Posts Tagged ‘James Shapiro’

“1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by James Shapiro

Biographies of Shakespeare generally tend to be like Hamlet without the Prince: we know much about the historic times, the cultural and social background, the religious controversies and conflicts, and so on, but about the man himself, all we have to go on are a few scattered documents. We do not even know what Shakespeare thought: all he wrote in his plays are words spoken by characters in their respective characters, so the reader who thinks Shakespeare a nihilist on the basis of Macbeth’s despairing utterances is on grounds as shaky as the reader who imagines Shakespeare a believer in a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will. Perhaps he speaks in his own voice in the sonnets – in some of them, at least – but even when we can be fairly sure that he is indeed speaking in his own voice, we find little more than a poet aware of his own genius, who knew that nor marble nor the gilded monuments will outlive his works.

However, this has not stopped writers and scholars trying to re-create the sort of life Shakespeare may have led. I am particularly fond of Anthony Burgess’ witty and characteristically exuberant biography, but there have been others. A few years ago, academic and writer James Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University, made quite a splash with a book re-creating a single year of Shakespeare’s life – 1599. It was an eventful year all right: it was in this year that Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, moved into the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare himself, after a few relatively fallow years (at least by his standards), burst into an astonishing period of creativity with Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. We tend nowadays to use the word “amazing” to signify something that is very good, but this really was, quite literally, “amazing”. Shapiro in this book brought together his prodigious knowledge and understanding of the times to give us a tremendously vivid account of the historical, cultural, political and social picture of the times, and conjectured intelligently on what a man of Shakespeare’s background and position may have been doing or thinking. Most interestingly, he considered how the times are reflected in the plays, and how contemporary audiences are likely to have seen them.  For there is no contradiction between these plays being “for all time”, and also for their own time: we may judge for ourselves what these plays mean to us now, but to discover what Shakespeare’s own audiences may have received these plays is fascinating in its own right.

WP_20151220_11_27_04_Pro (1)1599 was a runaway success: perhaps to everyone’s surprise, it became a bestseller. Shapiro certainly has a gift for presenting historic times in a most vivid manner, and of interpreting what documentary evidence we have to give an impression of what it might have been like to have lived in those times, in that place. Now, given the success of that first book, he has followed it up with 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.  And once again we see the same virtues that had distinguished his earlier volume – that same ability to interpret what we know of history, of the culture of the times, to try to re-recreate what it might have been like to have lived there and then. , We cannot, of course, know with any precision what Shakespeare was thinking, or even what kind of person he was, but certain conjectures do seem reasonable: for instance, it tells us much about Shakespeare the man that, despite being acknowledged in his own time as the leading poet and dramatist of his age, and despite the documented fact that writing flattering verses for masques at the court would have earned him far more than merely writing plays, Shakespeare did not go in that direction. Even Ben Jonson did; but Will, it seems, was made of somewhat sterner stuff.

The years between 1599 and 1606 had hardly been “fallow years”: these years had seen the writing of Twelfth Night, Othello, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, as well as the curious but intriguing Timon of Athens, which was probably written in collaboration and even more probably abandoned in an unfinished state. But, supreme masterpieces though at least four of these works undoubtedly were, Shakespeare had certainly slowed down: five plays – or four and a half plays, if we consider Timon of Athens to be unfinished – in five years is slow by Shakespeare’s standards; and, as Shapiro points out, Shakespeare’s dramatic output but stopped completely after the accession to the throne of King James. But then, in 1606, in the course of a single year, came King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. All in one year. Even when one knows this to be a fact, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief.

The political environment was now much changed. James wanted to be seen as the founder of a new dynasty, reconciling previous discords in an era of peace and stability: he liked, indeed, to be seen as Octavius Caesar. His deepest desire seemed to have been to unite England and Scotland, much to the opposition, it seems, of both the English parliament and of the Scottish ruling classes. It is not unreasonable to assume that this debate resonates strongly in King Lear, in which division of kingdom brings about a cataclysm, although it is still very much open to conjecture whether Edgar’s “I smell the blood of a British man” was intended as a celebration of the proposed union, or knowingly played for laughs.

The major event that overshadowed these times was the Gunpowder Plot, discovered and foiled in November of the year before. Now that we have relegated the whole thing to a jolly annual celebration, it’s perhaps difficult for us to imagine just how traumatic an event this must have been: the appalling St Bartholomew’s Day’s massacre just across the channel, and the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada, were very much within within living memory, and the fear of a Catholic uprising, and of the death and devastation it would bring in its wake, were all too real. Had the Plot not been discovered, thousands would have been killed, including the King and the entire Parliament: it was an attempted act of terrorism on the largest imaginable scale. Shapiro describes in vivid and exciting detail the discovery of the plot, of the various manhunts in the immediate aftermath to track down the perpetrators (why has this not been filmed, I wonder?) – one of these manhunts taking place in Shakespeare’s own Warwickshire, and involving people whom Shakespeare must personally have known – and of the fears that lingered of the promised end, or an image of that horror.

English Catholics, not surprisingly, found themselves particularly vulnerable, and in danger. In the summer of 1606, two English Jesuits, Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet (both since canonised), were hung, drawn and quartered: they were the co-authors of what was soon to become a notorious treatise – on the subject of “equivocation”. The theme of “equivocation”, a word that had previously meant merely “ambiguity”, soon took on a whole range of meanings, for the treatise was, in effect, a justification of, and instructions for, lying under oath. At a time when the fate of one’s soul was a matter, both for Protestants and for Catholics, of vital importance, this treatise explained how to say one thing while meaning another, so that, strictly speaking, one isn’t lying at all; it explained how to give a false impression while keeping one’s soul free of perjury; it even went as far as to claim that it is permissible to speak an untruth under oath as long as the truth is clear in one’s heart, because God, who can see into the human heart, cannot be deceived. As was quite rightly perceived, this treatise threatened to bring down the institution of law itself.

Equivocation in all its guises is a major theme in Macbeth. Once again, it seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the topicality of that word chimed with themes that had long been maturing in Shakespeare’s mind. In this play, perhaps above all others, Shakespeare seems fascinated by the contradictory directions in which the same mind can be pulled at the same time: thus, Macbeth both desires to kill and desires not to kill with equal intensity; Lady Macbeth’s desire for murder is matched by her own inability to commit it. From the very first scene, we have equivocation: fair is foul, and foul is fair; and as soon as Macbeth enters, he remarks “So fair and foul a day I have not seen”. The witches equivocate with both Macbeth and with Banquo, the Macbeths equivocate with Duncan, Malcolm later equivocates with Macduff: everywhere one looks in the play, there is equivocation. And the theme appears transformed into a grimly comic tonality with the Porter, pretending to himself that he is porter of the gates of Hell itself, without realising how close to the truth he is:

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

I hadn’t realised till Shapiro points it out that these lines themselves are equivocal. They seem at first glance to be mocking the equivocating Southwell and Garnet, but the treason they have committed was for God’s sake – i.e. not for their own; and neither could they equivocate to heaven because Heaven knows what’s in their hearts. Strange that I have been reading these lines for over 40 years without seeing this.

In late July 1606, “in the midst of a thrilling theatrical season that included what may well be the finest group of new plays ever staged”, a virulent outbreak of plague forced the theatres to close. Shapiro tells us there is very little historic documentation to tell us what it must have been like to live within the plague-stricken city, although I suspect it might not have been very different from Daniel Defoe’s painstaking journalistic reconstruction of the Great Plague of 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year. Shapiro comments that there is perhaps no better description of the horrors of the “terror and malaise that plague carried with it” than these four lines from Macbeth:

… The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

– from IV, iii

Perhaps it is impossible for us to feel the horror that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, who lived with plague as a daily presence (there were plague deaths even when there weren’t major outbreaks), would have felt when Lear describes Goneril as “a plague sore, and embossed curbuncle in my / Corrupted blood”; or when a soldier in Antony and Cleopatra speaks of a hopeless situation in battle, and declares it be “like the tokened pestilence, / Where death is sure”. These works may indeed be for all time, but there were resonances also in its time and for its time that are now at best diminished, but which should, nonetheless, be acknowledged. Shapiro, as ever, is unerring in the light he throws upon them.

Much though I enjoyed reading this book, there are a few points where I must register a protest. In a section comparing an older anonymous play about Lear with Shakespeare’s version, Shapiro says:

The anonymous author of Leir had been content to build to a somewhat wooden reconciliation scene between father and daughter, one that failed to pack much emotional punch. Shakespeare’ Lear would substitute for that not one but two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester. It’s debatable which of the two is the most heartbreaking scene in the play.

 – From Chapter 3

I agree fully with the last sentence above, but the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester comes before, not after, Lear’s recognition scene with Cordelia.

Later, in an otherwise fascinating passage describing how, in Macbeth, even good people are forced to equivocate, Shapiro, after describing the scene in which Macduff receives the news of the slaughter of his wife and children, continues:

In the long and unsettling scene that follows, yet another seemingly virtuous character, Malcolm, swears and lies to Macduff, telling him that his rapacious and violent nature renders him unfit to rule in Scotland…

  • From Chapter 10

Actually, Malcolm’s equivocation with Macduff precedes rather than follows the news of Macduff’s slaughtered family.

And from Chapter 13:

The wild drinking scenes aboard ship in Antony and Cleopatra in which Pompey has to be carried off dead drunk…

It is Lepidus, not Pompey, who is carried off dead drunk.

Now, I am sure that James Shapiro knows these plays backwards, and, strange though it seems, these are errors of carelessness, or of poor editing, or both. But however these errors got in, they are terrible howlers, and makes me wonder what other errors have crept in that I am not sufficiently competent to identify. If anyone from Faber & Faber is reading this, may I suggest that every effort be made to correct these (and possibly other) errors, as they are terrible disfiguring blots on what is otherwise a quite superb read.

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As I liked it

I’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with As You Like It. While I recognise it to be a charming pastoral idyll, I don’t really see enough in the play to account for the reverence many feel for it. For instance, in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, eminent Shakespearean James Shapiro refers to As You Like It as Shakespeare’s finest comedy, while, at the same time, he characterises Twelfth Night as relatively safe and conventional, a step backwards from the glories of the earlier work. As someone who reveres Twelfth Night, and who, admittedly to his embarrassment, has never seen much more to As You Like It than a certain charm, I found Shapiro’s evaluations of these works somewhat startling. And, since I read a Shakespeare play each month anyway – these works are, after all, to be lived with, not just read once and put away – I decided it was high time to revisit As You Like It.

Having now read it again, I must say that it seems to me still a sunlit pastoral idyll, a work of tremendous charm and delight, but with little or none of the profound darkness and melancholy that seems to me to push Twelfth Night towards the realms of the tragic. But that does not necessarily make As You Like It a lesser work – unless one were to imagine, as, I must admit, I sometimes tend to do, that the tragic gives us a more profound vision of life than the comic can.

However, all authors of sunlit idylls need to decide how much if any of the world’s darkness to depict, or even to acknowledge; and darkness is not entirely absent from As You Like It. Indeed, the opening act of the play, like the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most definitely contains at least the seeds of tragedy. But as we move from the court to the enchantment of the wilds, these seeds fail to bear fruit: the dark shadows seem, in both plays, to dissolve, and give way to something wondrous.

In order to achieve this, realism has to be suspended. Oliver, for instance, whom we see at the start of the play mistreating his brother Orlando, and who later follows Orlando into the Forest of Arden meaning to hunt him down, is transformed when this same Orlando, returning love for hate, risks his own life to save that of his murderous brother. And once this murderous brother is converted to good, there remains not the slightest taint of the evil that had previously consumed him: there remains not even an awareness of the misery that his past evil had brought on others, or any hint of remorse that would normally accompany such an awareness. Even more oddly, perhaps, this lack of remorse is not noticed: no-one, not even Orlando, holds his past against him. This evil, which had been utterly unmotivated from the start, vanishes completely, leaving not a rack behind.

Something similar happens to the usurping Duke, Celia’s father. Although he is, we are told, a usurper, he has allowed his niece, Rosalind, daughter of his exiled brother, to grow up in court with his own daughter. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, and without any motivation, a madness seems to take hold of him: he banishes Rosalind from the court on pain of death; and goes even so far as to threaten Oliver with banishment and with seizure of possessions should Oliver fail to bring back his brother Orlando, dead or alive. But by the end, this same usurping Duke is also miraculously converted to good: marching into the forest to finish off his banished brother, he is met by a hermit, and, as with Oliver, all the evil in him miraculously vanishes, as if it had never been.

Since this play is an idyll, Shakespeare does not, after the first act, focus on the evil. Indeed, he keeps it as far from the action as possible. Once we are in the Forest of Arden, we see Oliver only after he is already converted, and the danger of his evil has passed. Similarly, we hear of the Duke’s incursion into the forest at the same time as we hear of his conversion: the encroaching evil has vanished even before we get to hear of it.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare should keep the dark shadows of evil so firmly in the background in this the sunniest of all his plays; but such a vision of evil is very different from the one presented in his tragedies – in Macbeth, say. In As You Like It, evil is an external force, almost an illness, which may infect a person, but which is not an integral part of that person. In a work such as Macbeth, however, evil is not the monster out there, but, rather, the monster that resides within. In all these tragic masterpieces, the capacity for evil is presented as an innate aspect of our human condition: our ability to be evil is, in short, one of the features that make us human.

However, in his very late play, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare seemed to return to the way he had viewed evil in As You Like It: once again, it is seen as an external force, a sort of illness that infects us, and from which it is possible to be cured. Macbeth or Lady Macbeth cannot be cured of their evil: what’s done cannot be undone; but Leontes’ case is different – his evil departs as mysteriously as it had appeared. And there seems to me in As You Like It something very Leontes-like both in the usurping duke and in Oliver: they are evil for reasons not apparent; but then they are “cured”, and the evil disappears completely. Indeed, it is hard not to see the usurping duke very much as a prototype of Leontes when we see him banishing Rosalind on the pain of death, or when he threatens Oliver: mere anarchy seems loosed upon the world.

At the end of the The Winter’s Tale, the vision is darker than in As You Like It, and the joy is subdued. Perdita, she who had been lost, is restored, and Hermione, in a prefiguring of the Resurrection itself, returns from the dead. But Mamilius remains dead; and there can be no recompense for the lost years, for all the immense suffering that the illness of evil has brought into the world, both to those it had infected, and to those it hadn’t.

All this is very far from the world of As You Like It. Here, evil is kept on the sidelines of the action, very much out of view, and when it vanishes, it does so without leaving a mark behind. And if such a vision of life does not give us quite the richness of Twelfth Night (which, I must admit, still seems to me the greater work), it communicates nonetheless a formidable charm, and, perhaps, teaches us that our life, such as it is, is more to be valued than to be lamented. All in the end are here reconciled – except Jaques, who scorns the very idea.

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.