From the Purpose of Playing: Determining a Text of Hamlet

In the introduction for Hamlet in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, Gary Taylor writes that “of all the two-text plays, Hamlet comes closest to Lear in the scale and complexity of the textual variation apparently resulting from authorial revision” (401). Indeed, Hamlet’s three earliest texts each offer distinct glimpses into history; although they have been more or less combined over the course of the twentieth century (and earlier), separately, they each have a different story to tell. As Philip Edwards notes in The Shakespeare Wars, “Everyone who wants to understand Hamlet as reader, actor or director, needs to understand the nature of the play’s textual questions and to have his or her own view of the questions in order to approach the ambiguities in the meaning” (qtd. Rosenbaum 30). This will naturally result in individuals reaching their own conclusions about how the play can be best illuminated through its text.

My intention in this essay is not necessarily to crown one edition or textual theory over another. Gary Taylor, Stanley Wells, John Dover Wilson and numerous other scholars have spent countless pages discussing how the texts could have possibly changed from edition to edition; I am only interested in “how”...

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