Pop quiz: Who published the definitive script of Hamlet, and how do we know it’s the real thing?
Take your time. Okay, time’s up.
Answer: there is no definitive script of Hamlet, so every time you do the play you go back to at least three sources and put together the best script for your production. Which means that the first creative act of this play is deciding what play you’re doing.
Short history lesson: Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be published, and his original acting scripts are lost. Various friends and savvy entrepreneurs published his works after they had been performed. We have the text of Hamlet in three main forms: the First Quarto (that’s a publishing term from Shakespeare’s day), the Second Quarto, and the First Folio (another publishing term; this was a collection of his plays, printed after he died). These versions differ in word choices, whole sections of text, and even order of scenes. The British Library has a fine website where you can compare quartos to your heart’s delight. There are five quartos just for Hamlet.
Scholars debate intelligently (or argue endlessly, depending on their level of aggression) about these texts. For a director and a company of actors, the important question is how to make a great production.
Like all Shakespeare companies, Georgia Shakespeare has produced this play many times, but every production is new. The director and the actor playing Hamlet spend months prior to rehearsals going over the various texts and charting a path that speaks to us today.
Actor, director, and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh famously chose to do the whole thing – that is, all the text from all the sources – and created a film that is more than four hours long (and still terrifically exciting). Richard Garner and Joe Knezevich, along with dramaturg Kate Wicker, have crafted a more streamlined edition of the play for our production.
Yesterday we dove into the text as a company and began a discovery process that will continue through opening night and well into the run of the show. Even with a final text, I’m filled with questions about my character and her trajectory. Looks like I’ll be hitting the books in a big way.