VINE VOICEon 1 September 2010
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!