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Wordplay’s the thing

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Shakespeare’s words can be interpreted in many ways, especially when they exist in several versions. Jonathan Bate examines how various readings of the text can result in a radically different production and why that may be one of the reasons for the Bard’s enduring appeal

“This is wondrous strange,” says Horatio as the ghost cries “Swear!” from the cellarage beneath the stage. Hamlet, though, is unfazed: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” he replies, “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or at least, that is what he says in most modern editions of the play and most productions that you will see.

“Your philosophy” – Horatio’s philosophy – is identifiable as stoicism, the ancient Greek belief that the key to the well-lived life is the art of keeping your emotions in check and being guided by reason and judgement. When Hamlet says “your philosophy”, he is detaching himself from his friend Horatio, in preparation for the solitary journey into an undiscovered country of intense passion and wondrous strangeness beyond the dreams of any stoic.

But Hamlet exists in several different versions. There are two ‘Quarto’ texts from Shakespeare’s lifetime – slim paperback volumes recording early versions of the play – and the ‘Folio’ text in the authorised collected works published by Shakespeare’s fellow actors a few years after his death. There are substantial differences between the versions – cuts, additions and hundreds of verbal variants.

In the Folio, Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”

It’s a very different reading – Hamlet and Horatio are eternal students, enrolled at Wittenberg, a university as distinguished as Oxford or Cambridge. They are committed to the life of the mind and a belief in the wisdom that comes from what was known in the Renaissance as ‘natural philosophy’. We’d call it scientific rationalism. Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost shatters his faith in that rationalism. It’s not just Horatio’s but also his own world picture that is shattered by the appearance of the ghost of his murdered father.

That’s surely a stronger reading. Last week I gave David Tennant a copy of the new Folio-based RSC edition of Hamlet. Woven into the cover design of each of our texts is a key line from the play. For Hamlet, we chose “more things in heaven and earth”. Tennant’s first reaction was a response to the textual variant: “I’ve already vowed to change ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ to ‘than are dreamt of in our philosophy’ from your cover quote. I always felt that was more correct anyway.”

From a scholarly point of view, we can’t strictly say whether ‘our’ or ‘your’ is more correct. The likelihood is that the two readings reflect two different moments in the stage history of the play and that the ever-flexible mind of Shakespeare was equally happy – or equally dissatisfied – with both.

But for Tennant, the actor-reader, “our philosophy” is a choice in keeping with his take on the most inexhaustible, question-filled role in the repertoire.

The great pleasure of the preparation of the first five volumes of individual play texts in the RSC Shakespeare series has been the dialogue between the study and the rehearsal room.

We have interviewed directors who have worked on the plays, asking them to talk about some of their key choices. What has emerged is a wonderful sense of the extraordinary variety of interpretations that are possible. And it is precisely this variety that gives Shakespeare his unique capacity to be reinvented and made “our contemporary” four centuries after his death.

Actors who sometimes wonder whether everything their director says must always be right – and students who have the same doubts about their teachers – will find much to reassure them in these volumes.

In answer to a question about whether Puck acts as a kind of stage manager within the drama of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Gregory Doran and Tim Supple agreed that this was a major aspect of how they conceived the role, while Michael Boyd thought: “Puck would make a disastrous stage manager.”

When asked how they dealt with the brutality of Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia in the “country matters” and “get thee to a nunnery” sequences, Ron Daniels, who directed Mark Rylance’s Hamlet for the RSC, replied, “In the most brutal way possible”, whereas John Caird, who directed Simon Russell Beale’s at the National, took a completely opposite line: “I don’t think he is being brutal.”

In the interviews for The Tempest, directors were asked for their reaction to the way that literary critics and cultural historians have become particularly interested in the play in relation to the dynamics of imperialism, colonial history and race.

Sam Mendes said: “The more I study the play, the more I agree with the cultural historians that it is in some part a discourse on race and slavery.” If anything, he thought, he underplayed this element in his 1993 production and this was one of the many reasons why he would like to direct the play a second time.

Peter Brook, by contrast, was sceptical, despite the fact that his 1990 production at the Bouffes du Nord was famous for its multicultural style and casting. He said: “It’s too easy to slap simplistic politics on to Shakespeare. There was a time when military uniforms and references to colonialism refreshed the old Shakespeare imagery – today one must think again. The relationships are eternal, they don’t need to be illustrated by over-used cliches.”

“Today one must think again.” Whether you’re editing the text, directing the show or speaking a single line on stage – “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” – Shakespeare makes you think and think and think again.

Jonathan Bate is a writer, critic, broadcaster and Shakespeare scholar

* This article also appears in the September 18 issue of The Stage. For more details about what’s in this week’s paper, visit our blog.

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