlet promises to change this situation.

In offering each of the three surviving early versions of Hamlet

separately, its editors will encourage others to follow their lead. In a generation

or two, I suspect, soon, only scholars interested in the history of

the play's reception will still be reading a conflated Hamlet.

Changing how we think about Shakespeare's greatest play means revising

how we think about Shakespeare. The Romantic myth of literary

genius, which has long promoted an effortless and unfathomable Shakespeare,

cannot easily accommodate a model of a Shakespeare whose

greatness was a product of labor as much as talent. The humbler portrait

of Shakespeare presented here is of a writer who knew himself, knew his

audience, and knew what worked. When Shakespeare saw that he had to

wrest his play from where Hamlet had led him, he did so unflinchingly.

He didn't write Hamlet to please himself. If he had, he would have rested

content with the more complicated hero of his first draft. Only an extraordinary

writer of the first order could have produced that first draft; and

only a greater writer than that could have sacrificed part of that creation

to better show "the very age and body of the time his form and

pressure" (3.2.23-24). Shakespeare didn't write "as if from another

planet," as Coleridge put it: he wrote for the Globe; it wasn't in his mind's

eye, or even on the page, but in the aptly named theater where his plays

came to life and mattered.

 

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Ben Jonson, who knew Shakespeare well enough not to underestimate

him as a writer, also knew that part of his greatness was bound up

in his gift for second thoughts. Jonson's praise of Shakespeare's craft in

the First Folio, largely overlooked today, is worth recalling:

 

he

Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,

(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat

Upon the Muses' anvil; turn the same,

(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;

Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn,

For a good poet's made as well as born.

And such wert thou.

 

Like every great writer before or since, Jonson understood that the best

poets are both made and born: that all great writing had to be hammered

out and all great poets stand or fall by that "second heat," their labored revision.

In these knotty lines Jonson also hints at the physical toll this

process exacts, for when Shakespeare would "turn" his writing, he would

turn "himself with it." Writing, even for Shakespeare, was a battering experience.

Shakespeare's greatness, Jonson tells us, was a result not just of

exceptional talent but also of a quarter century of relentless, driving effort.

If we want to see Shakespeare's greatness and his personality illuminated,

we need only look at the trail of sparks-still visible in the

surviving versions- that flew in the heat of revising Hamlet. To see this is

also to acknowledge that the Hamlet Shakespeare left us was, in the play's

own words, "a thing a little soiled with working" (2.1.40). This trace of

grit and sweat, more than anything else, may help explain why "Prince

Hamlet," in the words of the Elizabethan playgoer Anthony Scoloker,

managed then, as it manages now, "to please all."

 

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