Dramatically Different

Review of HamletThe First Quarto

Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Times Literary Supplement, Mar. 1985; © the estate of eric sams



Bad, or not too bad; which is this quarto? It was acknowledged by nineteenth-century scholars as authentically Shakespearean. Nowadays it is more commonly called a corruption botched up by dishonest actors. But similar denigrations of the Lear and Shrew quartos have recently been refuted; so the Hamlet question is ripe  for reappraisal. A play on that theme existed as early as 1589. A play so styled was given by Shakespeare's company in 1594. The earliest surviving published ver­sion, now known as the First Quarto, is an unfamiliar, garbled and apparently abridged 2,000-line text entitled The Tragical Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, dated 1603 and specifically attributed to William Shakespeare and his company. The far more famous 3,700-line second edition of 1604, with the same title and author, was “newly imprinted and en­larged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy”. So prima facie the First Quarto has much to teach us about Shakespeare's development.

    It still looks and sounds like an anthology of simplified misquotations. "Caviary to the million" not "the general"; "hold discourse with nothing but with air" instead of "with th' incorporal air do hold discourse"; these are two typical examples out of a hundred. In addition, some 300, lines, such as "silent as is the. mid, time of the night" or "a dull dead hanging look and a hell-bred eye" are otherwise unknown; so is a whole forty-line scene between the Queen and Horatio. There are dozens of other equally striking divergences of dramatic structure and characterization as well as poetic style and diction. It is hard to see how they can all be ascribed to an actor's amazing amnesia rather than to a writer's regular revision.

    There is no accounting for the follow-my-leader fashions or tastes of Shakespeare schol­arship; but here at last is a practical test in which the literary public can take an active and informed part. The Orange Tree production is refreshing and salutary. It goes far to vindicate the authenticity and restore the authority of the First Quarto, which has been so scandalously misrepresented and neglected that there is no current modern edition. In this performance it makes a brilliantly effective play, alight with action and incident. In place of poetic profundity we are given ceaseless sound and movement, colour and pattern; the groundlings would have greatly preferred this version. The spirited direction supplied by Sam Walters is entirely in tune with Tudor times. The nineteen speaking parts are distributed among only nine players, all excellent. The stage is an up­stairs room in an inn; and that closed cockpit makes the infighting seem even fiercer, so that this, cruder Hamlet takes its place alongside Titus Andronicus, for example, as a Senecan revenge tragedy of family feuds and factions. Peter Guinness is an authoritative Prince, Kate Spiro a moving Ophelia; Frank Moorey offers a thoughtful study of Corambis (alias Polonius). The production lasts until April 13; as Shakespeare himself puts it in another early play, “go thou to Richmond”.