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.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Look, There’s Another Horatio!

As an actor partial to Shakespeare and the classics, I find their relevancy in their untamed nature. How better to really “get at” Shakespeare, than to visit his works at their infancy. Perhaps they’re not the words he truly jotted down, but, to be fair, his earliest drafts were probably just as scattered, and the resulting plays greatly improvised.

Horatio (Rachel Matuse, center-left) comforts the dying Hamlet (Alex
Dabertin, center-right) in Bad Quarto's production of Hamlet.

Looking at a “Bad” Quarto version of a play is like encountering a puzzle. You have all these clues and pieces, and it’s up to you as an actor or director to correctly decipher. As the gravedigger hurls another scull from Ophelia’s to-be pit, does Hamlet exclaim, “Look, there’s another Horatio,” mocking his friend? Or, “Look, there’s another, Horatio,” simply pointing out the decrepit head? In a style of acting where punctuation is key, the lack thereof is exciting and leaves so much room for interpretation.

If I had a time machine, I certainly could not pick one destination. But a top ten would definitely be witnessing an original production by The Chamberlain’s Men. They were loud; they were gritty; they had clowns and improvisers, men in women’s clothing, live music, and in some cases, animals. There were no electrical light changes, and all soundscapes came from the creativity of their musicians. I think there is great merit to be had in recreating this process today. And what better way than with the earliest edition of the play?

I don’t think I’ve ever been as bonded with an ensemble as I am with my cast of Hamlet. When actors talk about trust, they generally refer to a shared feeling comradery on the stage. “You drop a line? We got your back, buddy.” In this case, the trust is that your entire ensemble will know their lines and cues, and if they don’t, someone will find a way to improvise their way out of a scene in which no one else knows where it could possibly be going. I memorized my part of Horatio on my own, under Tony’s guidance, but once you’re on that stage, you realize you have no idea if the actor your opposite will even say the cue that you’re waiting for. When they do, there is a moment of relief, followed by the quick realization that “Oops, that’s right, it’s my turn to speak! Hope I get this right…”

This process is incredibly challenging, but as the saying goes: With high risk, comes high reward. You cannot be off your game during a performance with Bad Quarto Productions, which only ensures that you have high caliber stage actors, in my opinion. This game is not for everyone. You have to be brave, and reliable, and consistent. I would not trust myself or this performance with any other people than this cast. You must possess a passion for originality and quirk and a spirit that has resilience when a scene completely derails.

In many ways, these productions have given me a better affinity for the work done by Shakespeare’s troupe. Granted, by the time they performed Hamlet, they had been doing several shows in rep—I’ve only worked with a handful of actors in this cast once before. But there’s a market to be had, I think, in another troupe of traveling actors performing on the spot productions written by a brilliant man. Staged in a day, basically improvised opening night. They did it, and now we can recreate (as best we can) that sensation, complete with opening music—but no animals, unfortunately.

I love Shakespeare, and I love well-conceived, thematic presentations of his works. But I also understand that if we dug him up, and asked him what he thought of Shakespeare in the Park’s Romeo and Juliet, he’d probably say, “Wot, lads? You’re still doin’ that shite? I wrote that fo’ me friends and a drunk bunch o’ scallywags.” Except he would not have recognized any of the language I just used. But what I’m getting at is that we’ve put his plays on this pedestal, and as an actor, it’s so refreshing to pull them down and examine them through the eyes of him and his men. It’s fun—and scary—to meet up with your troupe and barely know the play you’re about to perform, but trust that it’s going to be a good one. Because if there’s anyone we can trust in, it’s William Shakespeare.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Youth in Revolt

One of the first things most scholars and editors note that differentiates the first quarto of Hamlet from the second quarto or the Folio is that the first quarto Hamlet is younger than his more well known counterparts. In the first quarto, the gravedigger (1 Clown) describes Yorrick's skull as "a skull hath been here this dozen year," whereas in Q2 that same skull is "a scull now hath lyen you i'th earth 23. yeeres." and in F "this Scul, has laine in the earth three & twenty years." Given that in all cases, Hamlet's says that Yorrick carried him on his back when he was a child, (somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8 probably), we can assume that Q1's Hamlet is in his late teens, whereas the more familiar Hamlet is in his late 20s. And suddenly Hamlet starts making a lot more sense.

In any version of Hamlet, not only the eponymous Dane, but also Leartes, Ofelia, Ro(ssencraft or -zencrantz), and G(ilderstone or -uildenstern) all go through some wild mood swings and make some highly questionable life choices. These all make a lot more sense if they're in their late teens than their late 20s: they have less life experience to draw on period, and their brains are still wired for child-like ways of perceiving the world. They act suddenly and passionately, and their experience of a flawed world clashes with their youthful fantasies, and they kick against that.

It wasn't long after I started thinking of the implications of a youth-driven Hamlet that I started turning to another another great work of youth in revolt for inspiration: The Catcher in the Rye. The more I thought about it, the more Hamlet and Holden seemed to have in common. Both rail against seeming and phoniness, both treat the wisdom of their elders as dubious at best, both are in the company of unreliable friends, and both let their fantasies of perfection be the enemies of good.

In casting Hamlet, The First Quarto I also made the conscious choice to cast the King as the very younger brother of old King Hamlet - this is someone who Prince Hamlet can only view as closer in age to a brother, and lacking in the avuncular authority that someone closer in age to old King Hamlet would implicitly have. The only adults in the room are the Queen, trying to recapture her youth by marrying the younger and less disciplined version of her husband, and Corambis, who though intelligent, struggles with the fogginess of his advancing age.

Everyone in this production of Hamlet is struggling with maturity, and transitioning from one state of being to another: even players have to travel, and not even the dead can rest easy. Again and again I find that the more things change, the more these plays still have the power to speak to us as we and our world changes around us.

Bad Quarto Productions' Hamlet, The First Quarto runs now through April 10th at 353 W. 48th St. in New York. For tickets please visit and for more information please visit