The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.
Claire Warden: To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.
Kristy Geslain: In 2016, Lincoln Center teamed up with New Yorker writer and cultural critic Adam Gopnik to present a new and ambitious series of free events, The History of the World in 100 Performances. The series, which takes place at the David Rubenstein Atrium every spring, examines individual performances that not only changed their own art form, but actually changed human consciousness. Over the next few weeks we're really excited to share these events with our podcast listeners. For today's installment, Adam was joined by Harvard professor and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt to take a deep dive into the world premiere of Hamlet and how its influence continues to resonate more than 400 years later.
This is Lincoln Center with Adam Gopnik and Stephen Greenblatt.
Adam Gopnik: Good evening. I'm Adam Gopnik and I want to welcome you to "The History of the World in 100 Performances." What we try and do in this series is look at a performance in the history of the arts—ballet, opera or the theater or cabaret—and ask what was it, locate those performances which didn't simply change their own art form, which didn't simply alter the language of style, but that changed human consciousness in a profound way. All of those moments when an actor or an actress, a singer or a dancer stepped forward and the world was never the same again.
Tonight we're going to talk about what may be the most potent and significant intervention, transformational moment in the history of the English-speaking, or indeed, of any theater, the first night of William Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet.
Now, we want to ask some questions about when it happened, who did it, where it took place, and what—above all what it was like to witness it when it happened for the first time. Now, we know more or less when: 1600 in London. We can't be exactly sure of the precise date of the first performance of Hamlet but all of the exterior and interior evidence alike tells us that it had to be right in 1600.
We know it in part because there are topical jokes in the play, one of them about the Children's Theater that had grown up; the so‑called Children of the Chapel who obviously, all of the people in Shakespeare's company hated and despised, there are jokes that are topical and contemporary.
We know too from the moment when the play begins to be published—we'll talk a little bit more about that—when the text of the play begins to be published, and we know too what the earlier date can't be because we know that when people are talking about Shakespeare in 1598 they don't mention this play, which we know to be, in its time, an enormous hit.
So we know solidly when: 1600. And we know where: at the then newly established Globe Theater on the South Bank of London.
One of the remarkable things about it is that it had only been in 1599 that the theater, that The Globe was established in the spot where history has held it. As some of you may know, Shakespeare's company had entered into a dispute with their landlord in the space that they held on the other side of the river, and one night around Christmas instead of going on in the New York fashion, disputing the lease in court, they simply picked up the theater as it was sitting there, put it on carts and took it right across the river and reestablished it in a new place infuriating their landlord and inaugurating a new era in the English-speaking theater, simultaneously.
That's where it takes place. Two things to think about when we think about The Globe as a cockpit, as a place for theatrical action: first, and obviously, it's a daytime theater. It can only—performances can only take place during the day.
Now, not all of Shakespeare's theater was designed for daytime. There were performances and plays specially designed for select audiences who would have seen them at night in candlelit halls, but The Globe where Hamlet began was unquestionably popular theater taking place in broad daylight, susceptible to all of the limits and limitations of a daylight theater—you can't go on with the play once the sun goes down—and played for a genuinely popular audience. Our best guess about how many people were there for that first night, that first afternoon of Hamlet, is around 3,000 people, sat or stood more probably in a combination of bleachers, of poorer people, the groundlings, so‑called, standing; wealthier people seated, 3,000 people.
This in a town of London of about approximately 250,000 people at the time. Do those same numbers—I'm not that good at math—and think about New York, eight million people, and think about the concentration, the significance of that kind of attendance for a play. So we know when: 1600. We know where: at The Globe Theater.
And the next question we want to ask is: who? We know that William Shakespeare is the author. We want to know something also about the what, the text; where did the text come from?
We know, when we study the history of Hamlet and the evolution of Hamlet, we know that the story had been around for a very long time. The story of the Prince of Denmark, who is called upon by his father's ghost to avenge his murder by his uncle, is an ancient and familiar story, and in fact had been the subject of an earlier play which scholars sometimes reference as the "Ur-Hamlet," the early Hamlet, some time in London in the 1580s, because there is literature of people making fun of this play as a crude revenge tragedy where the ghost cries out, "Revenge, revenge Hamlet!"
Some contemporary scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that that was a first draft by Shakespeare himself, a much younger Shakespeare, in the 1580s. That seems, from all of my knowledge of the practices of poets, quite impossible and it's generally ascribed to this playwright, earlier Thomas Kyd, but the story was around and the basic action was familiar.
Shakespeare's plays, of course, were published sporadically and irregularly and one of the ways we know that the play was an enormous success is that very soon after that first production, a quarto version of it was produced, which is a real bootleg, just like the Bob Dylan bootlegs that filled our lives in the 1960s and 1970s.
Shakespeare was bootlegged because he was hugely popular and this is the first quarto, the so‑called bad quarto, and it's called the bad quarto because it is a very irregular and sloppy version of the text we know. The best guess of most scholars is is that it was probably put together by an actor who had a minor part in the play, probably the part of Marcellus very early in the play, because those scenes are near letter perfect and everything is total guesswork. It's enormous fun to read. In fact, it's basically somebody trying to figure it out: "To be or not to be, I think that's the question. At what moment, do we begin to dream? No, we die," and it's a wonderful piece of confused Monty Python‑like recollection.
Not long after, in fact, we have a good quarto that appears, and again the scholars' best guess is that Shakespeare's company and Shakespeare himself were so appalled by the production of this bootleg version of it, that they put out a good version that would sell in its place. They didn't want to lose those sales, even though they had very complicated feelings and very complicated financial interests in having the plays published at all. The plays were hugely popular, but rather than have the bootleg version out they decided to put a good version out.
And then finally, it appears at last in the famous first folio of Shakespeare's plays after his death. Each of these quartos, of the good quarto in the folio have slight differences, and we know that it's an extremely long play in its full text, and one of the fascinating questions we'll discuss tonight is how much of the play was actually performed on that first night? How much of it was Shakespeare's leftovers and how much of it was truly performed.
So we know when and we know where and we know more or less what they were playing, but the next question is who was playing it? Who was playing it? And there that's one of the most interesting answers and one of the most fascinating figures in the whole history of performance, because we know that the man who stepped out and delivered those legendary speeches for the first time was this man, Richard Burbage, who was the lead actor in Shakespeare's company.
I think we can say, without qualification, that if Burbage was not the greatest actor in the history of the English stage, he was certainly the luckiest. The parts he was given to play to inaugurate, to give the first performance of, we know for certain included King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Shylock, and I could go on and on, the two Richards. He was the great star of Shakespeare's company and of Shakespeare's time.
What is it in the play that gives it that special poignancy and that special pressure on the imagination of centuries and countless countries?
And in fact, some have suggested that one of the reasons that Shakespeare's death was rather more obscure than we would expect it to be, was exactly because Burbage was the real star of the company and the puppet in this case, outshone the puppeteer behind him pulling his strings. We know that Burbage was the man.
And what's fascinating, of course, to think about it is to ask ourselves the question, what did they see? What was the nature of Burbage's performance? What would we have experienced that first time he stepped out?
Now we know, of course, something about Shakespeare's philosophy of acting, something about Shakespeare's belief about what good acting was, and we know that, of course, because he puts in Hamlet's lips a long and famous statement of advice to the players. He brings players in to try and trap the king into a confession of his horrific murder and he, Hamlet, in the insufferable way in which young college grads are constantly trying to teach actors how to act, he tells the actors how to perform their play.
He says, "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but do not mouth it as some of our players were, for if you do I would as soon the town crier spoke my lines. And do not saw the air too much thus with your hands as some of your players do, but use all justly. But be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor." And he reminds us as he says, "At the end of playing, from first to last, is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature. To show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very weight and aspect of the time its own press and form."
I've invented a great deal of Shakespeare there, but the basic concept is perfectly clear to you. Shakespeare believed in what we would think of as naturalistic acting. Nothing overdone. No sawing of the hands. No shouting of the speeches. No spraying out of the speeches. He believed in truthfulness in acting.
So we know that that must have been what Burbage, his perfect actor, accomplished or attempted, but what would that experience have been like? When we try and re-create Burbage's performance through the prism of Hamlet's words, the words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet about the necessity of holding the mirror up to nature, of understating everything, of using modesty as your guide, it doesn't necessarily provide us with a key or a guide to what that performance was like. And one of the most interesting questions we're going to try and open and address tonight is exactly what that performance style at that time would have been like.
Well, we've tried to look at when and we've tried to look at where and we've talked a little bit about what, and we're certainly intrigued to know a great deal about who, when we come to Burbage—by the way, anyone who ever tells you that there is a mystery about Shakespeare's authorship of Hamlet or any of the plays, should be seconded if they only buy one of my favorite anecdotes, which involves Shakespeare and Burbage right around the time he was doing Hamlet.
It occurs in a private diary, a private, unpublished diary only discovered many, many, many years, indeed centuries later. It's a story about the rivalry of Burbage and Shakespeare in which a woman of the town, a big theater fan, a kind of groupie of The Globe, was so impressed by Burbage's performance that she invited him to come and spend an evening with her.
And Burbage, according to the story, written in a contemporary diary, came and found that Shakespeare had preceded him to the evening with The Globe groupie. In fact, he had left a note for Burbage behind—Burbage of course had played Richard III—saying he should always remember that William the Conqueror came before Richard III.
That is a true story. That is a true story; it's a story that was committed to paper while they were alive and kicking. It's the sort of story you expect to hear about John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore; it's a true story. It gives us both an immediate sense of how central and vivid the tabloid existence of these players was at the time, and also reminds us that that kind of rivalry between authors and actors is deeply embedded in the history of the English stage.
A deeper question still that we can ask—we've looked at the what, looked at the who, the when and the where, is the why. Why is it? Why is it that this play, this revenge tragedy stepped forward at that moment and changed human consciousness so profoundly that we think of Hamlet as a type, we think of Hamlet as a play, that those of us from the most varied imaginable backgrounds have still absorbed those words, the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. "Oh, what a broken peasant slave am I." Polonius's advice to Hamlet: "To thine own self be true." Ophelia's mad scenes; these are all part of the currency with which we all live.
Why? What is it in the play that gives it that special poignancy and that special pressure on the imagination of centuries and countless countries? I think it turns on two simple and joined things. This was the first time in the history of the stage certainly, and in a certain sense in the history of literature and consciousness when irony and interiority were both fully boded forth in public.
Those two things are always conjoined; they're always brought together. Hamlet is the most ironic of Shakespeare's speakers. When we first meet him at the beginning of the play you'll recall almost the first thing he says to Horatio—when Horatio says, "It's odd that your mother married your uncle so soon after you lost your father" and remember Hamlet says, "Thrift, thrift, Horatio, the funeral bak'd meats did coldy furnish forth the marriage table."
It's a line that could have come out of Bernard Shaw's pen in the late 19th century, "Thrift, thrift, Horatio." They were just trying to save money and they were very wise to do it. Perfectly ironic remark; and this for the first time brought forward.
And at the same time, irony is a necessary precondition for interiority, for the registry and for the singing out of our inner lives, because we are all ironic about our own inner lives. We're all fully conscious of the complicated double turnings of the mental life of our stream of consciousness as it passes along inside us; that monstrous music of the mind that we can never fully escape.
And at the same time those great soliloquies bring forth an interiority, an inner life that is fully ambivalent. Hamlet is constantly weighing the choice between impossible differences. He's constantly back and forth between polar opposites of emotion and action. His feelings are necessarily—and not by modern intervention but by their own constituents—double in everything that he says. "To be or not to be, that is the question." He asks the most fundamental existential question and cannot fully resolve it.
He questions his own inability to act. He questions the nature of the world as we find it. And that ability to bring forth ambivalent interiority I think belongs to that specific moment in 1600 in a way that it belongs to no other moment in the history of human culture.
And it's fascinating to ask why that is; where suddenly did this possession of interiority and irony come from? One answer that we often turn to, and I'm going to discuss shortly, is that some of it may have come from Shakespeare's great French, near contemporary, Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the essay, the form in which I have spent my life writing, where for the first time we see that kind of self‑questioning, that ironic interiority being brought forward onto the page.
Montaigne, the man who says, "We are, I know not how, somehow double in ourselves, so that we defend what we disapprove, and disapprove of all that we defend." Does it come from Montaigne? Could Shakespeare have read it? Was it something more generally in the time? And we ask, too, when we ask those questions, not only about Hamlet and Hamlet's own particular kind of interiority, but in the way that that possession of ambivalent interiority runs through the play.
So that we know, for instance, that one of the key things that's happened to Shakespeare's company, when we look at it simply as a matter of performance, is that right around this moment in 1600 Shakespeare loses his old principal clown, the one who played all of the leading comic roles, William Kempe, and he's replaced by another; by Robert Armin, and Armin is famous as an intellectual clown, as a witty clown, not a roustabout clown who Shakespeare grumbles about in those same lines to the players.
And so suddenly we have someone like the gravedigger, in the gravedigger scene, who is at a level of intellect and wit equal to the hero and is capable of instructing the hero. Anyone who has actually worked in the theater will know that what the performer is capable of in large part shapes and even dictates the philosophy of the play.
So all of those questions about what the performers brought, what the philosophers brought, what Shakespeare brought, and how it came to capture our imagination is our subject today. Joining me to try and solve some of those problems is the man who I think is the greatest Shakespeare scholar and thinker in America, Stephen Greenblatt.
In addition to being a professor at Harvard, he is, far more important, an extraordinarily gifted writer whose book "Will in the World" is to my mind the single best book ever written about Shakespeare's life and works together. And if that weren't enough, he's also the author of "The Swerve" a book about Lucretius and Epicurean philosophy, which won the Pulitzer Prize not long ago. Would you welcome, please, Stephen Greenblatt.
Stephen Greenblatt: Hello, everyone; thank you.
AG: So I blew my lines there—I've been studying that speech for a week and I couldn't—it just shows you how hard it is to memorize things. Help us, Steve, if you would, to begin to answer some of those questions. Where does, what seems to us, the astonishing thing about Hamlet when we see it performed now—and we can imagine it at that time—that sudden appearance of interiority? How can we begin to understand it? Does it reside elsewhere in the theater of 1600?
SG: I mean, the simplest answer or the safest answer is we haven't a clue. We really don't know in general—not just about this play but about astonishing acts of human creativity of this kind—they seem to surge up out of nowhere. In a certain sense we can reconstruct a thousand things and we can talk about a few of the things that you've already mentioned, but deep down why did that happen?
And if Shakespeare had died, which he well could have as most people did quite early, if he had died in 1599 we would have no notion that Hamlet was to come. We see that there, a little something going on in Richard II, we see that there's something going on in Julius Caesar, particularly in the figure of Brutus, which was written probably just about the same time, same year.
AG: The capacity for self‑reflection and kind of inner irony?
SG: Brutus says, just even representing thinking, Brutus says, "Mm, we must do something. We must do something about …"—he doesn't even mention Caesar, about him. You see suddenly something going on in Brutus' head when he's thinking about killing Caesar. And Shakespeare does something very unusual, which is not to say, "Now, we have a problem on our hands. We have to figure out someone that wants to be a tyrant." You suddenly are in Brutus' head a little bit.
On the other hand, you wouldn't be able to get from that to Hamlet as you wouldn't be able to get from Richard II to Hamlet even though you can, looking back, see and you can begin to reconstruct.
AG: Richard II offers us poetic expression of his inner state.
SG: Richard II is stuck in the end in a jail cell and he says, "I'm going to try to reconstruct the whole world out of myself," and he starts to brood about it, and he does a very, very beautiful speech in which he does it, but you don't actually feel you're fully inside.
AG: There's no dramatic conflict within the speech in that same way?
SG: Yeah. Something happened, and people like ourselves brood about how it could have happened and Montaigne is a good starting point. I mean, it's quite possible Shakespeare read Montaigne. Shakespeare was friends almost certainly with John Florio, who was the great translator of Montaigne into English. It hadn't been published in 1600, that's the problem.
SG: That's the problem. But there's, I think, reason to believe that the manuscript could have been circulating before then. Shakespeare also lived with French people and we know that he lived with Huguenots.
AG: Spoke enough French to write one scene.
SG: To write a scene or someone helped him write it, or whatever, and full of dirty jokes in French, so obviously he knew that, so it's possible. And it's also—something is brewing, not just in Shakespeare but in a lot of things that are happening in the 1590s, in Donne's poetry; Descartes is close to arriving on the scene, and so forth. So something is happening generally in the intellectual culture that is associated, as you say, with irony or with skepticism. There's Machiavelli earlier in the 16th century, there's lots of skepticism about what everyone was supposed to have believed so one piece of it is some change in the culture that he's tapping into, though God knows how he tapped into it.
Another issue, another possible source was something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about was something institutional, but also psychological, which is that about 40 years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet the English did an amazing thing, which was to decide that you could no longer pray to the dead.
That the dead were—the dead up until about 40 years before Shakespeare wrote—when Shakespeare was young, certainly when his parents were alive, the dead were an age group and you could continue to have a relationship to them by praying for their souls.
AG: If they were in purgatory?
SG: In purgatory.
AG: In purgatory.
SG: And that was ruled by the Protestants in the reign of Edward VI and then confirmed by Queen Elizabeth that this was a fraud and you couldn't do it. But you can't just legislate people changing their relationship to dead people, to their dead children, to their parents. The Catholic Church had offered... Protestants said it was a fraud but the Catholic Church for centuries had offered people a way of continuing to have a relationship to the people that they loved by offering prayers for them, or by not offering prayers for them if they hated them; in any case, having some relationship to them.
AG: Purgatory was sort of like Florida; it was where you sent your parents off to, right, and then you hoped for the best.
SG: Or hoped they wouldn't come back.
SG: But we could add to that, that a few years before Shakespeare wrote the play, his son, his only son, one of the twins named Hamnet—but it's effectively the same name as Hamlet; the names were interchangeable in the records—died at 11 years old, so Shakespeare would have been faced at that point existentially in his life. Do I say prayers for him? Do I quietly do this? Do I pay someone to say prayers for him? What if he's suffering? And in 1600 it was very clear that Shakespeare's father was on his way out. One possibility is that something got triggered by this...
AG: Double onset of mortality that didn't have an easy—you couldn't appease in some—any longer in a ritual way?
SG: Exactly; and then we can enter more wilder and more delicious areas of speculation, ones that I don't enter myself as a scholar, but that James Joyce most sensationally did in Ulysses, which was the thought that, well, Shakespeare came home one day and discovered his brother in bed with his wife.
SG: And that might have triggered something.
AG: It's happened to me; I didn't get a play out of it.
SG: To most of us, yes!
AG: I didn't get a play out of it! Yes, Joyce also believes—and is one of the first people to articulate the Hamnet connection.
SG: It had come up already in late 19th-century sentimental biographies of Shakespeare, but Joyce took it and ran with it, so something happened. All we know for sure is that something astonishing erupted in him that had to be built on what he had, but not only built on what he had already accomplished and done.
And one of the ways we can know it, and I asked Adam if I could show you, is it's not the clue to the mystery but it's fascinating I think, academic that I am. The Oxford English Dictionary is a dictionary on historical principals, some of you may know it; a huge dictionary, and what it does is to track the first use in print of every word, so far as it can tell, in the English language.
So this was a major enterprise in the 19th and into the 20th century; it's still going on digitally, and what you will see is that Shakespeare did something completely weird that you would think would be suicide as a popular playwright for 3,000 people, which was that he introduced, as far as we know, a crazy number of words that had not appeared at least in print before, and they're extremely unlikely to have been much in circulation and speech because enough circulation and speech means that they show up in print as well. If you look at this you think—at the very least you get—it's like a seismograph and you see that something weird is happening in the tectonic plates.
AG: Can we see some of that?
SG: Yeah; so these are words used, as I say, according to the OED for the first time in any printed text in the English language, starting with annexment, apoplex, bodkins, buzz, chopfallen; keep going...
AG: Chanson, compulsive...
SG: Yes; commingle, comarked, comutual, distillment...
AG: Definement, defeated...
SG: Drab used as a verb; film, which I find fascinating. Fret, hush, impress, incorpsed; let's keep going, malefaction, "List, list, oh list" Indirection, orteam, payjock, pander, sanctuary, self‑slaughter. Can you believe it? This is the first time...
SG: ...these words were used in the English language. Keep going. UnannealEd. we know wasn't used very often.Unnerved, unhand, unpregnant; a word we could all use. Water fly, well took, unsmurched; we're getting near the end.
Okay, So I briefly looked to see what the survivors were—they include film and fret and pander and compulsive and unnerved and unpolluted, but you can also see that he used a bunch of them that didn't make it. Blastment or downjived; my socks were downjived a little earlier. I pulled them up. Payjock and so forth.
So something happened here that is really difficult to understand, and it has to do—this can't be entirely calculated. It has to be that something opened in him. He was a word whore. He loved words; we know that but this doesn't make sense.
AG: This sudden volcano of—by the way, I love implorator—you know in the theater there's a director and then the author is the implorator; like he's constantly imploring the director not to cut the best things in the play. So not only do we have a new psychological presence; we also have a new linguistic shimmer, a new linguistic ambition in the play.
SG: A way of writing that people had never—a way of speaking that it's fair to say, judging from this, that people had never seen before.
AG: And yet fascinatingly, Steve, we know from the quartos and from the general buzz of it, that it was a hugely popular play.
SG: So the key is that he figured out how to attach this crazy thing that was coming out of him—and I really do think it has to have been not fully under his control—he attached it to a story that people knew. People knew, not because they were reading the medieval Danish Chronicles, Saxo Grammaticus and not because they were reading—probably not because they were reading Belleforest's version of—the Italian version of the Danish Chronicle, but because...
AG: Or even because they had seen the earlier play.
SG: But possibly because they had seen the earlier play and because the story fit into kind of a way of thinking about how to deal with a major human problem. It's possible they saw that play by Kyd. I brought with me a list of plays, somewhere in my pocket, that were done in 1596 and they include—this is in Henslowe's Diary—I probably lost it—and they include plays with names like, The Jew of Malta and Titus Andronicus so we know that they were doing a play by Marlowe and a play by Shakespeare; a bunch of plays that we don't know any longer that have been lost. Something called Esther and Ahasueras, and so forth, so they had a kind of...
AG: A Jewish play.
SG: They had a Jewish year. They had The Jew of Malta, they had that, but then they also had Hamlet and that's almost certainly not our Hamlet but it is a Hamlet. And Shakespeare's company was very good at—I mean, these companies, first of all they needed material all the time, and the company was very good at nudging its writers—and Shakespeare was the principal writer as well as one of the co‑owners of the company—if a play that had already been successful, to do a copy of it.
The reason that I think some people would have known the play is that it wasn't a play that's likely to have disappeared, even though it didn't wind up in print, because the company wanted another version of it, evidently. That's what happened with Lear. Someone had a Lear on; we want a Lear on, and have them remake it.
So we have this play... the interesting thing is that the source versions of the play set the play, the Hamlet story, in pagan Denmark, pre‑Christian Denmark, where it's very clear that if your father has been killed you absolutely are under an obligation to take revenge, and that seems to be the core of the story.
If you've read any of those—if any of you have read those incredibly wonderful—the Edda is the most famous one, but those revenge stories from medieval Iceland. They're all about killing people who have done something to someone in your family. They're fantastic stories and it's clear that that's what the appeal of the story was, about revenge. And then Shakespeare attaches his craziness to it and does something completely crazy with this revenge story, but he never loses it, so it keeps carrying you to the end.
AG: You see, I was thinking about this and it sounds like a bizarre comparison, but it struck me because one of the things that's so fascinating about the play is the combination of this extraordinary language of ambivalent interiority, along with the straight line of a revenge tragedy. It's an odd marriage in some ways, and in some ways one would almost be inclined to say if it wasn't part of our inner lives so much, almost unsuccessful.
SG: Q1, which you showed, the so‑called bad quarto, has almost none of the soliloquies, so they decided "enough with the soliloquies, enough with the inner life; let's just get to the story."
AG: Right; yeah.
SG: And so one of the reasons that it's the bad quarto is it has almost none of Shakespeare's inner life, but it actually in recent years has been successfully done, usually by college theaters just to see if it can be done.
AG: It struck me though that in some sense that seems to strike a very deep chord with us, even something—not even something—something as extraordinary as the Godfather films after all tell a very similar story about someone, Michael in that case, of great—it starts off as a man of enormous internal sensitivity who's driven by his family drama to become a narrow revenger, to become violent. That seems to be a story that speaks to us in a very deep and archetypal way.
SG: It's certainly archetypal; I mean, as archetypal as The Lion King, but the point—that's a wonderful point which I hadn't thought of, which is that the cleverness of The Godfather, which is a fabulous achievement, I think, is to make you register how awful it is not to be Hamlet, as it were, not to resist more strongly this terrible fate of...
AG: The curse of the family...
SG: Just dying internally.
AG: Of family revenge. We could talk all night about this, and I want to bring some people on but tell me, Stephen, if you can because our subject is performance: What do you think if you could capture it, would be the single thing that would strike us—seem to us most surprising if we could go back to The Globe on that afternoon and see the first performance of Hamlet from the point of view of what we expect from Shakespeare performance?
SG: I mean, one simple answer is that you had to do a tremendous amount of work in your head as an audience, because for reasons that you've said, no lighting. You had very nice costumes but no scenery and no lighting effects, so that all the things that we now expect help with in the theater, you had to do it. And it depended on a culture that spent an incredible amount of its time listening to complicated...
AG: Rhetorical culture.
SG: Rhetorical culture that listened to complicated English sentences and figured out what to do with them, which is the reason that it's now a great pleasure to watch Shakespeare, but much harder to read him because actually somehow when you hear it, you can process it as it's going by quickly but it's actually extremely difficult for us to any longer fully understand these sentences.
The other thing to say is that we know very little, as you've already suggested, about how it would have been performed. One strange 17th-century glimpse is that someone who had been young when Shakespeare was still alive and who then became an actor himself, an actor who made it over into the Restoration period, evidently told someone that when Hamlet, presumably Burbage, saw the ghost, he got up—he was evidently seated—got up and threw his chair over, so it one glimpse of what might have happened, which was that there was...
AG: Which is kind of a non‑rhetorical thing, almost a naturalistic thing.
SG: Yeah; startlingly, and then one other naturalistic thing that I think is quite interesting to me is—we didn't talk about it and you'll presumably see something of the women in the play—the anxiety, the misogyny and the anxiety about women is so much at the center of the play. You can't trust the stage directions in those texts that Adam showed you, and they're probably not written in the script by Shakespeare, but been added by the people who worked in the theater.
But when Shakespeare really wanted something to happen onstage he tended to script it, so, "Prithee, undo this button," says Lear, and that means Shakespeare really wanted the button undone, open that button. If you look at Hamlet there are a number of different moments but there's an incredible moment when Laertes—there are all these multiple mirrorlike figures, Laertes and Fortinbras, who is also into revenging his father. When Laertes breaks into the Danish court and wants to kill Claudius, because he's blaming Claudius for killing Polonius, his father, and he breaks through the Swiss guards, the Switzers, he's in there and it looks like actually Laertes is about to kill Claudius, and he doesn't. Why? Because we know that Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, stands between Claudius and the enraged Laertes. How do we know it—or not only stands between them, but holds Laertes back. Because the lines are, "Let him go, Gertrude," and then he says it again, "Let him go, Gertrude." That means Gertrude is holding him back. Now, Shakespeare wanted that. Why? Because that scene goes on to say—to have Laertes say, "My father has been killed!" And Gertrude, Hamlet's mother says, "But not by him." Whoa. "But not by him" means that she's fingering her son.
AG: Her son, yes; she's turning...
SG: That's an astonishing moment that Shakespeare didn't want the actors to lose.
AG: To miss, or the director to be able to change as they do. One other thing, of course, that is different about Hamlet then, Hamlet now is the simple sound of the language, how it was pronounced. One of the most remarkable things that's happened in recent years in Shakespeare's performance, is what we call the original pronunciation movement, an attempt to re-create the actual sound of Shakespeare's language as it would have been heard in 1600, and we're blessed tonight to have two experts in that form of re-creation here to do a piece of the play for us, so would you welcome please, Claire Warden and Dan Beaulieu, and they will do a piece of Hamlet and Ophelia that you all will know, in the sound, in the accent in which we believe it was originally performed. Dan, Claire?
Hamlet: But soft you now, the fair Ophelia, nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.
Ophelia: Good, me Lord, how does your honor for this many a day?
Hamlet: I humbly thank you. Well, well, well.
Ophelia: My Lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver. I pray you receive them now.
Hamlet: No; no, not I, I never gave you aught.
Ophelia: My honored Lord, you know right well you did, and with them words of so sweet breath has made the things more rich than perfume left. Take these again, for to the noble mind; rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. There, me Lord.
Hamlet: Are you honest?
Ophelia: Me Lord?
Hamlet: Are you fair?
Ophelia: What means your Lordship?
Hamlet: That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
Ophelia: Oh, could beauty have better commerce than with your honesty?
Hamlet: Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd, then the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives proof. I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.
Hamlet: Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better me mother had not borne me. I'm very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have imagination to give them shape or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where's your father?
Ophelia: At home, me Lord.
Hamlet: Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in his own house.
Ophelia: Oh, help him, sweet heaven.
Hamlet: If thou dost marry I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry. Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. Go thy ways to a nunnery. I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face, you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, you lisp, you nickname God's creatures; you make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on it. It hath made me mad. I say we shall have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go!
Ophelia: Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown; the courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword. The expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and the mould of form, the observer of all observed, quite, quite down. And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, that sucked the honey of his music vows, now see this noble and most sovereign reason, like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh. This most unmatched form and feature of blown youth blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me to have seen what I have seen. See what I see.
AG: Come join us if you would. Thank you! Amazing performance and also they sound sort of like Irish peasants in a memory play, right? Tell us a little bit, if you would, both about how we reconstruct or attempt to reconstruct the original pronunciation, and then also I'd love to know more about how it affects your playing.
But first tell us why do we believe, how have we come to reconstruct the sounds, the accent you've been using, because it's extraordinary, isn't it? We expect Shakespeare to be spoken in a kind of BBC drawl, you know? The glass of fashion and the mould of form, the observer of all observed, and then we hear—so talk to us about the process.
Claire Warden: Well, we've learned a lot from David and Ben Crystal, and David's done a lot of the work on the OP back in England. So as he's told us there's four ways that we know that these are the sounds; the most important one is looking at the writings of people of the period that were writing about the pronunciation of the words. At that time there was a great push for reform of spelling because they'd only recently started writing English down and it was very fluid and you had the first folio up there, so there's a lot fluidity in spelling of words, you know?
AG: Well, we see that in Shakespeare's own name, which is spelled many different ways, or the name Hamnet, as Stephen was saying a moment ago.
CW: Exactly, so there was a push for reforming and...
AG: A standardization.
CW: A unification of spelling, and so there's a lot of pamphlets and books that were written at the time about how things should be spelled and how they should be pronounced. Ben Johnson wrote an entire book telling us how each letter in the alphabet was spoken, was pronounced, and so from that we get to see exactly how the sounds shifted and how we learned them. The "R" is hard after an "A"—after a vowel—which is the opposite of what English now is, you know?
AG: Demonstrate, if you would.
CW: So "car" and "far" and "park" as in the BBC Shakespeare—it's a little posher than I am—is very far way, whereas in OP and in American as well, the "R" is hard—"me Lord, car, far," so we get that. We get the "Os"—we know when the short "Os" and the long "Os" are, that "prove" becomes "pruv," so that's one of the really strong resources; also the rhyme.
Dan Beaulieu: Yeah, hopping in on the rhyme, especially in the sonnets, if you look at the end of lines they would have rhymed, so to use the "prove" example, "If this be error and upon me pruved, I never writ nor no man every loved." We would have known that "pruved" and "loved" would have had to have rhymed. And then in terms of, is it going to be upon me "proved," no man ever "looved," probably not; probably not. And we know that again from the writing about...
CW: Yeah, Johnson writes about the "O" and he says that there's a short "O" as in—and he writes "glove, shove" and—he writes the word "prove," so we know that it has to rhyme with it because it wasn't "gluve" and "shuve" then; yeah, so we know that.
AG: Tell me what's—and Steve, please jump in, you know far more about this than I do—but how does it change your performance practice? We were talking before and you were saying that it tends to accelerate speaking in the original—in OP, as it's called, original pronunciation—accelerates your pace as performers.
CW: Yeah, it does. For me it's a very grounded place; it sits lower in my register. The way that you have to form the sounds releases and drops my jaw—and any actors out there know that often the jaw gets really tight when you get scared or want to hold in all those inappropriate feelings—so it drops me to a more grounded, more raw place, and the way that it—"trippingly on the tongue," that it does—it accelerates the pace of the speeches itself.
AG: Yes; I was thinking about that as I was mispronouncing the speech earlier today, that "trippingly on the tongue" is meaningful because he means it in that way too. It means don't pause over it; you have to find the propulsion in it.
SG: I enjoyed this very much and what I got from it was less that you go rapidly, although I see that you do, but that it estranges us from—in an interesting way from the familiar way this sounds. It's actually an odd effect so you actually listen and I was thinking of The Wire, in fact, of the way in which...
AG: Yes, you can't understand any of the...
SG: What is it they're saying at the beginning? And then, you know, even in the few seconds that we had, you begin to get—because your mind immediately begins to make the changes, figure out how the vowels are done—so you stop processing it that way. But it's just enough of estrangement to make—the trouble with Hamlet is it's—for at least some of us—it's too damn familiar and so to get it so that it sounds new and odd, this is a wonderful way of producing that.
AG: Estrangement; yes, exactly.
CW: That's something that we find a lot. Something that I was talking to David Crystal about the day before yesterday, there's actually more OP productions being done in America than there are in England at the moment, and there is something about this—what you were talking about—this idea that Shakespeare should be done in this very fine BBC, English voice, and that that alienates, certainly Americans, and honestly most English people because very few people actually speak like that anymore.
So there's this kind of I can't quite get to it, and when you shift it into a different sound that is similar enough to something that you recognize, but not exactly, everyone gets ownership of it. It becomes new. It becomes something that everyone gets to see for the first time and find new things, as opposed to sit and very nicely listen to how Hamlet should be.
AG: Yes; it's fascinating too to think just in terms of cultural history of how the original instruments movement in baroque music, for instance, precedes this, and I'm sure helped give some form to it. I'm sad to say, because I could go on for another hour, but I'm sad to say we're running a bit out of time.
One of the things we haven't mentioned—Stephen mentioned it—is one of the most obvious things about what the experience of Hamlet in 1600 would have been, and that was that all of the women's roles were played by men, were played by boys and that's a hugely significant part of the feeling. And I know, Dan, you were going to give us a speech as a boy doing a woman, in fact.
DB: Yeah; sure I'd love to.
"There is a willow grows aslant a brook; that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. There with fantastic garlands did she come, of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do 'dead men's fingers' call them. There, on the pendant bough her coronet weeds clammering to hang, an envious sliver broke, when down the weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide and mermaid‑like a while they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old tunes as one incapable—as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued into that element. But long it could not be—long it could not be ‘till that her garments, heavy with her drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious buoy to muddy death."
SG: There was an English traveler named Thomas Corrier who went to Venice in about this period and for the first time saw women actors on stage, and he said that they did the women's parts almost as well as the boy actors.
AG: Before we close I did want to ask you, Stephen, I have said at the beginning of tonight that I'm a Hamlet nut and I've watched it on stage and on film and out of all the Hamlets I've ever seen, I think Burton's was the most impressive; the one that we have preserved on film for...
SG: That Kinescope?
AG: Yes; exactly. If you could name three great Hamlet performances that you've seen, what would they be?
SG: The first, a somewhat perverse example of a film Hamlet, was in Russian that Innokenty Smoktunovsky—that's an astonishing film and incredibly beautifully done. Russian is an extreme version of original pronunciations, but it's quite brilliant, I think. And then I have actually many Hamlets that I've loved; I saw Williamson do it on stage, which I thought was...
AG: Nicol Williamson.
SG: Yeah, Nicol Williamson, which was incredibly beautifully done, I thought, and I thought—to think of something you can have access to easily, to think of films, actually I'm quite fond of the Almereyda film of Hamlet, Ethan Hawke's Hamlet, which I thought was actually—I didn't expect I would be affected by it, but I thought it was quite powerful and moving.
AG: It was terrific because it captures the youth, Hamlet as a young man above all. Would you two favor us, because one of the rules of our series is that we always put pedants like myself, in the corner, and give the last and final word to players because it's a series about performance. Would you do this virtuoso piece, the very soliloquy with which we began and which must have wowed the audience in 1600, both in OP and in contemporary speech?
AG: Thank you. Claire and Dan, thank you.
CW: We're going to go back and forth; we're going to start doing part of it in the BBC English as people think it should be, and Dan is going to do the OP and then we're going to swap so you get to hear it in Dan's American accent and I'll do the OP, and just let your ears feast and decide whatever it is you want to decide.
DB: And then who knows?
CW: And then who knows; then we'll do a jig and, well, that will be it. We're not doing a jig!
DB: Okay; no jig.
CW: To be or not to be, that is the question.
DB: To be or not to be, that is the question.
CW: Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.
DB: Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.
CW: To die, to sleep no more, and by that sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
DB: To die, to sleep no more, and by that sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
CW: Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
DB: Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
CW: To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.
DB: To die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause. There's the respect that makes calamity of so long life.
CW: There's the respect that makes calamity of so long life.
DB: For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the poor man's contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law's delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin.
CW: For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the poor man's contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law's delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he might himself—when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin.
DB: Who would these fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.
CW: Who would these fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of.
DB: Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.
CW: And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.
DB: And enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their current turn away.
CW: And lose the name of action.
AG: I hope that we will never lose the name of action. Thank you for coming tonight. Thank you so much for being here.
KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, Hannah Lyons, and Ian Goldstein.
Our theme music is provided by freemusicarchive.org.
Special thanks to David and Ben Crystal for their work with the actors on original pronunciation.
For full transcripts and episode extras, visit lincolncenter.org/podcast.
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