How Does Hamlet End?

  • Nigel Wood


Polonius has dabbled in the dramatic arts, and his commendation to Hamlet of the approaching Players not only notes their generic scope but also their professional competence, as the ‘only men’ both ‘for the law of writ, and the liberty’ (II.ii.397–8). This contrast, between literal adherence and ad hoc freedoms, is one that Hamlet apparently understands only too well. His advice to the First Player combines a great suspicion of actorly brio with the hope that a performance will not be ‘too tame’, the adjudication lying with one’s ‘discretion’, where the ‘action’ is suited to the ‘word’, and, less predictably, vice versa (III.ii.16–18). For all the ‘modesty of nature’ (III.ii.19) that might be the guiding principle, the ‘word’ may still be suited to the ‘action’. On the one hand, one needs to temper the egoistic display of those ‘clowns’ that tamper with what ‘is set down for them’ (III.ii.39), while, on the other, one needs to perform. The text of The Murder of Gonzago can only exist for the on-stage courtly audience as a pretext for Hamlet’s precise design, realized in one of its hearer’s specific reactions to a carefully calculated theatrical statement. In this instance, the ‘law of writ’ is interpreted precisely.


Closing Coda Interpretive Community Mood Music Time Literary Supplement Great Suspicion 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    The phrase may be governed to a degree by the preceding contrast of ‘heavy’ Seneca and ‘light’ Plautus (II.ii.396–7), i.e. calculated tragedy and more extempore comedy, but, even if so, the sentiment is unaltered.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 1.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, general editors: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor; editors: Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. xxxiv–xxxv.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., p. xxxiv.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Hamlet, ed. Philip Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 8–9. I admit that Edwards’s formulation is more forceful than that provided by either Harold Jenkins (London and New York: Routledge [Arden Shakespeare], 1982) or G. R. Hibbard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), but the net result is virtually the same.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    He is even at pains to grant the demonstrably corrupt Q1 text some vestiges of authenticity: ‘Q1 is, as it stands, a sorry thing, and, from the editor’s point of view, an extremely unreliable one.... Its main value, however, lies in this: that through the fog, growing thicker as the play goes on and recollection becomes fainter, one catches glimpses of an acting version of the tragedy current in the early seventeenth century’ (p. 89). See also his main reason for not regretting the loss of Q2 text in F: that it is part of a ‘logical and coherent’ process of revision for the stage (p. 109). Jenkins’s preference for Q2 does not derive from a disagreement about ontology but rather about the value we should give to viable dramatic action: ‘In seeking to present the play as Shakespeare wrote it rather than as it was shortened for performance I do no more than follow tradition [i.e. that of Rowe in 1709 onwards]’ (p. 75).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Re-Editing Shakespeare For The Modern Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 62–3.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See the text in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (2nd ed. London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 107–15.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 151.Google Scholar
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    Coriolanus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 115.Google Scholar
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  15. 15.
    Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Betrand H. Bronson with Jean O’Meara (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 317Google Scholar
  16. Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber & Faber, 1973) p. 48.Google Scholar
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    ‘The Case Against Hamlet’, The Times Literary Supplement 4838 (22 December 1995): 6–8Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    Note to line 397, ‘Commentary’, p. 361.Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    Leah_S. Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 132–76. See also Grace Ioppolo’s revival of a Revising Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1991), especially pp. 133–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 19.
    Oxford edn, 1987, p. 356.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Ibid., p. 362.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Ibid., pp. 47–8.Google Scholar
  23. 22.
    Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 3. The Wimsatt reference can be found in ‘The Structure of the “Concrete Universal” in Literature’, in Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgement, ed. Mark Schorer, Josephine Miles and Gordon McKenzie (rev. ed. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1958), p. 403.Google Scholar
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    Recovering Shakespeare’s Theatrical Vocabulary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), especially pp. 39–63.Google Scholar

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© Nigel Wood 2001

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  • Nigel Wood

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