Saturday, October 1, 2011

To be or not to be, I there's the point

I've been reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As Stage. He includes this version of the opening of Hamlet's soliloquy from one of the "bad quartos," an early, published version of Hamlet presumably transcribed from the memory of someone involved in the production (p 160 in Bryson).

To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all.:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I marry there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned...

This is funny, but interesting too. We're familiar with tons and tons of phrases from the first half of the Hamlet soliloquy:

- slings and arrows
- outrageous fortune
- sea of troubles
- thousand natural shocks
- to sleep, perchance to dream
- what dreams may come
- shuffled off this mortal coil

None of those stuck in the transcriber's mind. The thing that seems to have made the biggest impression is the ratio-like series, "to die, to sleep, to sleep, to dream." Seems like a great illustration of 1) the fallibility of memory 2) the importance of word-choice 3) the fact that there is no audience but individuals with idiosyncratic psychological makeups.

The Bryson book has been a pleasure to read, though it was marketed to far too big an audience. It has nothing to say about the plays. Bryson seems totally uninterested in them. It has little to say about Shakespeare-- we hardly know anything. But it is a collection of interesting and often funny anecdotes of Shakespeare's day and subsequent Shakespeare scholarship. It's an easy way to satisfy a curiosity for historical context.

Basically, if you're looking for a book to help you get into Shakespeare, this isn't it. If you already like Shakespeare, but don't know anything beyond the text of the plays, then this provides some quick and fun context.

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