Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hamlet (Penguin Shakespeare). Introduction by Alan Singfield. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer.

Who's There?

There’s something rather legendary about The New Penguin Shakespeare editions of his plays (for which a review copy was supplied). In nearly all of the television documentaries I've seen across the years, when actors are projecting at each other in rehearsal rooms they’ve almost all had an RSC now NT endorsed Penguin paperback sitting tightly in their hands or folding over by the spine. They’re very tactile, with their soft covers and thin paper, which make it possible to roll them up like scrolls and toss lightly to one side when the words are finally flowing from memory.


Clare Melinsky is a British illustrator specialising in lino-cuts in colour and black and white following the style of traditional woodcuts. She's provided elements for all of the new series of Penguin Shakespeares and reproductions are available through her website, hand printed at the cost of £90-£120. As an aside Melinsky's recently been asked to produce covers for a new edition of the Harry Potter novels.

Publication Data

Penguin originally published a slender edition in the pre-post World War II (which still survives in reprint I reviewed last week). The New editions arrived in the 70s and 80s, with a simple rendering of the text, uncluttered by the footnotes of more academic additions – which is probably what made them so attractive to actors. The commentary was at the back, ready for consultation when a disagreement develops about the meaning of the words, or as a starting point for the director’s interpretation.

The Text

Those elements are continued in this 2005 edition and indeed the play is exactly the same text, account and commentary edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer that is also in print as part of the four tragedies omnibus I wrote about the other day. With other publishers rushing out new versions of the text, it’s interesting that Penguin are happy to stand behind a version from three decades ago for their main edition, though perhaps after four hundred years it’s the reading of the play which is important less than textual matters.

General Introduction

And an excellent introduction this provides. A new General Introduction brings the scholarship of Shakespeare’s biography in line with research into the mid-part of the past decade, happy to emphasise his work as a collaborator early and later in life and in the ensuing chronology though Edward III and Sir Thomas More are mentioned (at least as far as to point out that they don’t feature in the Penguin edition), Arden of Faversham isn’t and Cardenio is stated as being lost without allusion to Double Falsehood.

What sets Stanley Welles’s general introduction apart from others I’ve read is its willingness to go beyond Shakespeare’s death. The Restoration period of adaptation and veneration is covered and then his critical development from Coleridge through Hazlet and Granville-Barker. Such matters are covered only briefly, but Welles refreshingly makes plain that Shakespeare did not write books but plays and for the proper sense of the characters to be understood they have to be seen in performance.


Anne Bilson’s original play introduction is replaced now with far longer, more intellectual rigorous piece by Sinfield. But like Bilson, this new writer understands that readers may already have a wealth of criticism to hand, not least in the play’s commentary, and so decides to instead present their own individual impression of the text. Emerging from these dense pages is a writer who has a more holistic approach to criticism and who’s very willing to ignore or actively battle against orthodoxy.

Sinfield begins with arguments for and against Hamlet’s religious persuasion, and the extent to which that effects his ability to kill the king. Bilson went into similar areas, but Sinfield then cleverly turns it on its head by suggesting that actually Shakespeare doesn’t give enough evidence either way and may simply be relying on “us” or to put it more prosaically than he does, each individual audience member to decide with the young prince’s actions compare favourably or otherwise with our own world view, spiritual or otherwise.

He then turns that on its head by suggesting that actually, the “character” based approach to the play – as begun by A.C. Bradley – in which themes are developed through a character investigation, doesn’t work in Hamlet because the playwright seems to actively battle against making specific judgement in that way. Of course directors and actors must in order to make sense of a performance, but Sinfield argues that Shakespeare almost offers too many choices (which no doubt reflects the richness of the critical industry).

In other words, to attempt to apply a psychologically coherent expectation of character to Hamlet as we do with modern drama is a fools errand; whole books have been written about Gertrude’s attitude when in truth like many other characters (Angelo in Measure for Measure for one), after the closet scene it’s almost as though Shakespeare loses interest in her, like Ophelia she exists merely to demonstrate some aspect of Hamlet’s forward narrative motion rather than exist within her own being.

Play in Performance

A quick step through a mix of production history and dramatic choices, what to cut, how literal to make Elsinore, how to stage the Ghost and how casting choices effect characterisation. As a firm believer in Fortinbras and the political dimension, it’s shocking to me that all of that was cut well into the last century. Hamlet as a “simple” family drama can become a bit airless unless done well – Claudius the politician seems harder to kill just some murderer, underscoring the difficulty of Hamlet's mission.

Further Reading

A breezy look at the other editions available and some of the wilder excesses of criticism from across the decades which underscores the introduction’s reminder that by the play’s end because some it’s greatest mysteries, not least the origin and proper motivation of the Ghost are not explained, dozens of academics have felt the need to fill the gap in understanding. The tone is suitably mocking when required and the added context makes this rather more useful than the version from 1980.

How is it, my lord?

The newer Penguin edition will be perfect for someone intimidated by the nerdier excesses of the Arden or Oxford. My only suggestion, for future reprints, would be for the return of the original Bilson introduction alongside the Sinfield. Neither covers the same ground and though it would inevitably make the edition fatter, it feels important that these Penguins in particular should retain a sense of chronological critical continuity, especially considering their ongoing place within theatrical history.

Hamlet (Penguin Shakespeare). Introduction by Alan Singfield. Text edited by Professor T. J. B. Spencer is published by Penguin Books. £7.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780141013077.

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