Monday, June 21, 2010

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Penguin Classics). Introduction by Anne Barton. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer.

Who's There?

A thousand page slab of a volume, the Penguin Classics Four Tragedies (for which a review copy was supplied), gathers between two covers Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth and the (according to a note towards the front “accompanying editorial apparatus” which is “faithful reproductions of the original New Penguin Shakespeare editions”, although the “text has been reset, with the textual notes placed at the bottom of the page for ease of reference, the text itself is unchanged”.


The section of stained glass window on the front is from the centre of the Betley window which is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum and portrays a hobby horse from a popular morris dance that may have been contemporary with Shakespeare, although the closest connection is in notes about the window jotted into an edition of Henry IV, Part One by George Tollet who lived in Betley Hall where the window found its second home (the first having been demolished).

Nevertheless, its depiction of daggers positioned straight at the man’s head is emblematic of these four plays and of Shakespearean tragedy in general where few characters die noble deaths, generally murdered, often suicidal usually with daggers. In fact, Hamlet is one of the few plays in which daggers aren’t (as far as we can gather depending upon the stage directions) the weapon of choice other than when Hamlet almost takes Claudius’s life.

Publication Data

All four presentations are as detailed and incisively edited as you’d expect if a touch dated; the Hamlet commentary is from 1980, but Othello’s was written in 1968, Lear in 1972 and Macbeth in 1967. This collection was originally published in 1994.  The following review will concentrate on the Hamlet section, for obvious reasons. For a look at other aspects, please refer to the alternative versions of this weblog that I like to think exist in parallel universes.


The introduction offers a good general survey of Hamlet’s themes with an emphasis on the revenge aspects, opening with a short history of its antecedents followed by a discussion of sources for retribution. Whilst I don’t agree with everything writer Anne Barton (current Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge) contends, especially in relation to exactly how intimate Ophelia’s relationship is with Hamlet (which I think Shakespeare leaves open to greater interpretation than Barton suggests), she does point to something that I hadn’t noticed before.

To wit: Hamlet is a fan of the theatre and has an expert knowledge of its works, especially the revenge tragedies, and now he finds himself the main character within one, his realisation presumably at the heart of the “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I?”. This is an extremely post-modern reading of the play which is worth pursuing, especially in light of the mountain of other criticism which has been published in relation to exactly why Hamlet dithers in his mission.

Hamlet is effectively Randy from the Scream films; he knows the ultimate fate of “heroes” within these kinds of fictions, and aware of the rules governing the plot in which he finds himself but unable to do much about the ensuing carnage. You could even compare the video night scene in which Randy enunciates said rules to Hamlet’s outbursts during The Mousetrap, pointing out the features of the revenge tragedy. Once he kills Polonius, his fate is sealed: “The readiness is all…” etc.

Further Reading

A good survey of criticism, covering a period from the 1930s through to the late 70s, stalking everyone from Jenkins to T.S. Eliot to Wilson Knight and A.C. Bradley. Stored in paragraphs, my preference would have been for a more bibliographic approach and lists though I can understand why that might not have been quite as useful in terms of space in the book’s original edition which would have already been lengthy because of the need to reproduce the play.

An Account of the Text

Neatly outlines the chronology of the early editions which runs similar to the one which has later appeared in the Arden combined edition of Q1 and F, but stops short of considering each of them to be a complete play in their own right, preferring to see them all as raw materials for an editor to put together what they think is the best approximation of what Shakespeare meant (which as I’m discovering can be very mutable depending upon the sensitivity of the relevant academic).

The Text

The resulting main text then, is a conflation, based heavily on Q2 but pulling in omitted passages and readings from F and Q1, though not the latter's exposition scene between Horatio and the Queen, preferring the pirates. Shifting the textual notes beneath the verse brings it in line with the Arden and Oxford, but concern themselves with enlightening the textual richness with a thread of sardonic humour than bringing in literary influences and other critical readings.

How is it, my lord?

Which is the main reason for recommending this edition; like every production of the play, every published edition has its own quirks and the New Penguins is to try and look at the play from a less orthodox perspective. It knows it is part of an eco-system of criticism and that it won’t be the only copy of the play that people, even students will read. So rather than being exhaustive, this Penguin offers the reader a chance to look at it from a slightly different perspective and succeeds.

Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (Penguin Classics).  Introduction by Anne Barton, edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer is published by Penguin Classics. £10.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780140434583.

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