Young Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet: Print, Piracy, and Performance

review by Paige Ambroziak

Not too long ago I came across “Shakespeare’s Badass Quarto” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which details the latest controversy about the first edition of Hamlet. Though I have worked on Hamlet and am inclined to linger over its narrative aspects, debates about the historicity of the text are riveting, nonetheless. For anyone who doesn’t know, there are three printed versions of the tragedy, the First Quarto (1603), the Second Quarto (1604), and the First Folio edition of 1623. The First Quarto has always been suspect and a bit of a bastard child, if it is even considered the master’s offspring. I happen to love that edition best. It is shorter, tighter, and less about a hesitant and incapable prince than a young heir facing a suspect stepfather. The differences between the editions have been widely examined and discussed, as well as prove viable as evidence for both sides, which brings me to my point. After reading Ron Rosenbaum’s article in the Chronicle, I picked up Terri Bourus’s Young Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet, which he had discussed in depth since it convincingly heralds a much needed change to our perception of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Bourus claims the 1603 Hamlet is the playwright’s original version, first performed on the Elizabethan stage in 1589.

Thankfully, books by academics are becoming less and less jargon-laden, and are now some of the most fluid and comprehensible texts written. There are practical reasons for writing for a general audience, and it can be done without dumbing down content or stripping away erudition. I won’t belabor the point, but, simply put, a theory is useless if no one understands it. I like to think those invested in literary criticism have picked up on this since academic book sales are in desperate need of a revival. Bourus’s work is well-researched and a fine example of what I’m talking about. One need not jump-start his or her brain every few passages, rebooting lost connections due to dense material that requires grand assimilation. Bourus writes for an intelligent reader interested in Shakespeare’s stage as much as his poetic prowess. I found myself gobbling up her arguments as each of my questions was answered at every turn. There seems to be little that Bourus has not considered. She faces other critics head-on, even those whose work has become canonical and most certainly considered an authoritative voice on the matter. I would venture to say that she untangles Hamlet’s textual web, and impressively so.

Some of the theories she dismantles concern piratical publishers, stealing a copy of the text to publish without authority for financial gain; piratical actors, compiling sides to make a full copy of the text to sell to a publisher for financial gain; and piratical reporters, watching the play in performance and taking notes, transcribing most from memory to put together a completed text to sell to a publisher for financial gain. It is clear that the belief until recently has been that the only possible reason for this bastard copy was for someone other than the playwright to make a profit.

But Bourus’s argument goes further, taking on Hamlet’s age, a bane with which some of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century have grappled. The First Quarto seems to support the notion that Hamlet is in fact a teenager, not yet university age, and perhaps not old enough to step in as King of Denmark upon Old Hamlet’s death. Not only does Bourus turn to the source material, Belleforest’s Amleth, but also the reasonable argument that Ophelia is more likely Juliet Capulet’s age than the twenty-something she seems to be in the 1604 and 1623 editions. Her age analysis digs deeper still, tackling the maturing Richard Burbage, the historical evidence that supports political issues of a young heir, Gertrude’s relationship to her son, as well as her second marriage, and uses of certain terms, such as young and old, in the early modern period. The clarity Bourus brings to the confusion about Hamlet’s age should more than convince any reader of her weighty scholarship.

The real strength of her argument, however, lies in her reliance on the elements of performance to explain quite readily some of the more puzzling details about the 1603 text. Bourus is an academic, an equity actor, and a theatre director who has directed performances of Hamlet, among other theatrical whales. As they say in the biz, she is a triple threat, and uses her firsthand experience both on stage and with dramatic texts to peel away some of the critical layers under which Hamlet’s script has lain for centuries.

Title: Young Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet: Print, Piracy, and Performance
Author: Terri Bourus
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (2014)
ISBN: 9781137465610
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