The Question, That Is...
By Philip Sneed
Is Hamlet a “modern” play? Hamlet asks himself (or perhaps us) the most famous question in literature. While there are many interpretations of the speech that follows, it comes down to this: “Should I remain here and confront my problems, or does death/escape offer the best (the only) way out?” In the Eliot poem, above, Prufrock believes he as NOT meant “to be”—and in the poem we learn that he, like Hamlet, seems incapable of taking action (“How should I begin?” he asks). Eliot’s work is often hailed as the first major literary statement of modernism and differs from Shakespeare: Hamlet considers both options, and chooses to “act,” while Prufrock doesn’t. And the “not to be” in Prufrock also refers to the fact that he isn’t a prince, but an ordinary man—that he may be only “the fool” (a reference to Shakespeare’s use of fools to comment on, and “to speak truth to,” those in power). This, too, is a departure. In Shakespeare, tragedy is what happens to those of high birth— the rulers of kingdoms, not their attendants. Prufrock’s situation, conversely, is our own—most of us are ordinary people, trying to get through life as best we can; we feel powerless as individuals to effect change. What’s at stake is critical for us, but the fate of nations does not hang on our decisions. Still, Hamlet struggles with questions we all face. How much responsibility do we have to address the wrongs we see? What do we owe our family and country? How should we respond to change? And the big question— is escape ever the right response to a hopeless situation?
Perhaps Hamlet isn’t “modern,” but it does seem to point that way; it is perhaps better categorized as “early modern.” Eliot, three centuries later, commented on Shakespeare’s prince in “Prufrock.” And here we are, another century on, having passed through modernism and even postmodernism, and still asking the big questions. If our answer is “To be,” then we, like Hamlet, must choose to act: to DO something, to make a difference, to right a few wrongs—for surely that is what it means to “be.”
At Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, Prince Hamlet’s friend Horatio and a couple of sentries see what they take to be the ghost of the recently deceased king. Fearing that the phantom means disaster, they tell Hamlet. Shaking off sorrow at the loss of his father and at the hasty marriage of his mother, Gertrude, to his father’s brother, now King Claudius, Hamlet resolves to see the mysterious figure for himself. Meanwhile, Claudius’s trusted advisor Polonius warns his daughter, Ophelia, against continuing her romantic involvement with Prince Hamlet. He then offers his son, Laertes, some paternal wisdom before sending him off to France. That evening, the dead king’s ghost appears to Hamlet, reveals that Claudius poisoned him, and commands Hamlet to take revenge. Hamlet agrees and decides to feign madness to avoid suspicion.
Gertrude and Claudius grow increasingly concerned over Hamlet’s sadness and erratic behavior. They ask two of Hamlet’s school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to discern the cause, but a suspicious Hamlet refuses to cooperate with them. Polonius believes that Hamlet’s strangeness results from his love for Ophelia. He devises a plan in which he and Claudius will eavesdrop on a conversation between the two to confirm his suspicions. Hamlet, meanwhile, cannot be certain that the ghost’s claims are true, but hits upon a plan to test their validity when an acting troupe arrives at Elsinore. He will have the troupe perform a play that re-enacts the poisoning of his father, and judge King Claudius’s reaction.
Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop as planned and, when Hamlet rejects Ophelia, conclude that the Prince’s madness cannot be caused by love. The court arrives to watch the play. When the murder scene occurs, Claudius departs suddenly, providing Hamlet with proof of his uncle’s guilt. Hamlet goes to kill Claudius, but when he finds him, the king is at prayer. Hamlet decides that he cannot kill Claudius while he is praying, for then the murderer would die with a clean soul and go to heaven. Queen Gertrude summons Hamlet to her chamber, where the eavesdropping Polonius hides behind a tapestry. Hamlet speaks harshly to his mother and, when she cries for help, so too does the hidden advisor. Assuming that it is Claudius, Hamlet stabs through the curtain and kills Polonius. The ghost then appears to remind Hamlet of his purpose and urges him to treat his mother with kindness. Gertrude, not seeing the ghost, is convinced that her son has gone mad.
Fearing for his life, Claudius banishes Hamlet to England and commands Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany him with a letter ordering his nephew’s death. Meanwhile, Ophelia, mad with grief over her father’s death, distributes flowers to members of the court. A furious Laertes storms Elsinore to avenge the killing of Polonius, but Claudius assures him that he is not responsible. Horatio learns that Hamlet is returning to Denmark after his ship was captured by pirates, and goes to meet his friend. King Claudius explains to Laertes that Hamlet killed Polonius and concocts a scheme of revenge: he will arrange a duel between the two, and arm Laertes with a poisoned sword. If the sword fails, then a poisoned victory cup will be used to kill the Prince. Gertrude reports that Ophelia has drowned, lost in her madness.
Returning with Horatio, Hamlet speaks to a gravedigger who has found the skull of Hamlet’s childhood jester, Yorick. When a funeral procession arrives and Hamlet learns the grave is for Ophelia, he is overwhelmed with grief. When Laertes leaps into the grave, proclaiming his love for his sister, Hamlet joins him. The two struggle until Claudius breaks up the fight and reminds Laertes of their plan for revenge. Hamlet tells Horatio of the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (dead, presumably, after he substituted their names for his on the letter from Claudius). The courtier Osric arrives and invites Hamlet to the duel with Laertes. Over Horatio’s protest, Hamlet agrees to the contest, and the fatal outcome brings the play to its conclusion.
Q2 or not Q2
By Lori Lee Wallace
Shakespeare’s best-known line is almost certainly “To be, or not to be—that is the question.” Few know that in the original printed version of Hamlet, the line was: “To be or not to be—ay, there’s the point.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring of poetic desperation, does it?
Three early versions of Hamlet survive. The first and second are called “quartos” because they were printed on pages that had been folded into quarters; the third was a larger and more expensive “folio” version printed on full sheets. Each of the three texts has lines and scenes that differ from the others. The first quarto (Q1) was printed in 1603. The second quarto (Q2), printed in 1604-1605, is very similar to the folio (F), printed in 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare’s death); but Q2 has several lines and scenes not included in F, such as Hamlet’s conversation with the Norwegian Captain and the soliloquy that follows. In general, the F has a slightly more refined tone than either Q2 or Q1, which is often called the “bad quarto” for inelegant lines like “ay, there’s the point.”
While some scholars believe that the three versions of the play were composed in the order in which they were printed, others argue that Q1 was actually composed after F, believing it to be either the product of an actor’s imperfect recollection or an adaptation designed for performance in the provinces (where Shakespeare’s company toured when plague closed the theatres in London). Many also agree that F followed Q2, suggesting that the second quarto was the original version. If this is the case, then Q2 was refined to create F, which was then adapted or mistakenly remembered as Q1.
Confusing? Ay, but there’s a point. To prepare the text for this year’s CSF production, we examined the three printed versions ofHamlet line by line, taking some lines from each in order to create what we judged to be the most interesting and compelling version of the play. This means that if you already know Shakespeare’s masterpiece, you may be in for a surprise or two. Most producers rely solely on the more refined Q2 and F versions, but we believe that there are moments when the harsher language of Q1 is more effective (“To be, or not to be” clunkerm notwithstanding!).
We invite you to listen carefully and to enjoy our original, hybrid Hamlet.