Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hamlet (Oxford World's Classics). Edited by G.R. Hibbard.

Who’s There?

The Oxford Shakespeare is a decades old project under the general editorship of Stanley Wells. They’re an off-shoot of the classic complete works which controversially for their time attempted to collect the plays as they were originally performed rather than taking into account their textual history (something which we’ll discuss below in relation to this text). Although the series began under the Clarendon Press imprint, over the years its become absorbed into the general Oxford World’s Classics literature imprint with cover designs to match.

The Cover.

This latest printing from 2008, features a detail from William Shakespeare Portrait by Max Jacob. A hunt around online doesn’t reveal the full image so I can’t say what facet of the full image this represents, a relatively messy and impressionistic image of Hamlet in his traditional black. The earlier 1998 printing offered Bernardio Licinio’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Skull, a much more traditionalist rendering of the prince and Yorrik.

Publication Data.

The Clarendon was in 1987 and as the copyright page suggests its simply been reprinted since which makes the introduction and version of the text twenty five years old despite the modern covers. But Wells’s has been a life long project only recently completed so this should be seen as part of a body of work rather than the organic changeable thing that the Penguin editions might considered to be.

General Introduction

Hibbard offers a good general survey of the usual play related issues, the sources, the dating, the themes. The text is new enough to encompass the contemporary hindsight that a proportion of the critical history is tainted because the scholars were utilising conflated editions of the play which bore no relation to what Shakespeare intended and that we should tread carefully when considering Hamlet’s procrastination.  Some long held beliefs still enunciated were as a result of Alexander Pope or Lewis Theobald’s well meaning tampering, though due respect is given to all of these early editors for bothering to produce scholarly editions in the first place.

Textual Introduction & Editorial Procedures

A survey of the origins of the three texts. Hibbard pays lip service to the theory that Q1 is a first draft but fall firmly on the side of it being a memorial manuscript further mangled in production which becomes relatively seductive when he notes the similarities with portions of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (though its too early to include anything on the recent theory that Shakespeare’s hand may have been responsible for the 1602 emendations to that play). Q2 is another mangled manuscript, this time from Shakespeare’s foul papers with some correspondence with Q1 by the compositor.

Hibbard spends most time with F1 which he chooses as the basis for his text on the assumption that it was produced from a clean, revised manuscript of Hamlet by Shakespeare himself, a final revision of the material that increases the pace but also clarifies the story in other places. His argument is sound, but I still prefer the much later Arden 3’s approach of suggesting that all the close textual analysis in the world won’t definitively confirm which of the texts is definitive, so it’s best just to present all three (unless like the RSC edition that was much influenced by Hibbard work, the mission is to reproduce an edition of the folio in particular).

The Text.

F1 presented in a similar format to Arden with textual notes in a two column formation beneath the play. Like the later RSC, the Q2 sections not in F1 appear in an appendix at the back, including “Now all occasions do offend me" and like the RSC it “corrects” what’s actually in F1 and changes “sixteene” to “sexton” in the gravedigger scene as per Q2. No one to answer, but have to ask. How come, if by Hibbard’s argument, F1 is Shakespeare’s final word on his play and filled with revisions and clarifications, no one will be believe that one of his revision or clarifications was to make plain the much younger age of his protagonist?


The afformentioned Q2 passages. A list of alterations to textual alignment and the changing between texts of verse to prose and vis-versa. A synopsis of Der Bestrafte Brudermord, a German adaptation of the play. Manuscripts of music for the songs by Dr Frederick Sternfeld. Some notes on stage directions in 1.2.

How is it, my lord?

Perfectly affable, if very traditional edition which rigidly treats the play as a text rather than a script for production. Although there are images from its theatrical history, Warner at the RSC, Gielgud at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, they’re not named and that whole aspect of the play is kept at arms length. Since this appears to be a choice rather than oversight, it’s hard to criticise it for that.

Hamlet (Oxford World's Classics). Edited by G.R. Hibbard is published by Oxford University Press. £7.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-0-19-953581-1.

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