The Third Series of Arden Shakespeare editions has produced the best evidence yet that what scholars refer to as the "text" of Hamlet is actually a script. Three scripts in fact: the so-called Bad Quarto of 1601, the Second Quarto (Q2) of 1602, and the First Folio of 1623. How are they doing this? Instead of conflating all three source scripts into a single version that was never produced by the pen of Shakespeare, Arden is giving primacy of place to Q2, both because it was printed during Shakespeare's lifetime and because it's generally recognized to be derived from a copy of Will's handwritten manuscript (what scholars call "foul papers" and theatre people call a "cut and paste draft").
Junking the 300-year-old tradition begun by Nicholas Rowe when he combined Q2 and the Folio to create a so-called complete version of the play, the current Arden edition is (perhaps inadvertently) supplying the best possible evidence that Shakespeare was first and foremost an actor who happened to write plays. Which is a necessary corrective to blowhards like Harold Bloom, who want us to picture Shakespeare in his study writing beautiful lines of poetry and then gagging when he has to hand them over to (barf) actors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like all playwrights, Shakespeare spent the better part of his time re-writing, whether it be for a road production of an otherwise lengthy play (the only version of Macbeth we have is so short that it's almost certainly a stripped-down touring script) or an updated version of an old favorite (the two versions of King Lear; the "newly corrected and augmented" Love's Labor's Lost).
And thanks to this new edition of Hamlet, you can see the writer at work. How? Because every now and then you're brought up short when a familiar line becomes totally unfamiliar. Like this one: "Tis not alone my inky cloak, cold mother." The Folio has "good mother," and every conflated edition for the last three centuries follows it. But that's not what was printed in the Second Quarto. You'll look in vain here for the "Denmark's a prison" scene; that's only in the Folio. And in the Folio version? No "How all occasions do inform against me." That's Q2 only. And what are we to make of the fact that Polonius in Q1 is called Corambis? If Q1 is the transcript of an actor's memory of a playing script, does it correctly record an early version in which the character names were different (Rosencraft for Rosencrantz) or is it just the actor's memory at fault? Making things even more complicated: Q1 and the Folio version contain the same "additional" passages which are missing from Q2. So instead of a clear Q1 to Q2 to Folio transmission, you have Q1 to Folio, with a bank shot to Q2. Does that mean we're dealing with two different drafts of the same play? It does to me, but what do I know? I'm no university professor; I'm just a theatre writer who acts now and then.
On one level, this is the most conservative edition of Hamlet I've ever read. Which on another level makes it the most radical edition ever. By in effect unstitching the quilt of Hamlet that has been taught and performed for 300 years and displaying it as three separate blankets, you get a clear and refreshing sense that Shakespeare's true home is the stage, not the study. And any editor who upholds a conflated version of the script as the true Hamlet is also upholding an elitist vision of Shakespeare The Poet -- because God forbid our Great Poem Of Hamlet was written by (barf) an actor. Well guess what? It was. Wrtten and rewritten. So there. And you know something else? The Hamlet we know as Shakespeare's version of the story was performed for 15 years between the time it was written and the time Shakespeare died. As a theatre writer who acts now and then, I'm betting it was rewritten at least five different times during that period. I'm betting that at some point in 1608, Shakespeare walked into the Globe with a new cut and paste draft and said:
Okay, everybody, listen up--this afternoon's show? "How all occasions do inform against me" is out. Prayer scene is out. "To be or not to be" comes two scenes earlier. Advice to the players is out--nobody ever listens to it, and everybody thinks it's me talking anyway, so it's gone. The Mousetrap is in--that means no dumb show, Player King, don't forget this time. The rest of you leads, I got a ton of new lines here. Gertrude? In this version, you're in on it with Claudius. Claudius? In this version I'm actually going to use your name in the dialogue instead of a stage direction so everybody in the audience will know what your name is for once. And oh yeah--the Ghost. Claudius, today you double the Ghost. Laertes, tomorrow you double the Ghost. Friday--Hamlet, you play everybody--what the hell, it's all one big soliloquy, right?