Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the crown jewel of Western Art: the superlatives thrown at it are innumerable and pretty over-the-top: ‘the greatest tragedy written in 2000 years’; ‘the first manic-depressive hero of Western Literature’; 170 new words introduced to the English language; and that freaking great ‘to be or not to be’ speech that Mel Brooks put to music. Well, here’s a bit of Hamlet for you (there’ll be more, much more, on my blog as time goes by). The opening of Hamlet’s first soliloquy, Act I, Scene ii:
Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So lovely, dark and eloquent.
Going forward, for each Hamlet quote I share, I’ll share a few choice tidbits about this play or its history.
Today? Hamlet is too long to perform! If you take all the versions from all the Quartos and the First Folio and mash them up all together, the play runs over four hours long, and the character Hamlet no longer makes any damned sense. In my opinion, many critics and literary historians throughout the centuries have done a disservice to this play. What does makes sense is that we’re dealing with revisions upon revisions. Yes, even Shakespeare revised his work. It just didn’t spring out of his head like, say, Mozart’s.
You see, Hamlet was first performed in the Globe Theatre in about 1600, an outdoor theatre, and because of available light, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men couldn’t perform plays over 3000 lines. Hamlet–if you add in all the different versions and texts into one giant baggy monster–is over 4000 lines long. It had to be cut. Which is why the editors of the First Folio–Shakespeare’s own fellow actors–included a shortened version of the play. In all likelihood, there were probably several acting versions of the play, all under 3000 lines.
Still, we can see by all the different versions, and the various changes and the contrary soliloquys, that the writing and creating of Hamlet gave Shakespeare a lot of trouble. What has happened over the centuries is that critics and scholars have been so beside themselves with academic ecstasy, that they just couldn’t bare to have only one of these shortened ‘performance versions’. And thus we modern theatre-goers are inflicted with monstrosities like Kenneth Branagh’s ‘complete’ movie version of Hamlet.
So–it’s okay to go and enjoy an ‘abbreviated’ or shortened Hamlet. That’s how it was presented back in Shakespeare’s time. We don’t know exactly which version or versions were performed (there were probably several). But Hamlet was always been bigger than anything: too big for performance, too big for critics and–judging by all the revision documents–too big for its author. Will Shakespeare was discovering something new as he wrote Hamlet. It changed literature; and if we look at the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, it changed him.
The image is taken from an ‘abbreviated’ film version of Hamlet, Mel Gibson’s very excellent turn as the depressed Dane (here pictured with the superb Glenn Close as Gertrude). Perhaps Mel’s performance was so good because the actor himself pretty much went nuts later on in life. Anyhow, don’t let Mel’s antics keep you from renting or streaming this fantastic version. It’s really lovely, dark and eloquent.