“To be or not to be, that is the question”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Finally got round to watching another one of the ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ series: the David Tennant episode on Hamlet. Well worth a watch, if you can find it online somewhere or if you taped it. Tennant is a likeable presenter who clearly is very passionate about the play in question, and the people he interviews (Jude Law, Professor Jonathan Bate – whose book, ‘The Genius of Shakespeare’, I’ve just bought and who co-wrote the intoduction to my edition of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ -, David Warner, Justin Champion, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Whishaw, Greg Doran, and others) all have interesting additions to make. I especially liked Whishaw’s comment at the end of the programme that he found for about six months after the play ended, everything related back to Hamlet: “…sort of seemed like it explained everything or that the answer to everything was there.”

I especially enjoyed the section on the three different versions of the original text; the First Quarto (or the ‘Bad Quarto’ as it is known, but more on that later), the Second Quarto and the First Folio. The discrepancies between the Bad Quarto and the First Folio were huge; the opening line was differently phrased and the famous “To be or not to be..” soliliquy had large chunks of the text we know todaymissed out. Many think of the First Quarto as the ‘Bad Quarto’ because of variencies like those aforementioned, but, as the programme pointed out, this is a bit of a misnomer. Some even believe that the play would be better, and definitely more easily digestible, where we to use the First Quarto’s version, since it is about half the length of the currently used version, which, at four and a half hours, uncut, can seem over-whelming to one unacustomed to the Bard’s work and even to the hardy Shakespearean fan at times. I have to admit, I’ve never actually seen a performance of Hamlet, on screen or on stage, although I do know the plot and some of the background to it. Still, as Tennant pointed out, there are a wealth of performances to choose from; Mel Gibson, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ian McKellen, David Garrick, Tennant himself… Anyone feel like recommending a particular version?

A key quote which I can use in my EPQ (although I am thinking of refining the question a bit) came from Tennant: “Why this play? On the face of it, the storyline isn’t something that necessarily chimes with the everyday experience of most people; monarchy, madness, murder and suicide. Yet however melodramatic the premise, somehow the play keeps feeling relevant…is that just down to the plot?”

That’s all for now, but speak soon. Next time I’ll be writing about Ethan Hawke on Macbeth, the British Museum exhibition on Shakespeare’s World and Richard III at the Globe. Thanks for reading!

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