The Arden Edition

March 22, 2006

When Shakespeare wrote his plays, the rules of English had yet to be formally set down. Spelling and punctuation were matters of taste. Printed editions of the same play varied wildly. So today, the process of putting together an edition of a Shakespeare play means making choices, and no two modern editions are alike.

The Arden Edition is unabashedly, shamelessly, gloriously geeky. For every discrepancy between the First Folio and the Second Quarto (the two most authoritative sources of Hamlet that still survive), the Arden Edition has a little note explaining which one they’ve chosen to follow, and often a longer note explaining why. Wherever the editor has chosen to depart from both the Folio and the Quarto, as is often necessary, there’s a note explaining the choice — and a reference to what past editors have done with the questionable line. After I finish the major cuts to the play, I’ll go through line-by-line with the Arden to set the punctuation and word choice.

About half of every page of the Arden Hamlet is given over to more notes about the text: explanations of obscure words or phrases, alternative definitions for Shakespeare’s many puns, references to similar phrases in other plays by Shakespeare and other writers, speculations on character motivation, elaborations on image patterns and themes, and on and on and on. There’s also an additional 150 pages of longer notes at the end, on such topics (and organized by reference in the text) as the symbolism of Ophelia’s flowers and songs, whether Hamlet knows he’s being spied on in the get-thee-to-a-nunnery scene, the episode of the cloud, the succession in Denmark, the Player’s speech, and many many more.

The Introduction is also over 150 pages, and covers the likely date of the play, the various surviving texts, Shakespeare’s sources, and a massive exploration of the play’s themes. Of all the Shakespeare criticism I’ve read (which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, admittedly), the Arden does the best job of actually citing the text to make its points.

When you work with the Arden, you know what you’re talking about. There’s no two ways about it. The script I use in rehearsal is a printout of my cut of the play, with lots of room in the margins for scribbles about beats and blocking. But I always bring the Arden to rehearsal as well. In tabletalk, it’s indespensible. Having the Arden in your bag is like knowing a brilliant and slightly cranky old professor who’s spent a lifetime studying Shakespeare and wants to be sure you’re doing it right.

Which isn’t to say I agree with everything in there. The Arden takes a scholarly, literary approach — they clearly think of the play as a work of literature, and seem wary and distrustful of the kind of choices that get made in production. For example, it’s all well and good to point out that Hamlet makes no direct reference to his own situation in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but it’s just silly to pretend that the audience isn’t going to make that kind of connection. The Arden tends to take everything Hamlet says at face value and to think that Shakespeare wrote many lines that function primarily or even solely on a thematic level, avoiding the kind of motivational analysis an actor has to do to bring the character to life. It also has a weird obsession with the idea that Gertrude must have been sleeping with Claudius before Old Hamlet died; this is the only point the Arden makes that it seems totally incapable of backing up in the text.

I plan to post about all the Shakespeare books that I use in prepping and rehearsing a show — the Asimov, the Lexicon, the OED — but I had to start here. For geeking out on Shakespeare, nothing beats the Arden.

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