Posts Tagged ‘hamlet’

Shakespeare’s bundles of contradictions

Towards the end of the play of which he is protagonist, Macbeth speaks these famous lines:

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

(From V, iii)

And yet, a brief couple of scenes later, he speaks these even more famous lines:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(From V,v)

The earlier speech is a heartfelt lament for what he is; the latter a statement of nihilism, a conviction that nothing in life really matters. And of course, the two speeches are inconsistent: for if nothing in life really matters, there is nothing for him to lament. So the actor looking for a consistency is here flummoxed: Macbeth surely cannot mean both!

And yet, I think he does: at the time he speaks each speech, he means it. Both speeches are heartfelt. So has he changed dramatically between the two speeches? It seems unlikely. The only difference is that before he utters the second speech, he receives news of his wife’s death; but the two had grown very far apart by then, and he must have been expecting this news anyway. And even if that were not the case, it is hard to see why this news should change him in such a manner.

One reason Shakespeare seems so profound a depicter of humanity is, it seems to me, that he recognises humans are bundles of contradictions. The drama in his plays is frequently within his characters as much as, or even more than, between his characters. Thus, Macbeth can at the same time lament the profound tragedy that he knows his life to be, while at the same time believe that it doesn’t matter. And instead of resolving this conflict, Shakespeare is happy to leave it as it is. Macbeth is both. This cannot be resolved.

And Macbeth himself knows this. He seems to me by far the most self-aware of all Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists. Even Hamlet, that most intelligent and introspective of characters, is often puzzled by his own self, asking himself questions about his own self that he cannot answer, and admitting that he does not know:

                             I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;
‘Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

(From III, iv)

Hamlet’s acute self-awareness is, quite frequently, an awareness that he doesn’t truly know his own self. But Macbeth knows his true self all too well. Alone amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth does not make the journey towards greater self-knowledge: this is because he has known himself perfectly from the start. His tragedy is not that he had acted from lack of self-knowledge, but, rather, he had acted knowing perfectly that his acts will damn his soul for ever; knowing perfectly that once started, there can be no going back. And yet, he is unable to stop himself. Othello’s vision had been fatally clouded as he walked into damnation, but Macbeth goes into his damnation with his eyes wide open at each step. And their sense is not shut.

Lady Macbeth, too, is a huge bundle of contradictions. Does her invocation to evil spirits to possess her an indication of her evil nature? Or an admission that she cannot truly be evil with the spirits’ possession? Why does this personification of evil in a female form herself shirk from the act of murder – and for the most sentimental of reasons?

Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.

(From II,ii)

How, indeed, can so implacably evil a woman eventually become mad with guilt?

Shakespeare never repeated himself. After the terse bleakness of Macbeth, he went immediately to the opposite extreme, and gave us the expansive and overflowing opulence of Antony and Cleopatra; here, instead of a protagonist who knows himself, he gives us a queen who, regardless of what she had been in life, mythologises herself into a great queen at death; and a once mighty soldier whose extent of acquired self-knowledge amounts to his realising that he doesn’t have the first understanding of who or what he is.

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

It does, my lord.

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape…

(From IV, xiii)

Like the Macbeths, Antony and Cleopatra too are bundles of unresolved contradictions. There is, by the end, a closure in terms of plot, but never in terms of character.

“To thine own self be true…”

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

These lines are often cited as great wisdom, as evidence of how wise and profound a thinker Shakespeare was. They are spoken, however, by Polonius, who is anything but a wise and profound thinker. Indeed, he is a shallow man, a pompous, long-winded buffoon, one of those “tedious old fools” that Hamlet refers to so contemptuously. These lines of wisdom occur towards the end of an excruciatingly tedious oration delivered by Polonius to his son Laertes, peppered from beginning to end with cracker-mottoes of the most mind-numbing banality. Far from depicting profundity, these lines serve merely to depict Polonius as a man who has no conception of the complexities of life that Prince Hamlet is grappling with, a manwhose idea of wisdom is no more than a few trite and meaningless platitudes.

For what does it mean to be “true to one’s self”? What, for that matter, is “one’s self”? The very opening line of this play, a seemingly casual “who’s there?” spoken by a guard on duty on the battlements, rings through the rest of the play: it poses the question of identity. Is Hamlet being true to his self when he is a sweet prince, greeting his social inferiors Bernardo and Marcellus with courtesy? Or is he being more true to his self when making nasty and obscene suggestions to Ophelia in the open court? When he fails to kill the king when given the opportunity to do so, or when he plunges his sword into the arras only a few minutes later thinking the king is hiding behind it? Even after all these centuries, we have not come close to plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, and this is because his true self, like all our true selves, whether we recognise it or not, is complex: we do not even know what these true selves are that we are instructed to be true to.

To see Polonius’ exhortations to his son as pearls of wisdom is to see the complexity of this play through Polonius’ uncomprehending eyes. It is a grotesque reduction. It is to see the moral paths of Right and Wrong as clear as they are in Aesop’s fables, and characters as flawed for not seeing what is so apparent. It is to imagine that identifying a tragic flaw on the part of the protagonist can help us come close even to an adequate understanding of these endlessly intricate works. Such reduction leads not merely to a simplified view of these works, but to a distorted view. Far from helping us understand the work, it takes us further from it.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe?

Directing “Hamlet” in one’s mind

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have encountered many fine performances of Shakespeare both on stage, and, sometimes, on screen. And also, quite frequently, in audio recordings, which can be at least as effective as either. But for me, reading the plays provides the most enriching experience of all: somehow, nothing quite matches the performance that goes on in my head. There, I can be my own director, my own set and costume designer, determine the lighting just as I would wish. I could be the entire cast, all by myself. There is no bar to my imagination – except, of course, the natural boundaries of that imagination itself. There is no bound on my own interpretation. And all this from the comfort of my own library, without having to worry about getting the train back home afterwards!

For instance, I have yet to experience a production of Hamlet that stages the first scene in between Hamlet and Claudius (I,ii) as a confrontation. Yet, that is how I have been reading it these last few years. Everyone on set is dressed in their fineries: this is the court, after all, and also the first time the court is presided over by the new king. Only Hamlet, dressed still in his suit of solemn black, stands out. The king notices, of course, but pretends not to. He goes through other business first – even the relatively insignificant one of granting Laertes leave to return to France, before turning with a forced geniality and good humour to “our cousin and our son”, Hamlet.

Hamlet’s opening lines are laden with multiple meanings. First, we have “A little more than kin, and less than kind”: this alone indicates the deep antipathy Hamlet feels for this man now calling him “cousin” and “son”. And then, when Claudius asks: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet answers:

Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’sun.

(Or, if you read the Quarto text, “Not so much, my lord, I am too much in the ‘son’ ”.)

The quibble with sun/son is obvious, but I think an extra layer of meaning may be added to this if it is made clear in the set design that the sun is a royal symbol. This line I always imagine spoken with an almost aggressive insolence. It certainly stops Claudius in his tracks. It is a tricky situation for him: he cannot afford to lose face in his own court, and yet he has to be careful, for, amongst other things, the queen, his new wife, still dotes on her son. As he pauses, wondering what to say in reply to such insolence, Gertrude wades in with some loving, motherly advice: all that lives must die – you know it’s common … and various other such banalities. Hamlet, disgusted, amongst other things, that such unthinking platitudes are dressed up as wisdom, replies sarcastically: “Ay, madam, it is common.” He does not even bother to disguise his scorn: it is “common” … it is a “commonplace” … indeed, you, dear mother, are “common”, for mouthing such trite emptiness.

But the queen doesn’t get it. “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

The word “seems” strikes a nerve in Hamlet. For his mother, of all people, to accuse him, Hamlet, of “seeming”! “Seems!” he practically screams at her. “Nay, it is – I know not ‘seems’.” And then, as ever, his mind races on to all sorts of other things, his tone changing almost by the second. First of all, he affects the tone of a kindly teacher imparting basic matters to a child: “’Tis not alone this inky cloak, good mother…” (or “cold mother” in the Q2 text: did Shakespeare, I wonder, alter this because it expressed Hamlet’s contempt too blatantly?) Then, the tone changes to one of exaggerated affectation:

Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly…

The voice becomes forceful again for the next three words: “These, indeed, seem” – this last repetition of the word “seem” almost spat out. And then, to rub it in, he changes abruptly to a tongue-in-cheek flippancy, as he closes his little tirade with a somewhat trivial little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Almost as soon as Hamlet finishes – even slightly before he finishes – the King steps in: he has had enough. For a while, he had been unsure what to do, but there is no way he can allow himself and his Queen to be humiliated in open court. He speaks in a severe, formal tone, first of all addressing Hamlet with apparent kindness (although there is no kindness any more in his voice – none of this “our cousin and our son” stuff):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father…

For the next few lines he expresses more or less those commonplace sentiments that Gertrude had expressed – that all who live must die, that’s the way things are, and so on. But, unlike Gertrude, he does not allow Hamlet time to reply: he presses on till he comes to his point:

but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness;

These last two words are delivered with the utmost force. There must be a pause here, for these words to register. There is pindrop silence. The court is shocked to see Prince Hamlet receive so public a dressing down. Gertrude too is shocked by this: yes, she knows that son had overstepped the mark, but this perhaps is a bit too severe. Claudius possibly at this point makes a discreet gesture to Gertrude, as if to tell her not to interfere, that he will explain later; and she, knowing the niceties of aulic manners, remains silent, though troubled. And Hamlet himself, possibly for the first time in his life, is lost for words: no-one has ever spoken to him like this before. And certainly not in public. Possibly for the first time his true position dawns on him: he is no longer the son of the king, and there is now nothing to shield him from this sort of thing. The advantage gained, the King presses on, as Hamlet stares at him in stunned silence:

’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d…

“Unmanly” was perhaps a greater insult then than it is now: it is intended to sting, and it does. And “unschool’d”? Imagine describing the most intelligent and educated character in all literature as “unschool’d”! How that must hurt!

His point made, Claudius can now afford to make a show of his love and regard for Hamlet. And he can now do so on his own terms:

We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father:

The stage is now his. Claudius is in full control. He has defeated Hamlet publicly, and he knows it. Hamlet’s request to return to Wittenberg is refused in the most imperious of terms:

It is most retrograde to our desire

And finally, his mission now accomplished, the King can afford to return to his genial, loving tones:

And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

But there’s no sarcastic rejoinder from Hamlet this time: he knows he has lost the battle.

This, at least, is how I imagine this scene being played. But it never has been played like this in any of the performances I have seen or heard. Indeed, in some performances, we have Claudius gently remonstrating with Hamlet, and sympathising with his grief: this seems to me entirely wrong. In the opening book of The Iliad, which Shakespeare would have known at least through Chapman’s recent translation, Achilles is humiliated in open court, and in response, he withdraws from action and broods on the nature of morality and of mortality; and I, for one, can’t help conjecturing whether this Homeric motif had stayed in Shakespeare’s mind, and had transformed itself into this.

Gertrude’s death in the final scene has never satisfied me either in any of the productions I have seen. She dies from drinking from the poisoned chalice that had been intended for Hamlet, but is this a mere accident? For if it is, the random nature of her death makes for weak drama. How much more powerful the drama is if she drinks it knowingly! For Gertrude, too, is a tragic figure: the two people she loves the most – the two to whom she is wholeheartedly devoted – are her husband, and her son; and between them they have cleft her heart in twain.

In the text, the King marks out the chalice intended for Hamlet by dropping a pearl into it:

Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;

Here’s to thy health.

[Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within]

Give him the cup.

As soon as he drops in the pearl, Gertrude understands. And the production should make it clear that she understands. Perhaps she should be standing at this point right at the front of the stage, facing the audience, and somewhat detached from the other figures crowding the scene. A quick, jerky movement from her could draw the audience’s attention to her face, which now bears an expression of the utmost horror, and also one of utmost grief. There is only one thing for her to do – to take that poison that her husband had intended for her son:

He’s fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows;
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

Good madam!

Gertrude, do not drink.

Claudius is often criticised at this point for being too cowardly to leap over and knock the poisoned drink from her hand, but if he is on the other side of the stage at this point, and if there are many people between them, then it is not possible for Claudius to make his way over to her in time. The best he can do is to call out to her, and tell her not to drink. But Gertrude insists: “I will, my lord.” There is no reason why she should insist on this if she didn’t know the significance of the drink she is holding. But if she does know what it is, then her insistence at this point is charged with deep significance. And, all of a sudden, at the moment of her death, this shallow creature, this wretched queen, becomes heroic.

She adds:

I pray you, pardon me.

This is no polite rejoinder. This is a heartfelt plea for forgiveness, her last words to the man she continues, despite everything, to love. And before she dies, she takes a last tender farewell of her son:

Come, let me wipe thy face.

Each one of Gertrude’s lines at this point must be charged with significance, and with tragic weight.

I find Gertrude one of the most pathetic characters in Shakespeare: she is foolish, weak, and irredeemably shallow: and yet, she is naïvely loving. This is the person who feels real grief at the fate of Ophelia – more so, one suspects, than Hamlet himself does. Almost without quite realising what she is doing, she has allowed herself to become embroiled in a terrible evil. It is in her death, I think, that she redeems herself. And yet, the pathos of this scene is rarely projected. Well – it is in the production that goes on in my mind as I read it!


One could go on almost indefinitely, going through it all scene by scene. And the best thing is that unlike, say, films, or recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, the interpretation of the mind isn’t frozen in time: each time I come back to the play, I find new subtleties and nuances that had not occurred to me before. Shakespeare’s plays are intended to be seen, not read, runs the mantra, but that is to ignore what one sees – and hears – in one’s mind as one reads.

The three Hamlets

There is no single text of Hamlet: there are three separate texts, and versions we read or see performed are usually conflations of two of them, with, perhaps, a nod to the third. But it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare intended the different texts to be conflated. I have heard Prof. James Shapiro – author of the book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, in one chapter of which he discusses the textual differences and the impact they make – insist passionately that Shakespeare wrote quite different versions of the play, and that to conflate the two versions together is to end up with a play that is faithful to neither to Shakespeare’s original thoughts, nor to the revised. Since hearing Prof Shapiro on the subject, I had been meaning to read the different versions separately; and now that the Arden Shakespeare has printed these different versions in separate volumes, I really have no excuse not to.

(The earlier Arden edition of the play, edited by Harold Jenkins, is still widely considered to be an exemplary piece of Shakespearean scholarship, although, like most editions, it uses a conflated text.)

hamlet 001

It was in 1603 that the first text appeared: this is known as the First Quarto (Q1), or the “Bad Quarto”. Whoever put this together obviously had access to Shakespeare’s own text, but there are huge cuts, and, at times, the text seems garbled:

To be or not to be – ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep – is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream – ay, marry, there it goes…

At other points, it seems to follow closely enough the later texts that we think of as the better ones. How this particular text came about is a bit of a mystery: it is often conjectured that it was pieced together from memory by some players who may recently have left Shakespeare’s company, but who had heard it often enough at rehearsals, or who had even performed in it, to be familiar enough with it to reproduce large chunks of it. The play we now recognise as Hamlet is recognisable, but it’s like seeing a mediocre artist’s copy of a painting by an old master: we may discern a genius lurking somewhere behind the work, but the work itself seems clumsy.

The very next year, in 1604, as if in response to the Bad Quarto, there appeared another text – the Second Quarto (Q2), or, as it is rather unimaginatively dubbed, the “Good Quarto”. This is almost twice as long as the Bad Quarto, and it is unmistakably a work of genius. But it is very long. A full performance would have taken some four hours – far longer than the “two hours’ traffic on our stage” mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, or even the “two hours and a half, and somewhat more” as mentioned in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. So either this text is a fuller version of what was performed on stage; or conceivably, the players made an exception for this work in performance, allowing it to run longer than was usual. (Shapiro argues this latter possibility is unlikely: given that the performance started at 2 in the afternoon, and that this play was performed in the Globe during autumn and winter months, it would have been dark by the final scene.)

The third text appeared in the First Folio, the first collected works of Shakespeare’s plays that was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. And here, we have another good text, but with a great many differences from that of the Good Quarto. It wasn’t an abridgement for performance: only 230 lines are excised, while 90 are added. It is, quite clearly, a conscious revision. That is, if we agree that the Folio text is a revision of the Second Quarto text, and not the other way round: both Shapiro, and the editors of the Oxford edition, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, seem agreed that the Second Quarto text had been written first.

(Interestingly, in the various passages of the First Quarto that correspond to the “good texts”, it is the Folio text rather than that of the Second Quarto that it appears closer to. This is why the First Quarto is often consulted by editors when there appears to be printing errors or uncertainties in the Folio. The First Quarto is also interesting in that it places Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the scene that follows with Ophelia, in Act Two rather than in Act Three, where it stands in both the Good Quarto and in the Folio texts. This leaves open the fascinating possibility that Shakespeare, even during rehearsals, was experimenting with the structure, and tinkering with the order of various scenes. The DVD of the recent RSC production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, although using, as usual, a conflated version of Q2 and the Folio, nonetheless followed Q1 in placing these passages in Act Two.)

After a while, I must admit, scholarly discussion of textual matters finds me a bit out of my depth. Naturally, there is much controversy over several aspects of this, but, fascinating though it all is, it is a controversy in which I do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable to take part. However, after some forty or so years of reading conflated texts, I felt I should take Prof Shapiro’s advice and read the texts separately. That isn’t actually as easy as it sounds: my mind is so imprinted on conflated texts, that even when a passage is missing from one text or the other, I find myself automatically filling in the gaps. One can’t, after all, unlearn what one already knows.

Most of the changes are quite minor – changes in wording, or in phrasing. But often, even small changes can make a huge impact. For instance, in the Q2 text, while Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost to appear, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

This is a bit of idle chit-chat while they are waiting. But in the Folio text, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly: is it very cold?
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

Here, Hamlet is at a stage where he cannot even trust the evidence of his own senses, and needs confirmation that what he feels really is a reflection of reality. A slight change, but it casts the entire scene, and, indeed, the entire play, in a different light.

I am intrigued also by the change of phrasing in Hamlet’s famous passage about the nature of man. In the First Folio, and in all the conflated versions I have seen, we get this:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

But in Q2, we had this:

What a piece of work is a man – how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Admittedly, the overall meaning remains much the same, but there is something fascinating about Shakespeare rethinking and re-organising the phrasing and the rhythms in this manner. I’d love to hear the Q2 phrasing used in a production.

There are also somewhat more significant changes. In Act 2 Scene 2, where Hamlet sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Quarto text allows Hamlet to see through them almost immediately; the Folio text, however, allows Hamlet a bit longer, letting him engage for a while in seemingly friendly banter before dropping the bombshell: “Were you not sent for?” Here, I must admit, I feel the Folio text is dramatically more effective, giving more scope for the actor playing Hamlet to display his shrewdness in weighing up the motives of his former friends. In the Q2 text, the question “Were you not sent for?” seems based on a hunch, asked on the spur of the moment.

In the closet scene, however (III,iv), Q2 has a magnificent piece of extended rhetoric in which Hamlet berates his mother. It is an irresistible torrent in full flow:

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was’t
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.

And I can’t help feeling what a shame it is that Shakespeare in his revision chose to shorten this of all passages. Presumably, he had his reasons for doing so, but I can’t help wondering what devil was’t that thus hath cozen’d him at hoodman-blind.

But without doubt, the most significant cut of all comes in the fourth act. In Q2, Hamlet, as he is led into exile, sees Fortinbras and his troops; expresses some thoughts about them to Fortinbras’ captain, and then, left on his own, delivers the last of his great soliloquies (“How all occasions do inform against me”). In the Folio text, Hamlet is not present at all in this scene: his words to the captain, and his soliloquy, one of the most magnificent speeches in all Shakespeare, are cut out. This scene now serves a purely narrative purpose – to remind us of Fortinbras and his troops, and to prepare the ground for their entrance at the end of the play. But before decrying this unkindest cut of all, we should examine why Shakespeare was so apparently willing to discard so extraordinary a passage.

To be entirely honest, this longer scene in Q2, magnificent though it is, has always puzzled me. On hearing from the captain that the troops are on their way to fight over a meaningless piece of land, all for the sake of honour, Hamlet is horrified:

This is the impostume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.

“Impostume” is an abscess: once again, Hamlet employs the imagery of disease. This Hotspur-like insistence on honour, even at so great a loss, is a disease, and is the hidden reason that explains “why the man dies”. Shapiro thinks that this “may well be the darkest moment in the play”. But then, left on his own, we have Hamlet’s final soliloquy. At the very opening of the soliloquy, Hamlet castigates himself – as he had done in the soliloquy that had ended the second act – for not having yet acted:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!

But this opening is immediately followed by some of the most glorious lines in English literature, in which Hamlet speaks of humans as thinking beings:

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

How noble in reason indeed!

But at this point, the soliloquy takes a strange turn. Hamlet now turns his critical eye on thinking too much – on “thinking too precisely on th’event”. One of Hamlet’s own principal characteristics – the ability to think and to reason deeply – is found wanting, and rejected:

Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

In all the years I have been reading and re-reading this play, I have never understood this turn of Hamlet’s mind. And it eludes me still. Hamlet knows that what Fortinbras is doing – leading two thousand souls to their deaths for nothing, for some point of honour – is stupid, is pointless. It is an “impostune” – an abscess, a disease. So why does he now think that Fortinbras’ actions shows himself, Hamlet, in a bad light? Why is he turning against his own nature? Why is he now castigating himself for being, unlike Fortinbras, capable of thought? He is still aware that what Fortinbras is fighting for is not worth fighting for: an “eggshell”, he calls it, “a fantasy and a trick of fame”. And yet, he now admires and wishes to emulate even this fighting that is pointless, that is an impostume.

When I last wrote about Hamlet on this blog, I had conjectured that Hamlet sees in Fortinbras an image of his own warlike father; and that his guilt in being so unlike his father, in having, as it were, betrayed his father’s values, compels him to admire those very qualities that he knows he does not have. It compels him to admire these qualities even though he can see these qualities for what they are. This is, I admit, mere conjecture on my part; but I can think of no other reason why Hamlet should express admiration for Fortinbras, and try to force himself into becoming what he knows he isn’t:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

However we interpret this soliloquy, and Hamlet’s words to the captain, we are in deep moral and psychological waters. By removing these passages, these complexities are also removed. Shapiro in his book presents us with a number of other changes Shakespeare introduced into the revised text that, consistent with the removal of complexity, present revenge as morally correct and desirable, and Hamlet as, essentially, a revenging angel.

First of all, since Fortinbras is no longer so strong a foil to Hamlet, Laertes’ role as a foil is emphasised, perhaps somewhat clumsily, with the addition of these lines:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his.

Hamlet’s beautiful lines on the acceptance of Fate are also subtly changed. In Q2, we had this:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all, since no man of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.

In the Folio, this becomes:

We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

The more committed avenger in the Folio text leaves out “Let be”. And the passage is rephrased so that the word “knows” drops out: Hamlet in the Folio no longer says that it is not possible to know, but, rather, that it is unimportant to have. The moral complexity of the Q2 text is here ironed out: in that text, Hamlet had resolved the questions that had been tormenting him by calmly accepting that it is impossible to know. In the Folio text, all those issues have disappeared altogether, leaving a somewhat simplified character, but also, for that very reason, a more credible avenger.

There is a further significant addition. In Q2, we had this:

He that hath kill’d my King and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
And with such cozenage. Is’t not perfect conscience?

This passage is clearly intended to prepare us for the act of revenge that is soon to follow, but in the light of the moral complexities introduced earlier, this passage sits awkwardly: has Hamlet forgotten about these complexities? But, with these complexities removed in the Folio text, this same passage can now be given greater dramatic force, and the sense of the impending revenge, and of its correctness, emphasised:

He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage–is’t not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is’t not to be damn’d,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

It is now “to be damn’d” not to take revenge – a sentiment that the Q2 text could not have accommodated.

(For a more detailed and a far more eloquent account of the impact of these changes, I would strongly recommend Chapter 15 of James Shapiro’s book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.)

So, what are the final impressions left by reading these competing texts separately? A certain clarification, certainly. To see the subtle touches of revision, those apparently little changes that alter so much, are in themselves a joy to behold. But while there are some aspects of the revised Folio text that I would not wish to be without – such as the extended scene in II,ii where hamlet speaks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – it is the morally and psychologically complex Hamlet of Q2 that I find more compelling. Even though, admittedly, the final act of revenge in which the play culminates does nothing to resolve those complexities.