on 23 February 2004
This is one of the most thorough study guides on the market, not likely to confuse anyone and particularly well informed on the latest developments in critical approaches to the play though never too dense for the average school student to digest. The scene summaries and commentaries are models of clarity and precision whilst the textual analyses are searching, provocative and incisive. There is an excellent bibliography and useful pointers to websites, films and theatrical tradition. An invaluable introduction to advanced studies and a handy revision tool for teachers pressurised to work on the play at short notice!
I'm one of those people afraid of Shakespeare - partly because English is not my first language and partly because my English teacher at high school had us skip most of it. However in recent months, references to 'Hamlet' have been cropping up all around me - from David Foster Wallace's novel 'Infinite Jest' to TV show 'Sons of Anarchy' - so I decided to bite the bullet and read Hamlet.
I agonised over what edition to pick because I wanted something 'idiot proof', with notes, explanations and summaries so that I could actually understand what I was reading. I eventually settled on the RSC edition and I'm really glad that I did. It's very well laid out, without being specifically targeted at A Level students (which for some reason I tend to find offputting).
- It has a great overall introduction which goes into some detail about the various versions of the play;
- List of characters;
- The play itself has footnotes throughout;
- Summary for each scene
- Chapter about Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre
- History of the many 'Hamlets' who played the lead character over the centuries;
- Q&A with major theatre directors.
I thought I'd struggle with the play, but I actually found myself not needing to read all the footnotes - although it was great to know that they were there.
One small tip: keep some post-it notes handy so that you can easily flick back and forth to the characters list, scene summary and main body of the play.
I'll definitely buy an RSC edition of a Shakespeare play again - maybe the next one will be Macbeth!
on 23 March 2004
I'm studying Hamlet at the moment and due to the nature of Shakespeare's over descriptive and complicated yet beautiful language, it's quite hard to follow and concentrate upon the plot. Though when I got this guide, I easily grasped what was happening and was able to concentrate more on the themes and language etc which you have to comment on in exams. It is helpful and gives lots of hints and info into what you're supposed to be focusing on in the scenes. It gives you ideas and pushes you in the right direction if you are struggling. It even has a glossary to simplify meanings and words. A more thorough understanding can be made from Hamlet and in the end you'll wonder why you didn't get this sooner. For five pounds, it's worth it, if you get an 'a' in your exams.
The RSC Complete works is an impressive tome, but it is inevitably a bulky item - not something you want to carry around with you! The individual plays are being gradually issued and these are far more user friendly. For me the most insightful part - and the bit that really adds value to this edition - is the directors' comments on various productions. It is fascinating to hear the different views and interpretations and reveals why these great plays continue to have a life after all these years.
The layout of the book is clear and the notes on the text are on the same page - thereby overcoming the problem of having to keep turning to the notes elsewhere. The notes tend to also be quite brief - unlike say the Arden series - which is usually all you need. Some of the notes are very useful, although some make you think "why didn't the editor think I wouldn't understand that word?".
Other editions do contain more depth, but this series puts the plays into context and feel like a more modern approach than some of the other series.
I am replacing all my versions with this series.
on 15 April 2002
The best aspect of this guide to Hamlet is the careful scene-by-scene summary of the action. The plot seems not so tricky to follow, after all. It's also good to be reminded of the significant differences between the quarto and folio versions of the play. Perhaps the authors should have devoted a bit more space to the really big issue raised by the play: the intermingling of good and evil in human existence. The assessment of Ophelia's character is strangely thin, as well. But it's very helpful, all in all.
on 19 January 2009
This play is extracted from Bate's complete RSC Shakespeare, with some additional material. The short notes are by far the most important, and these are also in the "complete" Shakespeare. If all you want is to 'read all the plays with minimum pain' then, on this evidence, the RSC Complete Shakespeare should be considered. If you want a bit more background with your Hamlet, but not technical overkill, then get this.
Many versions of Hamlet are rather formidable for the general reader. My "Arden playgoers edition" has 159 pages of introduction, 150 pages of appended long notes, and the 'short notes' take up more space than the actual text of the play! Useful, no doubt, for PhD students specialising in the technicalities and alternative versions of Hamlet, but this general reader will not be reading the Arden introduction again any time soon! ('Playgoers' version indeed!)
Anyway, back to this edition, edited by Jonathan Bate. It has a superb 20 page introduction (that I will be re-reading) and some nice short articles at the back of the book. But it has no 'long notes' at the back. All the (very short) notes are on the page you are reading, leading to a much better reading experience.
The very short notes never disrupt the reading, and only ever enhance it. Any archaic words are translated, and complicated phrases are *briefly* re-phrased for 'adequate' understanding. These notes are a remarkable exercise in concise explanation. Jonathan Bate has a great reputation as an approachable Shakespeare scholar, and these notes prove that this is deserved.
The play itself should need no further introduction or comment.
The Arden Shakespeare is well-known in academic circles for their auhtoritative and comprehensive annotated editions of Shakespeare's works, and for the academic reader, this edition of Hamlet offers a lot of useful information.
There is a long section covering the different printed source editions of the play, and arguments of what source is chosen to be represented in the text of the play itself and why, Shakespeare's topical allusions, and lots more.
A large portion of the preface is also dedicated to discussing Shakespeare's own source for his play, the Ur-Hamlet, and of possible other plays, before or after Hamlet, using the same story.
The text pages are covered more with notes than with the play text itself, which can be a bit impractical when trying to read only the play, but for closer readings, most of the information is practically gathered on the page, with additional references to longer notes after the play text.
Notes include source disparities, word interpretations and also all of the traditionally debated items in the play.
All in all, an excellent edition for close readings and academic work on what is one of the most fascinating, poetic and humorous plays of all time.
In some respects I think it'd be rather presumptuous of me to attempt to review Shakespeare. Someone so well known and influential wouldn't benefit from my opinions on their work, plus there are more scholarly and concise reviews out there. But I can comment on these Arden versions. Of all the Shakespeare I've read I've always found the Arden copies to be well laid out and to have excellent commentary and notes on the text. They really add to your understanding of Shakespeares outstanding plays and introduce you to the depth in his work. They have superb paper quality and are bound well, withstanding repeated readings and intensive study. For your collection of Shakespeare you can't do much better than Arden publications, some are quite hard to get hold of but it's worth the effort.
Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
on 30 November 2010
This book was recommended to me by my English teacher to help me take my English literature A level.
I must admit, at first I really had difficulty understanding Hamlet and the insights into it.
I did plenty of revision using this book in combination with class notes and I really don't think I could have passed my exam without this Hamlet York Notes book. It is full of fantastic explanations and descriptions of the general plot line; characters; themes; motifs and more! This book got me an A in my hamlet Alevel exam!!! :) so I would say this DEFINITELY helps :)
Depending on your point of view, Arden3's Hamlet is either a neat solution or a cop-out. Either way, their two-volume edition of the play represents a departure from the single-volume norm that has characterised The Arden Shakespeare since 1899. As with King Lear, the existence of substantially different original sources for the play means that the Hamlet editor is faced with a choice: to conflate, or not to conflate. Unlike King Lear's editor, RA Foakes, Thompson and Taylor opt against pick and mixing in favour of a multi-volume edition. This one bases its text on the 'good' quarto of 1604-5, while the other volume (essentially a supplement) presents both the 'bad' quarto and the folio alternatives, of 1601 and 1623 respectively.
Choosing the text is not the only problem confronting an editor of Hamlet. As Thompson and Taylor observe, over 400 Hamlet-related works appear every year. Simply keeping track of new publications is a virtually impossible task and wisely the editors attempt no more than to give us a brief overview of them in an Introduction that is more up-to-date and informed than groundbreaking.
The editors sound a note of frustration in observing that much modern Hamlet criticism seems focused on previous critical comment rather than on the play! However, a selection of the more rewarding new thought is presented, including Steven Goldblatt's attempt to tackle the problem of a Wittenburg-educated, Protestant prince swallowing the Ghost's claim to have come from an obviously Catholic purgatory - the existence of which place was expressly denied by the Tudor Church of England. Greenblatt identifies a longing for the certainties of the old faith, lost fifty years previously.
One of the most important ideas to emerge in recent years is that advanced by Melchiori that Q1 represents an acting version of the play and Q2 a literary one. On the perennial problem of date, this Arden thinks that best evidence points to 1600 or spring 1601. On sources, as well as the usual suspects (ie Saxo, Belleforest and Montaigne) Arden3 suggests that Plautus (generally) and Nashe (verbally) were important influences, and cites recent work by Miola and Tobin, respectively. And the author of the hypothetical Ur-Hamlet? If not by Kyd, Arden considers this enigmatic c1590 prototype a possible early draft by Shakespeare himself - an idea expressed in Peter Ackroyd's biography of 2005.
In terms of literary status, Hamlet may now trail King Lear, but its iconic power and its hold on the popular imagination remain undiminished. It is Hamlet's soliloquies that have long been considered key to the play's monumentality and appeal. These soliloquies are supposed to show a new interiority and psychological complexity - Renaissance qualities, in other words. Arden questions such assumptions. Not only had such inner subjectivity appeared in the medieval poets Langland and Chaucer, the editors claim, but Hamlet's soliloquies are meditations upon commonplace themes, and consequently less personal than those of, say, Richard III, Iago or Lear. And in any case, the editors identify an increasing exteriority in modern productions, in which Hamlet projects his thoughts as much outwards as inwards - towards the kind of intimate (even interactive!) audiences found at more authentically Elizabethan venues like The Swan or The Globe.
There are just a couple of minor gripes. Some linking commentary seems lacking in the discussion of the acting styles of Irving and Barrymore. More perlexing is the passage by Holland quoted on p94. This explains how Brannagh's eclectic adding of Q2 dialogue to F helps viewers understand Hamlet's 'vicious pun'. But the point being made is that, according to Holland, 'more of Shakespeare is not ... necessarily better'. Here, surely, more (ie Q2 added to F) certainly does seem better, in advancing our understanding!
Many may feel that Harold Jenkins' supremely comprehensive Arden2 of 1982 still has currency. But it is difficult to argue with the current editors' view that, firstly, the needs of today's student readership are very different from those of a generation ago. This Arden3 succeeds in conveying the complexity of the play and the plurality of response to it, while simultaneously ensuring accessibility to newcomers. And that secondly, the huge quantity of post-1982 criticism and performance meant that Arden2 was, in some ways at least, badly in need of an update. Thompson and Taylor are worthy enough successors to Jenkins. But if the Hamlet industry continues to grow exponentially, they must themselves expect to be superseded by Arden4 in around 2020!