Monday, April 25, 2016

Who's Behind the Q1 Hamlet Anyway?

Usually, after I've directed one of these "bad quarto" plays, I come away feeling like I have a better sense of how the text was produced. Not like it's an opinion that counts for much, and not like I think my experiences as a director should count for legitimate scholarly evidence, but when someone asks me "so what do you think?" I usually have an answer for them.
The title page of the 1603 (Q1) Hamlet.

With Hamlet I'm stumped.

There are a lot of really good theories out there that sell me on one answer or another, except for that one thing: the Q2 of Hamlet was printed the following year. Nicholas Ling (the N.L. of the title pages) had a hand in both printings, so even the old fashioned stories of corrupt stationers and literary piracy require some X-Files level conspiracy theories about the secret machinations of the Stationers' Company to sell a book that, as Peter W.M. Blayney has demonstrated, would have been a financial gamble in the best of cases.

If we accept that the Q2 text of Hamlet has the closest link to Shakespeare's draft, and I don't think that's an unreasonable assertion, it's hard not to see Q2 as an immediate corrective to Q1. The Arden 3 editors argue that the Folio copy derives from the Q2 copy, and then the Q1 copy derives from the F copy, and if we imagine that Shakespeare, who was also trying to make a name for himself as a literary poet, saw his name appear in print with what he viewed as a deformed copy of his work, he might have felt the need to make a deal with Ling in an attempt to restore his reputation.

The title page from the 1604 (Q2) Hamlet.
Though the title page is blemished, the date
is visible in the bottom-center of the page. 
But this still doesn't tell us where the Q1 copy came from. Or why Ling would have printed the book a second time when he didn't know the text well enough to raise questions or stop publication the first time around.

Ultimately, Q2 is the best evidence we have for how we should treat Q1: but even then, we can't really be sure that Q2 derives from Shakespeare's manuscript. I think it's plausible that the printing of Q1 sparked Shakespeare's concern with his legacy as a poet, and perhaps inspired him to be the "literary dramatist" that Lukas Erne sees him as, but that's a stretch based, in part, on my feeling that, while Q2 might make for better reading, Q1 actually makes for a better play, and this would be the sole example of Shakespeare taking an active interest in his legacy as a literary playwright.

For all we know, it might have been Ling himself who was disappointed with the Q1 Hamlet, and sought out a better copy text for a subsequent printing. But that depends on Ling, or his readers, being familiar with the stage performance of Hamlet and not finding the printed book faithful enough to the stage production. Which would, in turn, mean that Q1 probably wasn't the version played on stage, but also doesn't explain scene 14, as well as some of the other markers that the Q1 Hamlet derives, at least in part, from some performance text somehow. If someone was memorially reconstructing the play, why bother to invent a scene that collapsed several scenes into one? And what about all the "Os" and "Ahs" that seem to be transcriptions of actors speaking the speech?

The title page from the 1605 printing of
the Q2 Hamlet
Lacking better evidence, I just can't say where Q1 came from. I don't know what it is, and I don't have enough information to venture a guess, and lacking any further evidence, all we can do is suppose.

But there are some things I do know: for everyone who found the Q1 text to be lacking in compared to the conflations they're more familiar with, we've had someone say that this version of the play makes a lot more sense to them; some audience members who had never heard of us or of textual variants before came back to see the show again; and a couple of kids who came to see the play seemed to enjoy it. For all that, I stand by my earlier assessment: the longer texts of Hamlet might make for better literature, but the "bad quarto," at least in terms of its structure, makes for a better play.

Whatever it's origins, I am certainly glad we've had the chance to explore these questions in performance, I am grateful to the company of Hamlet, The First Quarto, and for all of our audience members for making the journey with us.

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