The Perfect Version of ‘Hamlet’

“Hamlet,” written between 1599 and 1602, is considered by many to be William Shakespeare’s best play. The first printed version of the play appeared in 1603, what will later be called the “bad quarto“. It is the shortest version of “Hamlet,” and seems to have more in common with the blood-and-gore revenger-type plays (that were so popular in the early 17th century, like Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”) than with the version that we all know nowadays. It has, among many other differences, an alternative version of “To be or not to be,” and it is thought to be a “pirated” version of the play – meaning that someone in the audience wrote the lines while watching the play, or afterwards, from memory.

The second printed version, which will be known as the “good quarto” was put out in 1604. It is the longest version of “Hamlet,” and it would take about four hours, if one would perform every word in there. The third printed version was published as a folio, in 1623, after the death of Shakespeare, and is basically a shorter version of the “good quarto,” with some extra lines added here and there.

Most current versions of “Hamlet” are a combination between the 1604 “good quarto” and the 1623 folio, completely ignoring the “bad” quarto. But there is at least one scene in the “bad” quarto that is, in my opinion, worth considering for inclusion in future adaptations of the play (mark H2v – this version is not divided into acts and scenes; if you’re using Kindle, it’s at about the 76-78% mark, locations 561-569). It has the Queen (Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother) speak with Horatio (Hamlet’s best friend), expressing her support for Hamlet against Claudius when she learns of her son’s return from the voyage to England:

Enter Horatio and the Queen.

HORATIO

Madam, your son is safe arrived in Denmark.

This letter I even now received of him,

Whereas he writes how he escaped the danger

And subtle treason that the King had plotted.

Being crossed by the contention of the winds,

He found the packet sent to the King of England,

Wherein he saw himself betrayed to death,

As, at his next convers’ion with your grace,

He will relate the circumstance at full.

QUEEN

Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks

That seemed to sugar o’er his villany.

But I will soothe and please him for a time,

For murderous minds are always jealous.

But know not you, Horatio, where he is?

HORATIO

Yes, madam, and he hath appointed me

To meet him on the east side of the city

Tomorrow morning.

QUEEN

Oh, fail not, good Horatio, and withal commend me

A mother’s care to him. Bid him awhile

Be wary of his presence, lest that he

Fail in that he goes about.

HORATIO

Madam, never make doubt of that.

I think by this the news be come to court:

He is arrived. Observe the King, and you shall

Quickly find, Hamlet being here,

Things fell not to his mind.

QUEEN

But what become of Gilderstone and Rossencraft?

HORATIO

He being set ashore, they went for England,

And in the packet there writ down that doom

To be performed on them ‘pointed for him.

And by great chance he had his father’s seal,

So all was done without discovery.

QUEEN

Thanks be to heaven for blessing of the Prince!

Horatio, once again I take my leave,

With thousand mother’s blessings to my son.

HORATIO

Madam, adieu. [Exeunt.]

This scene gives the character more depth than she has in the other versions of the play. But, the question arises, would its inclusion make the play better? It would, in a certain sense, in terms of characterization. However, do we really need more characterization for Gertrude, a secondary character that doesn’t appear all that much during the play? Well, I believe we do, because, the way I see it, Gertrude is the main incentive for Hamlet’s actions. He may or may not have actually seen the ghost of his father, maybe it was all in his mind. But he could clearly see that his mother married his uncle, less than two months after the death of his father. That is why, to go off on a tangent, I don’t think Freud’s Oedipus complex interpretation is really needed here (as so many versions tried to enforce it). It is possible that Hamlet’s feelings (and actions) were driven by unconscious sexual feelings toward his mother. But I think the mere fact that Gertrude married the king’s brother without going through a proper mourning period is reason enough to anger any son who’s lost his father, seeing this as being disrespectful toward the deceased (that, and the fact that his uncle usurped his throne, Hamlet being the rightful heir). All in all, my impression is that the inclusion of the scene between the Queen and Horatio would make her a more active character, not the passive one she is in the “traditional” versions of the play. In fact, I think it would change the whole dynamic of the play. Gertrude would become an ally of Hamlet, together with Horatio. The scene makes her a smarter character, too, being able to see past Claudius’ scheme, as opposed to her traditional depiction as a somewhat dim-witted woman who foolishly tries to make peace between Hamlet and his step-father, thus showing a truly amazing lack of insight. There have been complaints (and for good reason) that the female characters in “Hamlet” do not have any depth (or at least, they are not as fully developed as the male characters). The inclusion of the first quarto scene in future representations of the play might change that opinion, changing also our perception of “Hamlet”. It would be a step closer to the realization of a “perfect” “Hamlet”, which, ideally, would include the best scenes from every version.

But a play is written to be performed, so what can be said about the different productions of “Hamlet”? Which one can be judged to be the best? How would one judge it? Well, one way of doing it is to consider Hamlet’s (Shakespeare’s) own prescriptions for good theater (act 3, scene 2).

There is a problem, however. When William Shakespeare wrote Prince Hamlet’s recommendations, he wrote them with his 17th century English audience in mind. When one tries to adapt “Hamlet” for one’s contemporary audience, one will interpret those prescriptions in his or her own way, depending on his or her own personality, background, sensibilities, preferences, and general way of seeing the world.

So, taking that into consideration, which version can be considered to be “perfect”? Was Laurence Olivier, in 1948, closer to what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the prescriptions, speaking “the speech… as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue”? Is Zeffirelli, in 1990, acquiring “and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness”? Or Branagh, in his 1996 four-hour film, being “not too tame” (managing to combine the “good quarto” and the folio versions quite brilliantly. However, I more admire Branagh’s marathonic version than really like it. To me it still feels too stagey, even if it was filmed in glorious 65 mm and has some interesting camerawork. Also, Branagh overacts sometimes.)? Or Kozintsev, in 1964, with his slightly subversive version against the Communist regime, holding “as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (by the way, this, Zeffirelli’s version, and Almereyda’s 2000 version are the only “Hamlet” films that feel and look like films, not filmed stage productions)? Or Gregory Doran, with his 2009 version (starring David Tennant & Patrick Stewart)? I really cannot say.

The only thing I am sure of is which version of “Hamlet” is the closest match of the “Hamlet” I have in my mind when reading the play. And that is Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed by Bill Colleran and John Gielgud in 1964, originally performed on Broadway, recorded live on stage.

Perhaps that’s because I’m less of a fan of the Romantic-type interpretation of Hamlet that dominates the modern performances of the play since the 19th century (now infused also with psychoanalysis and other theories), and more of the Elizabethan/Jacobean “revenger” type. Richard Burton’s Hamlet is a bit more menacing than the other Hamlets. You can feel the anger of the Prince more than in other versions. Here, Hamlet is not a doubtful, indecisive young man, but a man who knows what must be done, just waiting for the right opportunity. His intelligence is razor sharp, Burton no longer presenting Hamlet as a meditative intellectual, but as a man who just understands things and how they work. You can feel the hate he has for Claudius, and you see that he’s just waiting, like a predator in the dark, for the right moment to strike. Burton’s usual intensity lends itself very well to the role, the spectator feeling a bit uneasy (in a good way) when watching this version. The actor’s eyes, muscles, his whole body, are tense and ready to kill. There is no mercy for his father’s killer, or for anyone who dares to stand in his way.

Now, is this the best version of “Hamlet”? In my eyes, it is. Not just because it is faithful to the Prince’s directions, but because it embodies my vision of Hamlet. Ultimately, the “perfect version” of the play exists only in one’s own mind. And thus, this is my Hamlet.

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Free resources:

  1. William Shakespeare – The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke / The First (‘Bad’) Quarto
  2. A public domain text of the play, primarily based on the “good” quarto of 1604 with some emendations from the folio of 1623, made available by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. The Open Source Shakespeare site (where all of Shakespeare’s plays, poems and sonnets are available and fully searchable)
  4. The Hamlet Weblog
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