Friday, June 18, 2010

Hamlet (Penguin Popular Classics). Edited by Dr. G B Harrison.

Who's There?

The Penguin Popular Classics edition of Hamlet (for which a review copy was supplied) is something of a publishing classic as well as a cheap way of picking up the play. From the mid-30s onwards, Penguin pioneered the production of inexpensive copies of contemporary fiction, the familiar three band, two colour coded cover filling news stands which had previously only carried newspapers and magazines. Penguin Classics sprang out of that spirit, offering quality presentations of great literature from around the world at a relatively inexpensive price making them accessible to an audience outside of academia, in some cases, for the first time.

Open the florescent green cover of the Penguin Popular Classics and after the title page we find a reprint of Dr. GB Harrison’s original Penguin edition from 1937. Harrison was the general editor of the Penguin Shakespeare between 1937 and 1959 and one those old scholars who oscillated between action in both in both world wars (working for army intelligence) and years spent in academia, writing seminal books, in his case about the Elizabethan age. On my own shelf I have Harrison's Introducing Shakespeare, produced for the Pelican imprint at around the time of this Hamlet edition.

General Introduction

This edition opens with a succinct but surprisingly detailed biography of Shakespeare and his position in the theatrical life of the London from Henry VI to the ultimate publication of the plays, the tone of which suggests that as with most artists, even he was outpaced by youngsters like Ben Johnson with new ideas. That’s followed by a few pages on Elizabethan theatre emphasising the bareness of the staging, illustrated with the rather nice wood-engraving of the Globe Theatre by R.J. Beedham, the image of which will now be familiar to anyone whose visited the reconstruction.


Those same sections appeared in all of the original Penguin Shakespeares edited by Harrison before he provided an individual essay describing the origins of each individual play. In Hamlet’s case that means a lengthy synopsis of what was believed at the time to be the source text Shakespeare would have used, Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (skipping over Belleforest's own source Saxo Grammaticus) and some consideration of the textual confusion between the three printings of the plays and the decisions Harrison therefore had to make in preparing the text.

The Text

Harrison notes that while the tradition is to conflate the texts (as happened later with Penguin’s New Shakespeare editions) or to employ the second Quarto with Folio corrections, this edition prefers the Folio with Q2 as the basis “correction obvious mis-readings by the Folio”. Having said that, Harrison has still followed the Theoboldian tradition of adding to the main text such Folio omissions, Q2 additions as Hamlet’s Act IV soliloquy “How all occasions do inform against me..” but with square brackets around them, which still suggests conflation through the back door to a purist like me.

Notes and Glossary

At the back of the book are notes and glossary sections with in some places lengthy expositions about the text, explaining contemporary references, offering commentary on the action and extrapolating the historical underpinnings which with contemporary eyes demonstrate the change in educational expectations. At one point Harrison says that “centre” means “the centre of the Earth which was regarded as the absolute centre of the universe” without mentioning Ptolemy or explaining why, something which would have to be done now.

How is it, my lord?

At £2 this is a bargain. However, I still have some reservations, not least that Hamlet scholarship has moved on in the seventy years since this volume was originally published. Some of Harrison’s conclusions, especially about biographical dating and the origins of Q1 have become antiquated. Perhaps a future edition might include a couple of pages putting the main text into some context or at the very least reprint the author’s note which appears on the back of Introducing Shakespeare, thereby underscoring the great contribution Harrison originally made to our national understanding of this play and its writer.

Hamlet (Penguin Popular Classics) edited by Dr J B Harrison is published by Penguin Classics. £2 paperback. ISBN: 9780140620580.

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