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HAMLET: Story Dates Sources Texts Cuts

THE STORY

The King of Denmark, Old Hamlet, has recently died and his brother, Claudius, has married his widow, Gertrude, and been elected King. Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who describes how he was secretly murdered by Claudius and swears him to remember and revenge.

To escape suspicion, Hamlet feigns madness, which the elder statesman, Polonius, believes to be caused by love for his daughter, Ophelia, whom the Prince had previously courted but now cruelly discards.

Hamlet's chance to verify the Ghost's story comes when a group of players arrives at court and he has them play a scene similar to his father's murder before his uncle, who stops the play and hurries out, deeply disturbed. Summoned to his mother's chamber to be scolded, Hamlet hears someone spying on them and instantly draws his sword and stabs through the curtain, killing Polonius. Hamlet is arrested and agrees to be sent to England, not knowing that his companions carry his death warrant.

While Hamlet is away, Ophelia goes mad and her brother Laertes, who has returned demanding revenge for his father's death, is shocked first by her madness and then by her death, reportedly by drowning. When letters arrive from Hamlet announcing his return, Claudius persuades Laertes to kill Hamlet in an arranged fencing match using a sharp, envenomed foil while Claudius prepares a poisoned goblet, as a fallback.

Hamlet returns during Ophelia's funeral and after wrestling with Laertes in her grave, accepts the challenge. The king's plot back-fires when Hamlet, though fatally wounded, turns the poisoned sword on Laertes, and, after his mother dies in agony from drinking the poisoned cup, he kills Claudius. Finally Hamlet also dies.

 

DATES

Stratfordian scholars generally agree on late 1599 as the date for Shakespeare's initial composition of Hamlet and 1601 for its completion, although a play of the same name, which academics distinguish as the Ur-Hamlet (and attribute to Thomas Kyd on the basis of a single piece of flimsy evidence), is known to have existed as early as 1589. A version of Hamlet was certainly performed in June 1594 and in 1596 Thomas Lodge described the "ghost which cried so much at The Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge." The Oxfordian scholar, Charlton Ogburn, argues that the real writer wrote his first version in 1586, and revised it periodically until he died in 1604, whereupon "the true and perfect Coppie", the Second Quarto, was published, "enlarged to almost as much againe as it was" from the pirated bad First Quarto of the previous year.

 

SOURCES

While the earliest reference to the legend of Hamlet occurs in an eleventh century Icelandic poem, the earliest written version of the story appears in Saxo Grammaticus's twelfth century Historiae Danicae, and tells of Amleth (derived from the Old Norse word for idiot), Prince of Jutland. When his uncle Feng murders his father and marries his mother, Amleth escapes death himself by pretending to be a harmless fool, and after similar adventures to our Hamlet (plus marrying the King of England's daughter), he kills Feng, burns his palace with all of the court inside, is elected ruler of Jutland and lives to die in battle a few years later. Francois de Belleforest retells the story in his Histoires tragiques of 1570, and it is on this account that the play is based, although the Stratfordians curiously attribute the structural diversions from the Belleforest version to the more creative unknown writer of the Ur-Hamlet, reducing their Shake-speare to a mere hack word-smith.

 

TEXTS

The first 'bad' Quarto of the Tragical Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke by William Shake-speare was published in 1603 and is generally thought to be a pirated 'reported' text, as remembered by a journeyman actor who had played Marcellus and Lucianus in Shakespeare's company. The Second Quarto was hastily published the following year and while it has some 3,800 lines compared to the First Quarto's 2,200 it also abounds with errors. The First Folio was printed in 1623, and contains 70 lines not in the Second Quarto and cuts 230 lines from it. Hibbard's view is "that the Second Quarto represents Shakespeare's first draft of his play; that the Folio text is essentially his revision to that first draft, together with some additions to it; and that the First Quarto is a reported version of an abridgement of this revised text." That the Folio probably represents Shakespeare's own revisions to his first draft suggests that it was prepared either from the prompt-book at The Globe or from a fair-copy made by the author himself, and of the three versions it is certainly the most actor-friendly.

 

CUTS

'I have seen the worst. The very worst. The most worst. The utmost, boring, uncut versions - as if there was something virtuous and nourishing about an uncut Hamlet. All it does is to reveal the imbecility of the director and cast and makes for a bad evening, since the uncutting implies a wholly ingratiating attitude which will impede any real insights (i.e. challenge, life, light, imagination) into the play.' (Steven Berkoff, I am Hamlet, 1989, Faber & Faber).

In cutting the text, my objective was to produce a coherent version, performable, at speed, by seven actors within two hours, while preserving as much of the original speech and narrative as possible.

Although I have studied nearly two dozen stage and screen productions, I have followed no single authority other than my own sense of what works and the preface to the 5th Quarto:- 'The play being too long to be conveniently Acted, such places as might be least prejudicial to the Plot or Sense, are left out upon the Stage.' I allow that the result of my cutting has been to condense the flow of the narrative and that this has reinforced my interpretation of Hamlet as a 'Man of Action', but in this approach to the role I claim many famous precedents including Thomas Betterton and through him Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet. With one notable exception I have avoided reordering the text and I have made only one deliberate interpolation, substituting a more modern oath for Hamlet's retort to Polonius 'God's bodykins!' Generally I have favoured the variants of the Folio (in The Oxford Shakespeare text, edited by G R Hibbard, 1987) above the two Quartos, except where the latter are significantly closer to present-day usage and so more intelligible to today's audiences. Similarly, I have not insisted upon Elizabethan stress patterns or pronunciations where to do so would have caused unnecessary problems to a modern ear.

Otherwise I have tried, both in the editing of the text and in its delivery, to preserve the integrity of the metre and meaning of the original.

This article first appeared in the programme for George Dillon's production of Hamlet in 1995. Other pages from that programme are also available:

Interpretation of Hamlet
Quotes on Hamlet
Hamlet's Stage History
William Shakespeare

© George Dillon, 1995

 

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Hamlet - Programme - Hamlet: Story, Dates, Sources, Texts, Cuts
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[Updated - 19 March 2006]
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