Shakespeare gives me solace
On a recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon I picked up a beautifully bound edition of the First Folio, brought out by the mega American booksellers, Barnes and Noble, who had it published in China.The printing is not as grand as the binding but the price is less than three times what you would pay for a similar edition in England or America. The First Folio containing Shakespeare’s entire work was compiled by his friends and fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell in 1623, ten years after the Bard’s death. It includes Ben Johnson’s tributary verse written underneath the bust of Shakespeare:
"This figure that thou seest put
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut
Wherin the graver had a strife
With nature to out-do the life:
O, could he but have drawn his art
As well in brass as hath hit
His face, THE PRINT would then surpass
All, that was ever writ in BRASS
But since he cannot, Reader, look
Not on his picture, But his book."
The page that follows has this introduction
TO THE GREAT VARIETY OF READERS
"It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been
wish’d, that the author himself have lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings. But since it hath been ordain’d otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his friends the office of their care and pain, to have collected and published them, and so to have publish’d them to where before you were abused with divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maim’d
and deformed by the frauds and stealth of injurous impostors that exposed them, even those are now
offered to your view cured and bereft of their limbs, and all
the rest absolute in their numbers as he conceived them…
It is yours that read him: and there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will find enough both to draw and hold you; for his wit can no more lie hid than it could be lost. Read him therefore; and again and again…
Scholars, however, still regard the Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s Collected Works to be the most authentic.
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Looking through the the three published texts of Shakespeare’s plays -- the First Quarto , the Second Quarto (published during Shakespeare’s lifetime) and the First Folio -- we find that often the text is not the same. As an actor and a director it is my experience that during rehearsals actors change a line or ad-lib and the changed version, sometimes with the author’s approval, then becomes the actual text. Heminge and Condell have already told us that Shakespeare’s plays had suffered at the hands of ‘injurious impostors’.
The most famous instance of a notable variation in the text is the beginning of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, "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/…" In the First Quarto these familiar lines are published as:
"To be or not to be – ay, there’s the point
To die to sleep - is that all? Ay all
No, to sleep, to dream - ay, marry
there it goes…"
‘To be, or not to be - that is the question’ is so deeply ingrained in our collective minds that when you read ‘ay, there’s the point’, you shudder. We must not forget that Shakespeare’s plays were staged not only on the apron stage of the Globe but in royal palaces and even some provincial venues as well. When his plays were presented in the presence of royalty, Shakespeare himself could have chosen not just to alter certain lines, but delete certain scenes.
The American author, actor, director and co-founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Jess Winfield, whose production of ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare’ (abridged), which holds the distinction of having spent five years as the longest running comedy in the West-End, has a most interesting explanation about the variation in different texts.
Winfield says that it is not implausible to imagine that if, 10 years after Hamlet was first published, some dedicated editor had shown Shakespeare the two then-extant texts of ‘To be, or not to be,’ and asked which bits were his, he might have shrugged and said, "Well, I remember writing Ay, there’s the point, but then Burbage, (the leading actor at the Globe) came up with ‘that is the question’ in rehearsal. Anyway we made a few changes which the company scrivener scribbled in the promptbook in prose, and then I went home and wrote it in verse in the margin of my own copy and I probably tweaked the whole speech some more while I was looking at it. We used ‘That is the question’ for some while, but then when we were preparing the second or maybe the third revival, I came across the original so we tried … ‘there’s the point’ for a week while Burbage was out with the clap."
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Visiting Stratford-upon-Avon after four years I was delighted to see that the market town or that part of the town where Shakespeare was born, went to school and got married, was looking as Elizabethan as it was in the Bard’s time. A medieval grid pattern of streets is still preserved at the heart of Stratford despite four centuries of change. Shakespeare would have little trouble today in tracing the journey from his family home in Henley Street, past the homes of old friends to his final resting place at Holy Trinity Church. Walking on Henley Street you cannot help thinking of his words:
"And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand
Praising thy worth despite his cruel hand."
Shakespeare’s plays and poems still enthrall audiences worldwide. The power of his poetry and depth of his understanding of the human condition transcends limitations of a language. Here, in Stratford, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has certainly increased the material culture in which he lived and of the imaginative and intellectual heritage that he has left the world. Amazingly enough, the Birthplace Trust receives no public subsidy or government funding. It depends entirely on income generated through its supporters and volunteer donors.
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What can I say about Shakespeare that others haven’t? His language is often impenetrable for his vocabulary is not only abstruse but archaic making my head spin, but that does not put me off because footnotes come to my aid. Shakespeare has raised the boundaries of my consciousness. I turn to him again and again because he gives me solace.