Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hamlet (RSC Macmillan) Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

Who's There?

Despite my praise for the RSC’s complete works project which led me to embarrassing editor Jonathan Bate at a lecture/booksigning when I told him about being “something of a fan”, I was initially a bit reticent about purchasing an individual edition of Hamlet on the assumption that it would simply reprint the material already available in the larger volume. But since I’m a completest and I very much liked the cover with its spade variation on the usual Yorrick’s skull or Ghost, Amazon were soon making a debit to my credit card.

Publication Data

Published 2008 which makes it, I think, the freshest edition of the text available, what with rivals reprinting older material with new covers. The third revised edition of the Arden third series was in 2005.


As expected, and perhaps understandably, there is a sense of déjà vu. Much of the introduction replicates text from the complete works, as does the key facts, the text itself obviously and the Shakespeare biography at the back is an abbreviated rewrite of the general introduction. Yet, even if you already have those complete works (and if not, why not exactly, Asda now have copies of the paperback for just over twelve pounds) I would certainly recommend this individual volume, if you’re looking for a thoughtfully edited, brand new "player" rendition of the play.

Bate’s introduction is relatively short but plain speaking, interested in illuminating the doubling of Hamlet with other characters, Laertes, Fortinbras and Claudius who it’s suggested had comparable schooling. There’s a dichotomy at the heart of Hamlet’s character, Bate suggests, in that he’s capable of some horrible violence, but is unable to react when called upon to do so with pre-meditation because of his intellect, which is I suppose the opposite of Claudius who is capable but doesn’t want to be too bloody and wants to be surreptitious so relies on poison to do his work.

Unusually, the introduction then turns to the stage craft of the fight and that unlike the simple fencing epee of modern productions – notably the RSC with Tennant and Branagh’s film, productions would originally have featured a rapier and dagger which means that the fudge that usually occurs with Hamlet accidentally grabbing Laertes’s weapon should be more purposeful demonstrating a shift in personality. In order to be a worthy successor to his father, he would have to show the same ability to make big decisions like Hamlet Snr’s land grab and this would demonstrate that possibility.

The introduction then expands from the complete works original for a textual discussion related to hammering the play into shape for a coherent production and then a dip into the critical history which cunningly ignores all of the usual names for something rather more oddball. So instead of Bradley, there’s a smattering of Dr Johnson, Goethe, Schlegel, Showalter, Kierkegaard, Freud, Joyce and well, there’s a surprise at the end. What this selection from outside of the critical mainstream demonstrate is that like football, everyone who’s interested as an opinion on Hamlet’s mental state but no one is really sure.

About The Text

Does a good job of explaining the vision for this version of the text. This is, like the Oxford (which I'll be talking about in coming days or weeks) the First Folio in its purest form, with the Q2 additions at the back, “Now all occasions do offend me" and all (note nothing from Q1 which increases the Arden supplement’s value) the assumption being that the post-mortality edition of the play was the most up to date copy and as Shakespeare finally intended. Oddly, Q2 has still been used as guide for “corrections” however and some of the readings from the earlier printing have been transposed, not least sexton for sixteene in the gravedigger scene, which is still problematic despite theatrical tradition.

Hamlet in Performance: The RSC and Beyond

After a new scene-by-scene analysis some might say synopsis, we find a thorough stage history with some focus on the RSC. The main theme is continuity and the line which can be drawn from Burbage to Garrick to Macready, Irving, Barrymore, Gielgud, Olivier and take your pick from many of the faces I’ve looked at on this blog, though I like to think it shifts to Jacobi then Branagh then Tennant, which is unfair since it’s rather orthodox and leaves out the wilder excesses of Burton, Warner and Williamson.

What marks out the RSC’s contribution is its willingness to experiment and that’s demonstrated in the edition’s true innovation, a round table discussion between three practitioners who have produced the play for stage. Ron Daniels’s contribution is based on his so-called pyjama Hamlet with Mark Rylance in 1984; John Caird directed Simon Russell Beale for the National in 2000; Michael Boyd the artistic director of the RSC tackled the play in 2004 with Toby Stephens in 2004.

These few pages cover a lot of ground and you might have noticed me already quoting from it in my show reviews and are a demonstration that there’s no better people to talk about the play than those tasked with turning it into a piece of drama although there is some disagreement between the three as to how, for example, brutally the closet scene should be played, how abusive Hamlet should be to his mother, the extent to which he is suspicious of his motives.

How is it, my lord?

A thumping good edition all round then, striking the right note between helping the beginner and offering something new for the fan/scholar. Having taken over from the Penguin as the RSC’s text of choice, it is still very much a player’s edition. The notes at the bottom of each page are brief but pointed and the text is well spaced out and readable. I’d refer you to the complete works first if you’re looking for something with the same scholarly aims but with greater depth.

Hamlet (RSC Macmillan) Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. £6.99 paperback. ISBN: 9780230217874.

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