New Manuscript May Change Our Understanding of Hamlet
London Times 4/28/10
The discovery of a manuscript may shed new light on how we should understand William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The manuscript, discovered in Stratford late last year, is a handwritten copy of the play and is believed to be dated earlier than the First Quarto, the first published version. Most scholars date the First Quarto, an undisputedly inferior copy of Hamlet, to 1603. “It is believed that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet somewhere between 1599 and 1601. If genuine, this manuscript would come from that period,” claims Arthur Pennington, Professor of British Literature, Elmswood College at Cambridge University. Pennington is a world-renowned Shakespearean scholar and author of A Scholar’s Shakespeare.
“It’s an extraordinary find,” says Pennington, “It totally revises the plot and theme of the play. In this earlier and possibly more authoritative text, the focus is not on Hamlet at all, it is on Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain.” Even the title of the play, found on the first page of the manuscript, refers to it as “The Most Noble Tragedie of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark.” In the well-known traditional version of Hamlet, Polonius is a secondary character whose daughter Ophelia is enamored with Hamlet. Polonius is convinced that Ophelia’s rebuffing of Hamlet’s affections is what drives the prince mad. He is killed when Hamlet stabs him while spying on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother in her bedchamber.
“Yes, all that is there,” says Pennington, “but in this manuscript, the play ends with the death of Polonius. It seems he is the main character.” Pennington speculates that Shakespeare really wanted to focus on the theme that foolish fathers need to mind their own business or face serious consequences. “We see this theme of the foolish father throughout the canon of Shakespeare’s plays. Note the questionable parenting skills of Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Leontes in A Winter’s Tale, and Titus in Titus Andronicus. They were terrible fathers who suffered the consequence of bad parenting skills. This is a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays.”
“There may be something to this” concludes Dr. Samuel Jenkins, author of The Psychology of Shakespeare. “It is believed that Shakespeare had a tenuous relationship with his own father. In one of the more obscure letters believed to be written by Shakespeare he berates his father for favoring his brother Herbert, leaving him the best furnishings in the house. William apparently only got the second best bed which we all know was left to his wife Anne upon his death.”
Other scholars are not convinced of the authenticity of the manuscript. “Poppycock!” exclaims Richard Proudfoot, general editor of The Arden Shakespeare, “There is nothing ‘noble’ about this piece of (doo-doo). Hamlet is a classic and possibly the greatest example of dramatic literature in the history of the western world. I refuse to believe that a minor character like Polonius is now the center of this masterpiece simply because it ends with his death. How do you explain the quartos and folios that contain the complete text?”
Pennington has a theory about that. “I believe Richard Burbage, who was to portray Hamlet, became furious when he read this early draft of the play, so shortly after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 he wrote an expanded version that focused on Hamlet instead of Polonius. However, we may never know.”
Pennington hopes to produce this new version of an old story this summer in America, stating, “Americans are always open to newer and shorter versions of Shakespeare’s plays.”.......
author: Mark Foreman