Young Hamlet

So now that A Serious Game has wrapped I find myself without my weekly guaranteed blog entry.  The upshot is that this semester I am nowhere near as busy as I was last semester, so in theory I should have more time to do write-ups about various things that occur to me.  The problem, then, becomes getting these things to occur to me.

I saw a production of Hamlet last Sunday that was billed as “Young Hamlet” — because it was based off the first quarto (Q1) text of the play, rather than the First Folio text we all are generally familiar with.  The thing about Q1 Hamlet is that it is very, very different from the Folio Hamlet.  To give you an idea: the character of Polonius is, in Q1, called Corambis, and two silly courtiers are Rosencroft and Guilderstone, and so on.  The play is half the length as well, with the production I saw running in at a brisk two hours — this isn’t just because whole speeches aren’t there, but that when they are they are, they’re often shortened or paraphrased versions of the speeches we know.  The most pertinent example here is “To be or not to be — ay, there’s the point!”

Anyway, there are two reasons why this version is called Young Hamlet.  One theory is that this text written by Shakespeare early in his London career — he would have been in his 20s — and it was revised later in life to make the more popular Folio version.  The second reason is that you can figure out Hamlet’s age from some things said by the gravedigger near the end of the play, and if you listen to him in the Folio, Hamlet is about 30 while in Q1 he’s 16-19.  Though I like the Folio text more, I actually prefer a younger Hamlet, because the play just makes more sense.  I mean, the guy is a college student, and even in Shakespeare’s day, if you’re 30 and in college and living at home (and dating a teenaged girl?) there is something wrong with you.

So there are some good things about the Q1 text despite its omissions, and seeing it in performance actually opened up the text for me more.  I don’t know if this speaks to the integrity of Hamlet as a piece of drama or to the obvious care and enthusiasm put forth by the production team, but it was really fun to watch.  There’s a delicious tension in Hamlet for me, at about the point right after he meets with the Ghost.  Here all of the machinery of the play seems to lock into place and I can only watch astounded from the sidelines as the play rockets toward its conclusion, when everything spectacularly goes to shit.

This production — and this text — had that same inertia, it seems.  It was really great to see this similar-but-different take on a story I know very well, and to see some very clever staging decisions the production made.  If there was one big disappointment, it was that the play’s pace in this earlier version was probably too fast — the ending came about very abruptly, and suddenly everyone was dead.  As I said, the feeling towards the end of the play — especially during the fencing scene — when every character’s plans suddenly go off-track is wonderfully complicated and chaotic in the Folio text.  Here everything was comparatively simple and very brief, and the abrupt entrance of Fortinbras (or Fortinbrasse) with little expository dialogue from either him or Horatio made the ending seem like a bit of a slump.

This might be something that could be fixed with staging decisions, since the text doesn’t seem to allow that sense of madcap tension, but at this point for me it’s all speculation.  In short, I’m glad I got the chance to see this production, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked.  There’s been an academic move to reclaim Q1 in the past few years, but this is the first I’ve heard of steps being taken in actual performance, so it should be interesting to see how moves like this change our perception of Hamlet in the future.

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